Dos and Don’ts When Recruiting a Rural Workforce in East Africa

Hiring a rural workforce in an emerging market comes with all sorts of challenges as OnFrontiers expert and social entrepreneur Nat Robinson soon found out. Nat spent nearly five years as CEO of Juhudi Kilimo, an agricultural microfinance company based in Nairobi. He’s also the author of Creating a Cash Cow in Kenya: Adventures in Starting a Social Business and Living in Africa. Nat wrote up some tricks of the trade and methods to avoid based on his experience:

I serve as a mentor for the Unreasonable Institute East Africa program in Uganda, and I get a lot of questions from entrepreneurs about the challenges of recruiting rural sales or services staff in East Africa. It is a tough problem. I do not have any real answers. I can at least share some of the things I tried when I was CEO at Juhudi Kilimo. My company operated 20 rural branch offices and employed 175 employees to provide financial services to some extremely remote communities across Kenya. I spent years traveling to these offices and trying to find the best ways to operate a low-cost service business.

Hiring and retaining rural staff in Kenya (especially managers) was a constant headache. We faced a limited talent pool for young and qualified loan officers. Most rural youth move to cities to seek opportunities or to attend school. Those who stay could get much higher salaries at the rural branches of big banks or international NGOs. Here are some of the things I tried:

Target the domestic diaspora

We found a niche in Nairobi with young professionals and graduates who grew up in rural Kenya’s “up country” and then moved to the city to complete a university degree. These candidates demonstrated their interest in relocating closer to their family in smaller towns across the country. The cost-of-living advantages alone are substantial. However, we learned not to send a loan officer to work directly with a home community. It helped our business if our employee could speak the local dialect, but letting a loan officer provide loans to his or her own extended family members was never a good idea for obvious reasons.

Support advancement opportunities

One of the challenges of sending young, ambitious professionals to work in smaller towns is the lack of part-time opportunities for higher education. Some of the larger towns in Kenya had satellite campuses that were tied to the national universities and offered night or weekend courses. For the more remote villages, the only options were distance learning programs or online courses. Organizations like the African Management Initiative can provide fantastic remote learning platforms. We encouraged our employees by providing extremely popular staff loans for education.

Beware of poaching managers

Recruiting rural managers is much more difficult than finding entry-level staff. We spent a lot of time (and money) grooming our junior staff to become managers, but this took a minimum of two years to complete. The faster option is to poach managers from competitor microfinance organizations or rural banks. Unfortunately, these employees tended to carry a lot of bad company culture baggage or a sense of entitlement with them.

Leverage other resources

I served on the steering committee of the TechnoServe STRYDE Program, which develops young professionals all over Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. We hired many loan officers through this fantastic program. We also established recruitment relationships with Strathmore University and the University of Nairobi, but some of our best recruits came through sites such as BrighterMonday. We did not have much success with any of the professional recruitment firms in Nairobi. I used Manpower to help with the initial screening of applicants sourced through websites or newspapers. This saved days of reviewing resumes.

This rural recruitment problem does get easier. Most of our new hires came from referrals from our existing staff after we had built up a reputation and a larger rural operation.


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Check out a related OnFrontiers blog: 5 Tips for Building and Motivating Your Team.

Featured image of loan officers in Kenya was taken by Nat Robinson.

One thought on “Dos and Don’ts When Recruiting a Rural Workforce in East Africa

  1. Though it was a different era when microfinance landscape in Kenya was a new horizon, as an entry level officer at Faulu Kenya Microfinance (Now Faulu Kenya Bank) I had opportunity of working both in Nairobi city’s slum areas, suburbs and rural communities building a varied community finance groups portfolio with similarly differing challenges and rewards. I concur with Nat on all points!
    What made a great employer and thus staff stay for reasonable stints of time included:
    1. Provision of a conducive environment for working and learning.
    2. A clear career progression path and opportunities grow into the next level.
    3. Customized staff loans towards personal development.
    4. An industry standard benefits package that included especially health insurance.
    5. A performance rewards system pitting branches and portfolio products against each other and encouraging professional development.

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