Kenya has begun tentatively reopening its economy, but like many countries it has seen foreign investment fall significantly because of the pandemic.

Leveraging international partnerships and focusing on domestic opportunities will be key to the recovery, says Moses Ikiara, managing director of the Kenya Investment Authority.

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Q: What’s life like in Kenya at the moment?

We have relaxed some restrictions, such as movement into and out of Nairobi and other [Kenyan] counties. Domestic freight has restarted and we expect international flights to start at the beginning of August.

Places of worship have begun a phased re-opening, while restaurants and bars have reopened but must follow protocols. Schools remain closed.

Q: How have you and the KenInvest team adjusted?

We've not had any staff members who have been infected – thank God – but know some friends who have been affected. So far we’ve been lucky.

We have been more reactive than active, I must admit. After the initial shock in March and April, most people were fighting for their survival because nobody was sure.

We have seen a significant drop in the number of projects we are registering, but not as bad as we thought.

We have learned to use digital tools and how to do meetings through Zoom and other platforms. We [also] have a one-stop shop for clients who have aftercare issues.

We are managing well, but I want to move towards being more proactive [such as hosting webinars for investors and targeting investors from certain countries].

It’s been a learning curve as many of our staff were not very proficient in these technologies [beforehand].

Q: What key lessons have you learned during the crisis?

The power of technology has become very apparent. For example, we are negotiating a free trade agreement with the US at the moment.

We’ve [also] seen the importance of having a strong domestic supply capacity. At the start of the crisis, we could not import and export, and needed to find a way to have a good level of dependence domestically.

We've seen a lot of innovation. Micro enterprises have been producing masks and hand sanitisers; one company has been manufacturing temperature monitoring devices.

The crisis has shown the strength of our domestic business and investment sector. In terms of our strategy now, we’re going to be putting much more emphasis on domestic investors.

You [also] see the value of partners, especially for developing countries. We didn’t have enough laptops for our staff to work from home, and didn’t have the budget to pay for more.

Our partners like the International Trade Center [and others], supported us through equipment and training. Partnerships have helped massively – you need friends in times like this.

Q: How have you supported Kenya’s start-ups during the crisis?

Our mandate is to promote and facilitate private investment in Kenya, both from domestic and foreign investors. In our strategic plan, one of the six pillars is building the multinationals of tomorrow by supporting micro and small enterprises.

We have a programme which supports micro and small enterprises, where we try to match them with larger companies, and try to devise somewhere they can get capacity to improve the quality of their products.

I was part of the National Business Response Centre, which was looking at the kind of stimulus package you need to give businesses to help them survive.

The main role we played was to advise the ministries in charge of the measures to support start-ups, SMEs and bigger companies.

Q: What is your advice to other economic development leaders?

The first advice is to think more, and see what an IPA can do without exposing their staff.

If they don’t have technology or digital platforms, invest in them as we don’t know how long this pandemic will be around.

We are going to give more attention to domestic investors than we have done before, because we are still in a period of a crisis when people cannot travel.

Dr Moses Ikiara is the managing director of the Kenya Investment Authority (KenInvest)

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