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Indian women rule the boardroom

By Tabitha Nderitu, Sat, 20 Sep 2008 NI Wire

Nairobi (Women's Feature Service) - A new breed of astute businesswomen of Indian origin has been making its mark in the Kenyan business circles, quashing a long-held belief that the Indian community was averse to allowing its women to independently run business enterprises in Africa. Kenya is arguably East and Central Africa's biggest economy.

From early 19th century, when the first group of Indians was brought to Kenya by the British colonial government to construct the legendary Kenya-Uganda railway, Indian women were conspicuously absent as entrepreneurs. Conversely, the men have risen to become the unrivalled business magnates of the region, with only foreign multinational corporations (MNC) providing tenuous competition.

No one really recalls when the ground shifted to pave the way for the Indian woman entrepreneur, although it is widely thought that the change was ushered in from the late 1990s. "In the early 1990s, we realised that several up-coming businesses had Indian women as sole directors. At the time we did not take serious note of them. We imagined that the group was just a passing crowd. However, they have proved us wrong. Today, their companies are playing in the top leagues," says Dr Manu Chandaria, a prominent member of the Indian community in Kenya, who is generally lionised as the richest man in East and Central Africa - his Comcraft Group of Companies has links with India and also cross four continents.

When Software Technologies Ltd., an Information Technology (IT) firm owned by Jyoti Mukherjee, 53, was nominated mid-June last year, as Africa's premier outfit offering IT solutions by the Business Club of Africa - a group representing blue-chip African owned companies - it not only confirmed the arrival of the Asian businesswoman in Africa but also announced a changing phase in ownership of African businesses.

Interestingly, Mukherjee only arrived in Kenya from India two decades back, as a 28-year-old, already a mother of two. She joined her husband, Sanjiv, who had migrated to Kenya and was working as a salesman earning Ksh 5,000 (US$ 70). She secured Kenyan citizenship and with her savings set up shop at Nairobi's Parklands suburb, which is heavily populated by the Indian community, 1991. Today, the firm is one of the biggest software distribution companies in the region and is East Africa's sole representative of Oracle. The company registers annual sales in excess of US$ 3 million.

"I don't regard myself as inferior or superior to anyone. I just love what I do. What drives me is seeing clients happy, by exceeding their expectations. We are not in it just for the money. We see it as a way of revering God. In that sense, you can't afford to give second rate service. Passion for doing a job exceedingly well remains a cornerstone of Software Technologies Ltd.," she says.

No wonder, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), East Africa's largest financial institution, in terms of outlets and reach, currently utilises software designed by Mukherjee's company.

Another exemplar is Moona Shah, 48, the owner of Craft Banda Ltd, a company that deals in the export of local handicrafts. Hers is a story of resilience, strength and sheer determination. In 1993, Shah lost her savings, totalling a whopping Ksh 48 million (US$ 720,000), when the local Trust Bank Ltd. collapsed after a run on its deposits. Despite repeated attempts to have the Deposit Protection Fund Board (DPFB), the statutory body responsible for safe guarding depositors' funds, refund her back her monies, success has evaded her to date.

Not one to give up easily, Shah took the financial setback in her stride and in late 2004 launched her handicrafts export business, after securing a soft loan from her relatives. Within three years, not only had she managed to pay back her beneficiaries she also managed to build up a savings account that could make anyone's jaw drop. "I know the ropes of the export market very well. I know what it takes to be successful in the business. I'm not afraid of men let alone doing business in an environment that has a proportionately high African population compared to that of the Indian fraternity. To succeed I believe one has got to have tremendous faith in one's own abilities and be ready to put in the necessary hours. Anybody who tells you that you can't succeed because you are an Indian woman doing business in an African country is seeking just to distract you. Kenya is my country," says Shah emphatically.

Coincidentally, both Mukherjee and Shah possess serious academic credentials - they have as masters' degree in IT and Accounting, respectively. "It's frivolous to paint the Kenyan Indian community as being patriarchal to the extent that it disallows its women to run personal businesses. Contrary to this erroneous view, our girls are, in fact, highly educated and well trained in their professions of choice. Look around and see who the physicians, accountants, lawyers and engineers are, and you will soon discover that the professional community too is dominated by overwhelming number of Kenyan women of Indian origin," says Usha Shah, Chairperson of the Hindu Council of Kenya, the umbrella body that represents Hindus in the country.

Also, most entrepreneurs acknowledge that family support has played a major role in their success. Mukherjee says, "When my husband began his business of distributing stationary he got a lot of support from my in-laws. Similarly, when I took the plunge and set up Software Technologies Ltd., I too received wholehearted support. So, family is very critical if one is to succeed."

In a country where Indians makes up only 20 per cent - two million - of the population, it is not hard to imagine why the number of Indian women entrepreneurs is considered small. According to Betty Maina, CEO, Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), "There are more than 200 Indian women entrepreneurs. There could be many more because most prefer to play taciturn." Yet, despite being a small number, they are certainly creating the right buzz.

George Githere, Chairman, Kenya National Chamber of Commerce, gives Indian businesswomen in Kenya a ringing endorsement, "I've met many of them and they are serious. They run their personal businesses with a lot of professionalism. The one thing that strikes me is that they always place a client's interest above their own short-term gains."

(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

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