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Indian Africa

Adam Michel

Merchants and Industrialists of Indo-Pakistani Origin in Kenya: A Sociological Overview

Gidraph G. Wairire

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1It is well known that in addition to the Indian population that was already long established along the East Africa coasts, a wave of immigrants from Northern India was attracted by business opportunities in Kenya due to the presence of contract workers involved in the construction of the railway line from Mombasa to Uganda in the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus, in the beginning, traders, artisans, independent workers and newcomers turned to a clientele of Indian workers in Kenya who were paid well enough to buy goods and services that they could not afford in India as soon as they arrived in Africa.

2While this second wave of expatriates gradually expanded its clientele to Africans and Europeans, other immigrants from the Indian subcontinent were also recruited by the British for the needs of the colonial administration. In between the two World Wars, there was a quick rise of the population of Indian origin whose living standards gradually rose to a level intermediate between the settlers and the colonized. The Indians’ economic promotion was also accompanied by an intermediary status, through the discriminatory system of apartheid established by the colonial authorities. Several reasons explain the upward mobility that characterized Asian Kenyans social history (Khan 1993). Since they arrived in Africa without their families, many immigrants were in excellent positions to save money. Moreover, the Indians were from societies that were already at least partially urbanized and more literate, having been exposed to technical, cultural and linguistic ties with Europeans for a long time. Due to this reason, Europeans believed that Indians were intellectually superior to Africans. Consequently, the majority of middle income jobs in Kenya such as supervisors, technicians and clerks were reserved for Indians, thus giving them an advantage over native populations.

3The participation of the Indian diaspora in the industrial and commercial life in Kenya today covers a wide range of companies whose size turnover vary in large proportions, from sole proprietorship to limited liability companies with several branches and subsidiaries. From a statistical point of view, the majority of entrepreneurs of Indian origin are in charge of retail or wholesale trade, such as grocery stores, clothing stores, hardware stores, motor vehicle spare parts and even in higher categories like supermarkets (Nakumatt). Another category where Indians are involved is service activities and liberal professions like pharmacy, medicine, law, architecture, etc. Large firms are mainly industrial in nature (metallurgy and mechanical engineering, building materials, food industry) as well as insurance, banking and tourism. Hardware stores, general trading, clothing stores and car spare parts are among the small and medium-sized businesses that are prevalent among communities of Indian origin. Indeed, products sold by these trades constitute daily shopping for the majority of consumers. Qualities offered by communities of Indian origin in management of business like patience, tact, variety of products make their businesses more successful than those of their African competitors.

An overview of the share taken by Asian Kenyans in Kenya’s industrial activities

  • 1 Domestic market basically means the market of the three East African countries (Kenya, Uganda, and (...)

4The processing industry in Kenya represents over 20 % of GDP. It employs over 300,000 people in the formal sector and 3.7 million people in the informal sector (GOK, 2003). The processing industry is largely dominated by people of Indian or Pakistani origin. Some entrepreneurs of Indian origin are largely subcontractors or shareholders of multinational corporations. Primarily suppliers to the domestic market1, industries owned by members of the Indian diaspora are essentially oriented towards production of items needed by the majority of consumers’ daily lives. Domestic food and beverage production are thus predominant. In 2003, it accounted for over a third (34 %) of industrial employment while in 2004, it accounted for 70 % of the total industrial production turnover (and incidentally 18 % of the exports). Other important industries are construction and civil engineering, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, leather industry, metallurgical industry, paper and cardboard industries, textile industry, plastic manufacturing, timber and wood industries (KAM 2006 and 2007).

Main locations of industrial and commercial activities

5As mentioned earlier on, almost all industrial enterprises established in Kenya are in towns and suburban areas. In Nairobi, for example, most manufacturing and wholesale businesses are found in the industrial area and the Central Business District. Unlike this type of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), many small businesses owned by people of Indian origin are scattered all over the country from early colonial times, namely in small towns and even in rural towns. It is therefore difficult to come up with an inventory and specify their locations. Despite strong competition from Africans, many of these small businesses have survived, some of them seizing on new opportunities in technical and technology areas (ICT, computers, office, telephony, hi-fi equipment), while others maintained – as we shall see later – old specializations dating back to the colonial period (hardware, tinware, glassware supply, car accessories, agricultural equipment, etc.). Thus, in the dusty suburb Mwiki, near Nairobi, or (even) in the vicinity of Kiambu, one can still find Indo-African shops specialized in poultry, veterinary or animal food sales. Located on the busy Nairobi-Mombasa highway, small areas of Sultan Hamud, Emali and Makindu are also well known for their high concentration of hardware stores, and general stores, all owned by representatives of the Indian diaspora.

6In 2006, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) categorised manufacturing industries in Kenya in 12 main production fields. Some of the main firms owned by Kenyan Asians are mentioned in the table below. The government is not a shareholder in most of these industries.

Table 7.1 Main industrial firms controlled by representatives of Kenyan Asian minorities


Main indo-Kenyan firms

Food and drinks

Bidco Oil Co. Ltd (cooking fat); United Millers Ltd (flour-milling); Bogani Industries; Broadway Bakery (bakers); Deepa Industries Ltd; House of Manji (biscuit making); Miwani Sugar Company (sugar cane); Swan Industries Ltd; Jambo Biscuits Ltd; Kenafric Industries; Kensalt Ltd (salt); Tech Pak Industries Ltd; Kapa Oil Refineries.

Building, construction, glass and mining sector

Athi River Mining; Central Glass Industries; Karsan Murji & Co. Ltd; Saj Ceramics Ltd; Kenya Builders & Concrete Ltd; Kalu Works Ltd.

Chemicals and related activities

Basco Products; Diamond Industries; Osho Chemical Ltd; Rayat Trading Co. Ltd; Vitafoam Products Ltd; Twiga Chemical Industries; E.A. Heavy Chemicals Ltd (1999); Sadolin Paints (E.A.) Ltd (paints); Galaxy Paints & Coating CO. Ltd; Kapi Ltd.

Energy, electric and electronic production

Triton Petroleum CO. Ltd; Baumann Engineering Ltd; Everyday Batteries Kenya Ltd (batteries); Optimum Lubricants Ltd (lubricants); Sollatek Electronics (Kenya) Ltd; Manufacturers & Suppliers (K) Ltd; Doshi & Co (Electrical) Ltd; Tsavo Power.

Shoes and leather commodities

Alphrarama Ltd; Leather Industries of Kenya Ltd; New Market Leather Factory Ltd.


Steel Structures Ltd; Kenya Aluminium Industrial Works Ltd; Alloy Steel Casting Ltd (alloy steel); Devski Steel Mills Ltd; Doshi Enterprises Ltd; Corrugated Sheets Ltd (corrugated iron sheets); Sandvik Kenya Ltd; Khetshi Dharamshi & Co Ltd; Shamco Industries Ltd; Mabati Rolling Mills; Kaluworks Ltd; Viking Industries, Rollmill (K) Ltd.

Paper and packaging

Pan African Paper (E.A.) Mills Ltd; Prestige Packaging Ltd; Chandaria Industries Ltd; Transpaper Kenya Ltd; Dodhia Packaging Ltd; Kartasi Industries; Nation Media Group; Printpak Multi Packaging Ltd; Statpack Industries Ltd; Tetra Pak Ltd; D.L. Patel Press (Kenya) Ltd; Packaging Manufacturers Ltd (1976).

Motor vehicles and accessories

Marshall – Tata; Ashok-Leyland; Kamsons-Mahindra; CMC-Maruti; Bhachu Industries Ltd; Impala Glass Industries Ltd; Labh Singh Harman Singh Ltd; Theevan Enterprises; Varsani Brakelinings Ltd; Chui Auto Spring Industries Ltd; Associated Vehicle Assemblers Ltd; Auto Spring Manufacturers Ltd.

Pharmaceutical industries and medical equipment

Cadila & UB Pharmaceuticals; Alpha Medical Manufacturers Ltd; Manhar Brothers (K) Ltd; KAM Pharmacy Ltd; Medivet Products Ltd; Regal Pharmaceuticals; Dawa Ltd; Bulk Medicals Ltd.

Plastic and rubber products

Sumaria Industries; Sameer Africa Ltd; Doshi Ironmongers (Ironmongers); Cables & Plastics, Bobmil Industries; Laneeb Plastics Industries Ltd; Ombi Rubber Rollers Ltd; Packaging Industries Ltd (Packaging); Treadsetters Tyres (tyres) Ltd; Sumaria Industries; Shiv Enterprises (E) Ltd; Kingsway Tyres & Automart Ltd; Polythene Industries Ltd.

Textiles and related material

Ajit Clothing Factory Ltd; Apex Apparels (EPZ) Ltd; Ashton Apparels (EPZ); Spinners Ltd; Spin Knit Ltd; United Aryan (EPZ) Ltd; Sunflag Textile & Knitwear Mills Ltd; Premier Knitwear Ltd; Nakuru Industries Ltd; Protex Kenya (EPZ) Ltd.

Woodworks, wooden commodities and furniture

Rai Plywoods (K) Ltd; Shah Timber Mart Ltd; Timsales Ltd; Comply Industries Ltd; Nairobi Timber Project Ltd; Kenya Wood Ltd; Eldema (Kenya) Ltd.

Source: KAM 2006, for field categorization and the author’s research

Presentation of the research sample

7The sample for this research is made up of small and medium entrepreneurs. Most of them are based in Nairobi (87.6 %): 56.2 % operate in the Central Business District while 10.5 % are located in the industrial area. Others Indians who are part of the sample are based in one of the commercial areas of Nairobi (Westlands and its surroundings 7.1 %). 12.4 % of entrepreneurs are located in other cities of Central Kenya (Thika and Nakuru). Table 2 below classifies enterprises owned by people belonging to the sample based on business specialization.

Table 7.2 Asian Kenyan firms that were sampled

  • 2 Business that responds to customers’ daily needs and usually run by individual retailers, selling t (...)




Hardware businesses



General Business2



Clothes shops



Motor vehicle spare parts automobiles



Bookshops and stationery shops






Pastries- confectionery






Cinema, theatre






Information and communication technology (ICT) accessories



Hairdressing salon



Industrial insurance






Schools and business schools



Real estate



Restaurant and hotel business



Internet-cybercafe services








91.9 %

Non industrial and commercial activities3 Liberal professions



Total number of listed activities



  • 3 This category brings together competitive liberal professional employers who charge for services th (...)

8Other than big industrial and commercial companies, it is well known that most Indo-Kenyan companies employ few people (between 1 and 20 employees). Our sample is representative of this situation. The majority of firms in the sample (67 %) have between 1 and 10 employees while 1.9 % of them have no employee. About 16 % of them have between 11 à 20 employees, 6.7 % of the between 21 and 30 employees and 14 % of them between 30 and 60 employees. 1.0 % of the firms in the sample have between 81 and 100 workers while 1.9 % of these firms have more than 100 workers. Apart from the managerial staff, the employed staff is either unqualified or has very little qualification. The majority of firms that have employed more than 30 employees are found in Nairobi’s industrial area.3

Table 7.3 Classification of sampled firms based on number of employees

Number of employees per firm

Percentage of firms

No employee (the owner manages the business alone)

1.9 %


67 %


16 %


6.7 %


1.4 %


1.4 %


1.4 %




1.0 %

+ de 100

1.9 %

Unavailable data



Source: Researcher’s investigation

Origin and transfer of industrial and commercial property

9Most of the industrial and commercial firms owned by the Indian diaspora are transferred from generation to generation through inheritance. The continuity of this heritage is not usually noticed from outside because during the transfer process, the firm undergoes major natural and developmental changes that at times make it unrecognizable (industry transformation, creation of branches, all kinds of modernization).

10In most industrial and commercial families, sons learn initial professional rudiments that are meant to prepare them for their future responsibilities. They discover business management rules by frequently accompanying their fathers to the firms’ premises: workshop or shop supervision, personnel management, customer and supplier relations, accounting, etc. In most cases today, this hands-on initiation is complemented with strong and long university training. However, the choice of a foreign country (mostly Anglo-Saxon) for studies can be sometimes problematic due to the fact that, if it improves qualification, sometimes it dissuades the child from coming back home, thus endangering the firm’s continuity. With liberalization of higher education, girls can also follow the same path as boys. However, other than in case where the family lacks a male heir to the property, or in the case of desertion, prospects of a daughter being entrusted with business management are very minimal.

11As we shall see later, the possibility of inheritance by a son-in-law is an acceptable solution but rarely exclusive. In most cases, a family without a son will entrust inheritance to one or several nephews from the father’s side. In this case, the son-in-law occupies a minor position.

12The patrimonial nature of industrial and commercial property does not exclude creation of new firms, be it reconstruction of an old firm or an ex nihilo creation by the stakeholders. According to our investigation figures, more than a third of the sample (42.1 %) could be differently considered creators of their own firms while 57.9 % perpetuated domestic firms (43 % having inherited them from their fathers or grandfathers, 11.4 % being associated to a brother or an uncle, 3.3 % are managing their husband’s heritage).

Table 7.4 Origin of the firm

Origin of the firm


Firm inherited from the father

36.5 %

Firm set up by brother, uncle, etc.

11.4 %

Firm set up by grand parents

6.5 %

Firm set up by husband

3.3 %

Firm set up by owner and another partner

3.8 %

Firm set up by owner

36.4 %

Firm bought

1.6 %

Firm bought by community for the owner

0.5 %


100 %

Source: Researcher’s investigation

13As far as the reasons that motivated them to be engaged in their current commercial activities, the sampled people give different reasons but a third of them (33.8 %) affirm that business activity is a family tradition that has been going on for several generations. In this regard, this tradition has to be respected by all and be transferred to other generations. All responses are presented in the table below:

Table 7.5 Reasons for business choice



Percentage of responses

Inherited/family business


33.8 %

Lucrative nature of business and market opportunities


16.0 %

Experience in the business


15.5 %

Passion for the business


13.1 %

Appropriate training


10.3 %



11.3 %

Total number of responses


100 %

Source: Researcher’s investigation

Marriage, inheritance and business

14Marriage is not only a very important social act because of its role in the perpetuation and the renewal of family ties, but also because of its impact on the organization of domestic firms. This is because the alliance created through marriage gives the two families an opportunity to strengthen business relationships and, in the absence of a male heir, the heritage is transferred to a son-in-law who is usually nominated and guided by the family. The need to ensure that the business activity and social capital remain in the hands of known people and in whom the same people have confidence, the obsessive concern to designate a successor who is capable of carrying the family torch and hand it to generations that follow explain why marriage is treated with such caution.

15Arranged marriages in industrial and commercial families of Indian origin are still a common practice today and they associate the highest level of the fiancé and the fiancée’s families. Nevertheless, the consent of the suitors is always requested. Future spouses are usually given enough time to know each other well before the marriage is celebrated. A love match is not forbidden on condition that the boy and the girl belong to the same community and receive the blessings of their respective families. According to our research data, the following criteria are used in choosing a spouse: adherence to the same religious and cultural community, same social and economic status, assurance of financial stability, respectable genealogy, good understanding between the two families and (if need be), ability to run business well.

16As Michel Adam explains in another chapter of this book, Asian Kenyans are still reluctant to practise marriage outside their own communities, including within the super cultural settings represented by the diaspora of Indian origin. In case such a marriage occurs, it is due to the socially liberal and modernist character of some young suitors and their family. It should also be mentioned that future spouses must have in common some sort of shared community of belonging, based, for instance, upon a shared language or social commonalities in the case they do not have the same religious background. This explains why our research data shows that a Punjabi Hindu (male or female) will possibly be able to marry a Punjabi Sikh (male or female). The same thing applies to a Gujarati Jaïn and a Gujarati Hindu, a Punjabi Hindu and a Sindhi Sikh-Hindu, a Sunni Muslim and an Ithnasheri, etc. In fact, very little has changed since 1989 when Cynthia Salvadori noted that if marriages between Muslim and non Muslim Asian Kenyans are non frequent, they are rare between Asian Kenyans and European Kenyans and even rarer between Asian Kenyans and Africans (Salvadori 1989: 11). With very few exceptions, marriage in business and industrial families remains endogamous not only in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of religion and caste. Albeit limited, this sample reveals that rules, customs and marriage rituals practised by Asian Kenyans in Kenya are far closer to those practised in India than those being practised by other communities in Kenya today.

Religion and professional activity

17Other than the economic domain, another feature that is apparently common among merchants and manufacturers of Indian origin lies in the importance of their religious ties. Many of them have retained their ancestors’ religion and practise it passionately. To them, conversion to another religion is very exceptional.

Table 7.6 Religious affiliation of sampled entrepreneurs




46 %


26.7 %


2.4 %


24.9 %


100 %

18In the case of the diaspora of Indian origin, the relationship between commercial practice and religion – especially between professional practice and religion – is a complex issue and can be subdivided in many sub-issues:

191) Beliefs, requirements, prohibitions and rituals are generally used in business, either to guide the conduct or to facilitate entrepreneurial success.

20First of all, there are requirements that are morally binding, especially in terms of finance. That is the case among Shia Bohra, where lending at the interest is strictly prohibited. This prohibition is accompanied by an internal credit system that is strictly controlled by the community institutions. In real sense however, it is normal for the borrowers to give “a gift of thanks” to the creditor when paying back the loan. The value of this “gift” is more or less codified and depends on the duration of the loan and can be compared to a moderate interest. On the other hand, the Ismailis do not prohibit loans with interest since they lend their fellow believers at preferential interest rates.

21Secondly, celebration of ritual festivals in the premises of the company or resorting to prayers or propitiatory rituals is common both among Hindus and Muslims. While only 27 % of respondents noted the existence of religious celebrations in the premises of the company, 56 % of them (118 respondents) claimed to be followers of various religions as detailed in the table below. Among the most important or the most common worships are: prayers for the prosperity of the company, prayers for purification of books of accounts, prayers to keep company staff in good health.

Table 7.7 Examples of religious practices associated with business promotion

Type of ritual



General prayers for the firms’ prosperity (all religions)


47.9 %

Different prayers accompanied by incense (Hindus)


12.0 %

Diwali prayers (Hindu new year)


8.5 %

Reciting of Koranic verses


4.3 %

Vastu Puja prayers (blessing of the building among Hindus)


4.3 %

Prayers to Mahavir (Jaïns)


3.4 %

Havan (Vedic fire ceremony)


2.6 %

Prayers to Jalaram (Hindus)


2.6 %

Prayers to Krishna (Hindus)


2.6 %

Non specified ritual during the firm’s inauguration


2.6 %

Meditating on money and business (Hindus)


1.8 %

Prayers to Swaminarayan (Hindus)


1.7 %

Namaz (Muslim prayer ritual)


0.9 %

Prayers to Ganesh (Hindus)


0.9 %

Prayers to Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity (Hindus)


0.9 %

Prayers to Mahvish (Hindus)


0.9 %

Prayers to Mahvish for general prosperity


0.9 %

Strict observance of Ramadhan to facilitate success in business


0.9 %

Temple visits before opening the business (Hindus)


0.9 %



100 %

Source: Researcher’s investigation

22According to our research data, prayers and religious rituals are actually performed periodically on the sites of the activity. Some are annual (New Year’s Day ceremony, etc.), others are weekly (Fridays for Muslims) or at different times of the day (for example three times per day for Muslims).

23Some traders or manufacturers who were interviewed say prayers and propitiatory rituals can be practiced at any hour of the day in the company premises or even in places of worship such as temples or mosques. In fact, most commercial buildings have altars or specific places of worship like a shelf, a corner of a room or a whole room. Among Hindus and Jaïns, coloured pictures in beautiful frames and various statues representing deities are frequent. In some firms, a stick of incense burns constantly in front of these altars. The people concerned give different reasons for these entrepreneurial devotions: some relate them to personal beliefs while others say that they are based on collective ancient traditions. All religions stated the following objectives for entrepreneurial devotions: to bless the firm; to attract divine grace (or luck) for the day; to dispel negative incidents and chase evil spirits from the company premises evil spirits; to perpetuate religious customs observed by the former owners (usually parents); to thank God for his gifts; to advocate for business development; to pray for the establishment or maintenance of justice, honesty and integrity; to increase the number of customers; to attract divine blessings; to purify business practice.

24A common belief among business leaders is that religious practice and spiritual life are inseparable from the efforts expended in a purely professional domain. This provision proves the belief that success in business depends on some kind of divine intervention. In some cases, such a conviction is accompanied by a behaviour that is almost fetishist whereby the people concerned simply continue practicing their ancestors’ religious customs even though they have lost their meaning.

  • 4 In this case, the leather industry in Kenya is largely controlled by Ismaili funds.

252) There is a positive response regarding the link between religious affiliation and the type of business whereby, just like other populations living in Kenya, people of Indian origin are subjected to some religious norms that directly involve their professional activities. For example, it goes without saying that a devout Hindu will not engage in any butchery activity whereas a Muslim will not focus on selling of alcoholic beverages. Some liberal Muslims are however able to distinguish the process of manufacturing a product (which may be managed by non-Muslims in this case), its commercial destination (which may not be the same as the manufacturing community) and the commercial activity (under strict community control). Thus, The Farmer’s Choice, the leading brand of industrial pork meat in Kenya – specialized among others in the manufacture of sausages and famous bacons – is financially controlled by the Ismailia. Other examples like the leather industry – whose mere utterance is a taboo to Hindus – show that when detached from the manufacturing activity and bodily contact, it is the mere prospect of commercial gain that determines the choice of business, independent of any religious attachment4.

263) The third issue is that there are well known norms of religious origin within the community that establish a necessary link between social status and professional specialization. Hereditary caste specialization (jati or gnati) is still strongly rooted in the consciousness of Hindus as well as among some Muslims, particularly in the Sunni group. This is why there are many representatives of specialized ancient castes such as tailors (darji), barbers (nayee), tanners (mochi), goldsmiths (soni), laundry workers (dhobi), etc. who still own clothing stores, hair salons, shoe stores, jewellers, laundries, etc. Many other statutory categories may be added to these examples.

27For several decades, however, the statutory system of division of labour is no longer rigid. First of all, certain specializations have adapted to technological changes of the modern world within the same corporation whereby (launderers have become dry cleaners; potters have become glass manufacturers; hardware dealers, building contractors, etc.). Secondly, some specializations are preserved, not as a result of any social constraint, but simply because they were acquired through succession (sons inherit their fathers’ heritage etc.). Finally, because of the general rise in the level of educational, protections surrounding each of the professional bodies have weakened. All the same, if a Brahmin has never been barred from exercising any honourable profession (intellectual tasks compared to cooking and agricultural work), representatives of specialized and modest old castes can be found nowadays in almost all professions. This is the case of the Kumbhar (potters), the Suthar (carpenters), the Luhar (blacksmiths), etc. Although the proportion of these statuses of “deviants” (in reference to traditional standards) is still modest, their existence marks the beginning of a major turning point.

284) Fourthly, in both Kenya and India, there is one – and often several – community based specializations that are attached to a minority or religious group (Jaîns, Sikhs, Ismailia, etc.). These specializations are unknown to both the statutory division of labour and any form of religious tradition, even if occupation and religious affiliation can be matched. Since they are rooted in particular historical situations, it is generally difficult to trace the origin of these community based professional orientations. Thus, Sikhs are frequently building contractors or mechanics, Bohras are specialists in glassware trade as well as hardware and sanitary facilities, Jaïns are industrialists and tinware specialists while Goan Catholics are tailors or cooks, etc.

Table 7.8 Examples of statutory (castes) and communal specialisations

Hindus (gnati)

Usual occupation, activity

Hindus (gnati)

Usual occupation, activity






Sea trade








Wanza Darji



Liberal and intellectual professions,

Gurjar Sutar



Laundry workers



Jaïn Visa

Trade, Business


Usual occupation, activity


Usual occupation, activity


Business, Liberal and intellectual professions




Business, Glassware trade, Health

Memon (former castes)

Trade, Business

Luhar/Wadha (old castes)


Manjoti (old castes)


Sunni Punjabi

Employees, Civil servants

Kumbhar (old castes)


Other religious groups

Parsi (Zoroastrien)

Firms managers,
Intellectual professions


Garage owners,

Source: Researcher’s investigation

295) If community affiliation to any one group of the Indo-Pakistani diaspora is an important criterion of choice both in the firms’ personnel recruitment and business relationships, religious affiliation of personnel or partners does not seem to count, except when it characterizes a particular family group which is always a privileged social space in any entrepreneurial activity. If we go by the responses of interviewed employers, existing and future business links between different firms are based on non-religious factors such as the nature of products sold, the supposed qualifications of each entrepreneur and his moral standing, the partnership costs, the amount of expected profits, etc. Some companies have clearly expansionary policies. The need to have a high turnover, combined with factors such as those mentioned above, is the source of business partnership that does not consider religious affiliations

Table 7.9 Criteria for association with potential partners

Criteria for priority choice of partners

Number of responses

Percentage of responses

Partner’s professional honesty, integrity


26.8 %

Partner’s loyalty


17.9 %

Strong family ties extending to business


16.1 %

Common interest in business


6.3 %

Partner’s known past in the profession


6.3 %

Partner’s knowhow and technical competence


5.4 %

Good understanding between partners


4.5 %

Keen sense of business


4.5 %

Partner’s financial strength


4.5 %

Partner’s experience


3.6 %

Personal relation with the partner


2.7 %

Partner’s age


0.9 %

Partner’s academic qualification


0.9 %

Total responses


100 %

Source: Researcher’s investigation

306) Finally, regardless of their religious affiliation, entrepreneurs of Asian origin claim to be representatives of their religion in philanthropic activities that are widespread among all merchants and industrialists in the diaspora. First, in selecting these activities, entrepreneurs of Indian origin prefer religious related initiatives even if they do not belong to the same denomination. This explains why many non-Indian social development projects (for example European or African, ) have received financial support from various entrepreneurs belonging to the diaspora. In this regard, some communities mobilize their members more than others. For example, this is the case with the Ismaili who are leaders of several philanthropic foundations (especially the Aga Khan Foundation), the Lohanas, the Patels, just to mention a few.

Recruitment and allocation of duties in the firm

  • 5 This situation is true for all big firms. On the other hand, there are small firms that only employ (...)

31It was earlier mentioned that religion as such only plays a minor role in the recruitment policy of companies. According to the management circles, family membership is the most determinant policy in accordance with the patrimonial character of industrial and commercial property ownership. Recruitment for middle-level responsibilities generally favours staff of Indian origin. However, the criteria of competence usually supersedes other criteria like status or religious (community) affiliation. Though very recent and depending on community characteristics, recruitment – at the same level of qualification - is also open to competent Africans. The Ismailia are ahead of other members of the wider Indian diaspora in this field. Production and junior tasks (workers, clerks, drivers, maintenance workers or security guards) are always assigned to African staff who are rarely in a position to get promotion in the firm5.

32Current Kenyan labour laws encourage entrepreneurs to hire at least a portion of subordinate staff on temporary basis (fixed term or temporary contracts). This kind of hiring allows entrepreneurs to adjust labour depending on seasonal or company turnover variations. In addition, it also helps them avoid costs payable to permanent staff such as annual leave, medical cover, travel allowances, maternity leave and other benefits.

3351 % of the sample state that the immediate family plays a major role in the management of business while 49 % of firms that have lost their family character argue that the family has no role. According to responses obtained, the families’ involvement in business is at the following levels: general business management, procurement, sales and marketing, financial management, and personnel management. However, there are more frequent cases where the company management may assign some specialized tasks (technical management, accounting, advertising, etc.) to professionals who are not part of the family circle.

34If the family generally has an upper hand in the management of business, its members do not play equivalent roles. This is the opinion of at least 49 % of the sample, particularly taking into account the female fraction of the family. Thus, women are still often cloistered in the house to perform household chores and have nothing to do with the management of the company. However, this situation is now changing even in the most conservative families. What happens to women is also true to the youth, who are generally under the supervision of patriarchs. In fact, the company hierarchy reflects the family hierarchy, though innovations may only come from outside, particularly through the youth who are often trained in Anglo-Saxon Western institutions of higher learning.

Financing of firms

35As opposed to the perception that Asian-Kenyan firms are financed by foreign capital, most of those in the sample are entirely dependent on resources from Kenya. Of the 210 entrepreneurs interviewed (a small minority of professionals are included), only 4.8 % said they had benefited from foreign support. 95.2 % indicate that they have no foreign financial support whatsoever. Although most companies owe their existence to limited capital, many of them were able to ensure a cash flow that enabled them to be almost independent while the rest of funding was financed – like everywhere – through banks.

36Of the 4.8 % who reported having received funding from abroad, the majority of them received the funds from parents who were expatriates, especially in Britain, Dubai and India. Other borrowers seek loans from overseas suppliers, particularly from India. These loans are later reimbursed once the imported goods are sold in Kenya. A very small fraction of borrowers (0.5 %) have financial support from partners resident in Great Britain but who are not their relatives.

37As far as financing from Kenya is concerned, bank loans represent a relatively secondary source of credit. According to responses from the sample, only 33 % of respondents reported that they always resort to banks for credit, 67 % never seek credit from banks. The need for bank loans is based on the following requirements: 1) quick replenishment, especially in times of high demand, 2) importation of goods from abroad, and 3) expansion or upgrading of the company, 4) starting a new activity.

  • 6 Other non-communal employer associations like the well-known Kenya Association of Manufacturers, th (...)

38Regardless of bank loans, businessmen have other sources of credit that are usually informal. This is the case with certain employers associations that are mutual in nature (sector or crosscutting associations) and that are willing to help struggling entrepreneurs. In fact, some of these associations have no community character and are also able to respond to loan requests from Africans or Europeans. Approximately 32 % of employers interviewed in the study indicate that they are members of such associations whose aim is moreover not limited to credit. Examples of the most famous employers’ mutual associations are the United Business Association (UBA), the Nairobi Central Business Association and the Nakuru Business Association. Community employer associations like the Kokni Muslim Association, the Surat District Association or the Sikh Union have a lower impact because they only address issues of members of the concerned community6.

39Other resources that are absolutely informal in character exist in terms of credit. These include help from neighbouring businesses, sometimes between competitors. Regardless of certain forms of commercial cooperation (which will be described in more detail below), small commercial enterprises usually practice mutual help either for purely social reasons like theft, illness, death or to improve situations where business is failing. Suppliers (particularly when they belong to the diaspora of Indian origin) are also frequent credit lenders, particularly among small merchants.

40However, obtaining credit requires that some conditions be met (reputation of honesty, good management, financial support opportunity, etc.) and it is acquired only through presentation of a minimum of guarantees (family members’ financial strength, real estate collateral, repayment schedule, etc.). Although nearly 46 % of the sample reported being able to get credit without any conditions, further questioning reveals that in reality, this is not the case because certain requirements such as the appropriate use of funds are always asserted.

Table 7.10 Some criteria for obtaining financial help






45.7 %

Honesty and loyalty in business


16.9 %

Cordial relations with businessmen


13.9 %

Membership in an entrepreneurs’ association


6.7 %

Family ties


2.4 %

Friendship ties


0.5 %

Cordial relations with suppliers


0.5 %

Reputation of skills in running of business


0.5 %



9.1 %



100 %

Source: Researcher’s investigation

Other forms of cooperation between firms

41The preceding paragraph alluded to the existence of different forms of cooperation between firms. Commercial cooperation, which is common among rival small-scale traders, is the first form of cooperation. In this case, traders from the same business sector often come together to make a single collective order which is transported in a single container, thus reducing handling and transportation costs significantly. Secondly, it was earlier mentioned that the purpose of mutual associations is not limited to credit. Several of them, indeed, provide services to various companies, including within the same industry: promotion of activities of the business sector, lobbying to the government, as well as legal, financial and business advice in order to obtain import licenses, etc.

42Sharing of information about demand fluctuation, the customer’s state of mind, the costs of goods and how to obtain them (where, when and how), is another area of classical cooperation between companies. Through more or less informal networks (community association or informal links between entrepreneurs of the same field), this cooperation is often understood as a means of defending the interests of companies belonging to the Indian diaspora against other competitors, especially Africans or Europeans. Thus, through an appropriate exchange of information, it is common for Asian Kenyan firms belonging to the same network to exclusively sell new products on the Kenyan market while other firms do not. By the time these goods ultimately get into the business market run by Africans or Europeans, their demand and even their selling prices are significantly low.

Some challenges facing communities of Indian origin in Kenya

43Asian Kenyan communities play a vital role in the economy of the country. This role is however often downplayed, especially by Africans. Many Africans blame Kenyan Asian bosses for enriching themselves at the expense of their employees, whether temporary or unskilled workers or even those with professional qualifications: business executives, financial analysts, accountants, engineers, etc. Moreover, these same bosses are believed to import cheap labour from India to the detriment of the Kenyan workforce. On their part, representatives of the Indian diaspora strongly feel that their properties as well as their people are insecure. From time to time, there are veiled threats of expulsion from some politicians. This feeling is compounded by the rise in crime. However, the insecurity is not only a major obstacle to investment (African and non-African), it is one of the factors that make Asian Kenyans leave the country. Though it has not been achieved, there is need for mutual trust between African Kenyans and Asian Kenyans.

44A second criticism often addressed to representatives of the Indian diaspora – and to manufacturers and traders in particular – is that most of them keep away from political engagement. The minority of those who give their support to political parties are suspected to have done so for the sole purpose of obtaining commercial or financial favours. According to Warah (2007), this relative indifference to national politics strengthens the resentment of the African opinion. However, the 2007 general elections marked the beginning of change in attitude because several communities have expressed their desire not to be kept out of political consultations. For the first time in many years, a candidate of Indian origin also presented himself for a parliamentary seat in one of Nairobi’s constituencies with a large population of Asian Kenyan businessmen (Kamlesh Pattni, leader of KENDA, Westlands constituency).

  • 7 African Growth and Opportunities Act.

45Regardless of these social and political issues, Asian Kenyan industrialists and traders face other difficulties that are purely economic: difficulties in accessing raw materials, non-compliance with non-tariff barriers by members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), competition from South Africa, China and South East Asian countries, tax evasion by certain competing importers, European Union and AGOA7 tariff preferences. Despite these temporary barriers to entrepreneurial development that have lasted for more than a century, it is expected that they will remain associated with the country’s future.



ADAM, Michel 2010, « A Microcosmic Minority: the Indo-Kenyans of Nairobi », in Hélène CHARTON-BIGOT & Deyssi RODRIGUEZ-TORRES, Nairobi Today. The Paradox of a Fragmented City. Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Mkuki na Nyota, French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA): 215-268.

GOK (Government of the Republic of Kenya)

2001, Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for the Period 2001-2004. Nairobi, Government Printers.

2003, Economic Recovery Action Plan. Nairobi, Government Printers.


1993, An Estimation of Levels and Differentials of Fertility and Mortality: A Case Study of the Asian Community in Kenya. Nairobi, University of Nairobi (Unpublished M.A. Thesis).

KAM (Kenya Association of Manufacturers) 2006, Manufacturing in Kenya: A Survey of Kenya Manufacturing Sector, 2006. Nairobi.

2007, Members Directory. A Directory of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, 2007. Nairobi.

SALVADORI, Cynthia 1989 (1983), Through Open Doors. A View of the Asian Cultures in Kenya. Nairobi, Revised Edition, Kenway Publications.

WALJI, Parveen 1980, The Relationship between Socio-Economic Conditions and Fertility Behaviour Among Selected Asian Groups in Nairobi. Nairobi, University of Nairobi (Unpublished PhD. Thesis).

WARAH, Rasna 2007, « East African Asians need to see the forest for the trees », Daily Nation, 30th of April 2007.


Appendix: The Dukawallah

Michel ADAM

Half-way between the general store managers that were widespread in the United States of America during the last century and the ones managing clustered, fragrant and colourful stalls of the Middle East bazaars, the dukawallah is another prototype in East Africa and often represents a caricature of the Indian expert in summary. The word dukawallah means “shopkeeper” and is a composed of two words. That is duka, a Swahili word that means “shop”, and a hindi suffix, wallah that stands for “owner”, “manager”, or “specialist”. Closely following the steps of the first settler and his dependent natives, the small Indian shopkeeper originally played vis-à-vis the first the roles of steward and supplier of European commodities and vis-à-vis the second became the supplier of new products: basic industrial foodstuffs like sugar, salt, flour, oil, etc.; candies like sweets, cookies, soda; different accessories, match boxes, stoves and lighting equipment, crockery and cooking utensils, clothes, pencils and exercise books, etc. The dukawallah’s range of commercial activities, became diversified and gradually grew to include the spectrum of contemporary domestic goods, including special items such as radios, small domestic and agricultural tools, sewing machines, etc.

Another feature of the dukawallah is his geographical location, that is shifting away (and arguably as far away as possible) from the usual sources of industrial food supplies. The dukawallah’s objective is to be gradually indispensable by being closer to the consumer and availing to him what would have been otherwise inaccessible. This will allow him not to sell expensively but to adjust prices according to his customers’ means while putting into consideration the goods needed by the same customers. The dukawallah therefore settles in areas that are geographically or socially inaccessible to Western trade. To avoid competition from his peers, he can practice trade policies based on communal partnership. These areas are usually small towns confined in village borders and indigenous neighbourhoods that are not frequented by Europeans. Contrary to popular belief, the first dukawallah were mostly young unmarried employees or managers of successful businesses in the vicinity of European settlements.

Two characteristics separate the dukawallah from the two models that were previously discussed: the North American and Levantine models. Unlike the first model, the dukawallah does not only sell but also buys goods related to his trade, including wholesale buying of agricultural products meant for domestic and foreign markets. This fact explains why in the early 1930s, Indians were the main cotton buyers in Uganda (Prunier 1990: 30). Unlike the bazaar’s shop, the dukawallah is not interested in traditional products which do not sell. However, just like some Lebanese traders in West Africa, the dukawallah may occasionally lend money at very high interest rates, a marginal activity condemned by most Muslims.

All the dukawallahs work on credit and are engaged in a chain of businesses and services that make them dependent on their close and far away suppliers upfront. According to a British observer, “The Indian importer works on credit... The order that is given to an English seller is covered by a London firm which provides a credit of three to six months. This is the time it takes for goods to travel by sea and by rail. The commodities are then sold to a wholesaler who never pays cash, but signs a three months draft. The importer gets his money by taking a bank overdraft. The wholesaler then sells to wholesale dealers who also pay through overdrafts. The latter then sell to retailers who pay bills again. Goods can pass through five or six hands before reaching the consumer, and each operation is done on credit. This mechanism is such a maze that it can constitute all sorts of financial improprieties” (Stonehouse 1960: 91, quoted by Prunier 1990: 81)8.

There are well known communities when it comes to the dukawallah profession. The most common ones are Hindu Patels whose peasant ancestry predisposes them to contacts with the general peasantry and to situations of isolation in rural areas. Other communities that are well represented in this business are the Punjabi Sunni Muslims and Memons. The latter are more visible in Muslim regions, especially in coastal areas. Whereas some Ismailia or Ithnasheri engage in this type of business, the Bohra never venture in it because they think that it demeans their status. It is the same case for the Jaïns who are hesitant to face the risks of organic pollution and as well as any attack against life associated with selling of foodstuffs.

The dukawallah’s shop was subjected to many descriptions in colonial literature. A little behind the store – and always hidden from public scrutiny – stands, among the Hindus, an altar housing a figure (an image or a statue) of a benevolent deity: Lakshmi, Ganesh or Krishna9. The shopkeeper stands still and silent behind his cash desk (which he does not entrust to any employee) and is sometimes relieved by his wife. He leaves the task of welcoming customers to his African staff. This welcome is mostly characterized by poor affability and little talking. Parsimony, small profits, hard work and almost no recreation are among the well-known features of the profession. Nevertheless, among the African customers, these traits are less known than the picture of the daunting, arrogant and inflexible shopkeeper. Such a picture is also widespread among the Europeans.

The bad image that Indians in general have, especially in the eyes of African peasants, was for a long time fuelled by the fact that the only relationship with the Indian communities was that their members were, for most of them, in a position to gain from the superior commercial status: either as buyers (for example cotton in Uganda) or as sellers (for example managers of small businesses).

Except in Tanzania, where the slightest economic development slowed the upward mobility of the Indian community, many Indians began to abandon their small businesses in the years leading to independence. These businesses were acquired by African traders (as managers or owners who were mainly Gikuyu, Luo and Baganda). This movement is now getting under way (especially in Uganda given the precedence of Indian expulsion) though it was slow in taking off and is far from success. In all corners of East Africa, from the distant countryside small towns to upmarket urban areas, there are still dukawallahs, some of them being the last representatives of four generations of adventurous merchants.


PRUNIER, Gérard, 1990, L’Ouganda et la question indienne (1896-1972). Paris, Éditions Recherches sur les Civilisations.


1 Domestic market basically means the market of the three East African countries (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) and secondly the COMESA market (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa), created in 1994 and bringing together 20 countries.

2 Business that responds to customers’ daily needs and usually run by individual retailers, selling the same range of products sold in supermarkets (food, domestic hardware items, etc.).

3 This category brings together competitive liberal professional employers who charge for services they offer: architectural, accounting, surveying agencies, etc.

4 In this case, the leather industry in Kenya is largely controlled by Ismaili funds.

5 This situation is true for all big firms. On the other hand, there are small firms that only employ staff of Indian or Pakistani origin to perform all tasks. The recruits are recent illegal immigrants (rockets), who are usually paid very poorly.

6 Other non-communal employer associations like the well-known Kenya Association of Manufacturers, the Law Society of Kenya, the Kenya Association of Pharmaceuticals, the Kenya Association of Architects, do not give credit (Kenya Association of Manufacturers), or talk to representatives of employers of certain liberal professions (lawyers, pharmacists, architects). Industrial Promotion Service (IPS), a financial organisation controlled by the Aga Khan is not mentioned here but it comes under the banking sector.

7 African Growth and Opportunities Act.

8 For more information, see remarks by Godfrey Asiimwe on the dukawallah in Uganda in this book.

9 Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, usually associated with Ganesh; Ganesh, god of merchants and wisdom; Krishna, Vishnu’s eight reincarnation and one of the most revered gods in India, especially in Gujarat.


Lecturer at the University of Nairobi (Kenya)

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