Business etiquette reflects the culture of participants. What may be acceptable in one country, such as bowing to your associates or flashing a thumbs up, may be out of place or even horrifically offensive in another. Business travelers understand the need to be respectful of every culture they travel to; the smallest perceived offenses can often sour business relationships, unintentional as they may be.
As African countries go, Kenya can be considered very progressive. Many business etiquette protocols overlap with the standard Western expectations, with few exceptions. Here’s a quick guide to business etiquette when traveling in Kenya.
The lax African approach to punctuality is a pervasive stereotype — which unfortunately has its roots in truth, especially in social situations. Being invited to a social lunch event at noon generally means guests will start to trickle in from 1 p.m. onward, with actual lunch served an hour later.
However, for business events and meetings, time is usually well adhered to. The Kenyan corporate scene mostly values efficiency, with some government office exceptions. This is especially true where dealings are being carried out with parties from out of state. The assumption is that Westerners are more inclined to be punctual. Times will be strictly adhered to in the interest of being accommodating. Essentially, timeliness should not be an issue during your business meetings.
The way you give or receive greetings before a meeting is important, as it sets the tone for the rest of the meeting.
In Kenya, like in most African countries, it is of the utmost importance to show respect to your elders or seniors, and to be friendly to everyone across the board.
When addressing someone in a business setting, it is safe to keep with honorifics and refer to them formally unless otherwise stated. Use of Mr, Mrs or Miss So-and-So are preferred, though it is generally not necessary to use “sir” or “ma’am” in conversation.
Furthermore, the usual standard shows of respect are expected: rising from your seat to shake someone’s hand, making and maintaining eye contact when communicating and so forth.
A common question from business travelers with their sights on Kenya is about dress code: what is acceptable for a corporate setting and what is not?
Most business is done in large cities like Nairobi, which is a relatively progressive business hub with less firm or extreme guidelines on clothing. Gentlemen can go with a suit for almost all meetings, though in a pinch, a formal shirt and trousers will do just fine. Many Kenyan offices have a casual Friday rule, but it is wise to stick to at least casual formalwear.
This is of course dependent on where the meeting is: for a corporate appearance at a weekend event, golf course meeting, and so on, the suit is not necessary and more casual attire can be worn.
For ladies, business attire can range from dresses, to blouses with formal trousers or skirts. High heels are not frowned upon and jewelry is welcome, provided it is not excessively loud or gaudy.
Use of color is also okay in most settings, though for more formal sectors such as finance or law, muted colors like navy blue or gray are preferred. The rule of thumb generally is to err on the side of modesty.
Clothing that is not too revealing, too short or too tight is preferred in business settings, both to adhere to African morality and to present oneself as a serious business executive.
A big part of African culture is the idea of being friendly and welcoming to all, essentially taking everyone as a brother. For those visiting Kenya for business reasons, you will find this to be true even in business situations. It is therefore not uncommon to begin meetings with a session of more small talk than Western visitors may be accustomed to.
Should the situation arise, it is considered polite to engage in the discussions. These harmless conversations play an important part in building camaraderie, and prematurely ending them could be seen as rude or standoffish; a few well-meaning inquiries after how you are enjoying your stay and anecdotes about previous trips could very well stand between you and a productive business meeting.
Gifts and Tokens
When it comes to gift-giving in corporate situations, discretion is key. Gifts are generally not expected as a normal part of business relations, and you are by no means required to provide one. Exceptions can be made for the holiday season at the end of the year, usually between Christmas and New Years Day, when business partners may send each other shows of appreciation. These are normally received either by high ranking officials such as the CEO, or the executive(s) that one has been dealing with as company representatives during the year. It should be made very clear that the gifts are from you as a representative of your organization.
In this case, you might consider sending a gift basket, perhaps with wine and chocolates. Other gifts can also be sent, provided they are appropriate and not overly personal or familiar.
When traveling to Kenya on business, the rules of interaction are for all intents and purposes similar to what Western visitors are accustomed to, and not very far off from how the rest of the world carries out their dealings.
Chances of you saying or doing something unforgivably offensive during your business trip to Kenya are minimal. Your hosts will likely be very accommodating of the cultural differences, so there is no need to waste your trip to Nairobi obsessing over the intricacies of business etiquette.