Walking the tightrope of faith and profit

Mentorship and counselling programmes are helping Christian entrepreneurs keep their faith as they run professional, competent and ethical businesses in a marketplace riddled with corruption

Sinapis Entrepreneur Academy alumni at the Sinapis Graduation Ceremony on November 23, 2019 at Panari Hotel, Nairobi.

Maxine Dayo’s entry into the business world happened rather unexpectedly. Before she became a business consultant dealing in registration and legal advice for companies, among other things, she worked for a law firm in Nairobi.

She recalls a time when her boss, a high-calibre advocate, sent her to the Registrar for Lands office with an envelope containing a cheque. She came to learn that the cheque was an ‘incentive’ for the registrar, who would then devalue a piece of land that her boss wanted to buy for less than the real value.

Maxine Dayo

“I did not want my hands to be stained,” says Dayo, “so I informed my boss that I could no longer be of service to him.”

The radical decision cost her three months of unemployment but to this day, she does not regret it. She says for her former boss, such transactions were commonplace and she had probably run similar errands on his behalf unknowingly before. But once she discovered, she opted to take a stand for her faith.

This would seem to be the obvious way to act when one is a born-again Christian. However, operating in the marketplace can present a minefield of ethical dilemmas, as Allan Omungah, another Christian in business, found out.

Also based in Nairobi, Omungah deals with security systems (software and hardware) and recalls the challenges to his faith as he was just starting out. He had applied for a tender from a company in Murang’a County that could potentially earn him Sh300,000 – a substantial boost to his young business.

“One late afternoon, I got a call from the company manager who asked me to send him Sh20,000. He claimed he was driving a ‘big car’ and had run out of fuel in unfamiliar territory. He promised to make sure I got the contract if I obliged,” he says.

Omungah remembers feeling conflicted about whether this constituted a bribe or not. He sent the money anyway, believing that he was just helping someone in need. As promised, he ‘won’ the tender and in the process learnt a valuable lesson about business: bribes rarely come in black-and-white; sometimes they are disguised as all manner of requests and favours.

“Since then I have become very careful not to give money before tenders are awarded,” he says. “I am more interested in running my business with integrity.”

These are examples of the hurdles Christians encounter as they try to succeed in business without compromising the principles of their faith. And this is becoming more challenging given the large numbers of people venturing into business owing to the high rate of unemployment.

According to a survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics published by The Standard newspaper on March 23, 2018, some 7 million Kenyans are unemployed, which accounts for a workforce population (15-60 years) estimated to be at 28.5 million in 2020. Statista, a global research firm, confirms that 18.4 per cent of the unemployed are youths aged between 15-24 years. Further research shows that in 2019 there were 30,000 university graduates expected to join their predecessors in the hunt for jobs.

Considering the large numbers trying to make it in business, how can a Christian be adequately equipped to navigate these waters without adopting unethical practices? In Matthew 10:16, Jesus said to His disciples: “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” What exactly does this look like in the business arena when, for instance, it comes to bidding for lucrative tenders alongside other competitors? Is there anyone helping Christians to operate effectively in business while making a stand for their faith?

Wilson Kibara, the Managing Director of Midrow Kenya Ltd, is a beneficiary of a four-month entrepreneur programme offered by Sinapis, an organisation that empowers small and growing businesses professionally and spiritually. Founded in 2010 by three people who met at Harvard University, it initially started as a business accelerator funding programme. But after encountering corruption in Kenya, they saw little use in teaching business growth in the absence of ethics. This led to the birth of their programmes, such as the Entrepreneurship Academy that Kibara did.

Salome Ayugi, the Marketing Coordinator at Sinapis Kenya

According to Salome Ayugi, the Marketing Coordinator at Sinapis Kenya, the organisation’s focus is to help Christian entrepreneurs to develop a kingdom business framework, which teaches them how to incorporate their faith into the business without losing the goal of the business, which is to make profits. She cites cases of alumni of their programmes initiating Bible studies as well as morning praise and worship sessions in the workplace before starting the day’s work.

“We have two major programmes at Sinapis – the Aspire Launchpad, which is a nine-week training course for aspiring and beginner entrepreneurs, and the Entrepreneurship Academy, a 16-week plan that is more intensive and targets those already in business,” she adds.

With a vision to empower 10,000 entrepreneurs globally and “be an integral part of taking back the marketplace for the glory of the Kingdom”, Sinapis (which means mustard seed, from Mark 4:31-32) says as at last year, 72 per cent of those who have participated in their training programmes had reported refusing to give bribes, while 73 per cent reported a “complete change of mindset in how their faith relates to business”.

Kibara recalls the challenges he faced as a believer navigating the business environment after 22 years of employment as a food technology specialist. After registering his first company (not Midrov), he thought supermarkets would be the best option through which to sell his products. However, getting shelf space proved to be a problem.

“I paid Sh30,000 to an official of Uchumi Supermarkets to have my product displayed on their premises,” he says, adding that aside from the action undermining his faith, he never got the proceeds from the sale of his products.

Left: Wilson Kibara, the Managing Director of Midrow Kenya Ltd

“When you bribe, you kill the country,” he adds, painting a picture of how small acts of bribery can collectively bring down whole organisations, or even countries.  He says the mentorship and acceleration programme for Christians in business strengthened his ability to be ethical and catapulted his business management skills.

But this has come at a cost – Kibara has lost a lot of money in his efforts to avoid corrupt practices. In one incident, he ended up in a police station charged with operating a business illegally. The police had visited his factory in Ruiru, claimed the business was illegal and asked for some money to turn a blind eye. He refused and told them he was willing to pay any fines required as stipulated by the law.

The police arrested some of his workers and took some of his products as exhibits. “Ironically, none of the products they took were presented as evidence. My workers were charged with hawking so I paid the fine and we left,” he says.

John N.N. Ng’ang’a, chairman of Ethical Leadership Network (ELNET Kenya) is no stranger to the business environment. Through the organisation and as an individual, he has been active in mentoring and counselling business leaders, especially Christians, in maintaining competence and profitability while remaining ethical.

The sole purpose of ELNET, an independent organisation formerly under Life Ministries, is to nurture ethical Christian leaders in all facets of life. Business leaders who pass the ELNET assessment tests are awarded and their names posted on the organisation’s website.

“Our vision as ELNET is that everyone will know someone running an ethical business,” says Ng’ang’a, adding that this will serve as a testimony that it can be done, especially for those whose excuse for corrupt practices in business is that no one with integrity can succeed. He however does not foresee a corruption-free future and says Christians should not expect everyone to be righteous.

“Jesus said let the weeds grow together with the wheat,” he adds while cautioning those who decide to be ethical in their work to be prepared for an uphill task.

Doing things according to the law and having facts at hand is another way to ensure that your business runs successfully, as Dayo can attest. She recalls a time when traffic police stopped one of her drivers as he transported a shipment of garlic to a client in Eastleigh Estate in Nairobi. The policewoman questioned the quality of the garlic then demanded a bribe before she could allow the carrier to proceed.

But Dayo had all the required inspection documents intact and was confident she was in the right.

“I asked my driver to let me speak to the policewoman over the phone and asked her if there was anything wrong with the vehicle. She said no. I then asked her if her job description entailed inspecting the shipment and she was dumbfounded.”

Dayo advises Christians in business to visit all the relevant authorities and find out everything that is required by law before they start operating the business.

“In addition, get the contact details of the government official attending to you as a precaution so that if any documents are missing, that official will be responsible,” she concludes.