Negotiation in Kenya

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This article was originally published on the CUBE IN platform of the van de EU, meant for SME’s in emerging markets

Why should I read this document? 

Negotiating in a foreign country (and possibly a foreign language) is always a big challenge:  what are the rules of the game? The author of the article is a development sociologist and a consultant on intercultural management, with a specialization on Africa. She has lived and worked on the African continent for ten years and, living in the Netherlands today, she visits the continent regularly, both for business as well as for private affairs.


The 5 most important things to know about negotiations in Kenya (if you only read one section, this is what you should read)

  1. Never get angry. Anger breaks the relationship and the deal will most probably be off.
  2. Negotiating in itself is an act of relationship building.
  3. Take your time.
  4. Negotiation is an exchange of favours: be creative, be open to requests and make sure you have some additional favours in the back of your mind.
  5. Negotiations in Kenya can be tough; don’t show your cards too easily.

Short Introduction

In this article we take a close look at two intercultural negotiation models, and these two instruments will allow us to explain the Kenyan negotiation culture as compared to other cultures. 

Firstly, Coene & Jacobs have described in their book “Negotiate like a local” seven different mindsets for negotiation around the world.  They based these 7 mindsets on Hofstede’s 6D model of national culture and on Wursten’s 7 mental images. In this article the Reciprocators mindset, the one most often found in Kenya, will be described. 

Secondly, Meertens has developed a model of international negotiation in his book “Do we have a deal?” Here we can identify various factors that need to be taken into account when negotiating in another cultural context, in this case the Kenyan context.


As negotiators, the Kenyans are described to have the mindset of so-called ‘Reciprocators’ (Coene & Jacobs, 2017). What does it mean to negotiate like a reciprocator? One of the most important aspects of this way of negotiating is that doing business together is perceived as an exchange of favours to each other. There is no fixed pricing list, with a discount being calculated after a fixed threshold. Discounts are given in the moment when you feel that the other person deserves it, because he/she has done something for you or because you want to ask for another favour yourself. The general idea is: “You do something for me and I’ll do something for you.”

Therefore, it is advisable to prepare your negotiations very well. What is it that you can offer and keep those in the back of your mind. Start with an offer which may be quite different than your final bid and change the offer in slow steps, while the different parties draw closer to a beneficial agreement for all. Try to think outside the box: you may think of other benefits, favours or services you can provide. Part of the deal may be an introduction to an important person, you may think of extra training, or either your interlocuteur or yourself may be able to pay in kind. Very often, more business is also promised as an enticing future, although it is not always executed or even taken seriously, but it still has value in the moment of negotiation. In negotiation terms: provide for a large ZOPA (your Zone of Possible Agreement or Zone of Opportunity). Be flexible and creative. 

Apart from the preparation and thinking through a large ZOPA, it may be possible that your negotiation partner has a different need that you had not thought of. Be sure to pay attention to such requests, even if it is communicated in an indirect way. You don’t need to reply immediately and, in case you want to think about it, it’s okay to say that’s what you will do.

As we’ve seen in the article ‘Building trust and relationship in Kenya’, in this collectivist society, building a relationship is very important. While in many other cultures people want the negotiation process to be over as quickly as possible (after which you can share a drink or a meal together to celebrate the new deal), many Kenyans consider the negotiation process a relationship building process in itself. Hence, people take their time. They may exchange compliments and light (flattering) jokes, tell stories, or deviate from the negotiation and come back to it again after some time. At times, it may even seem as if they’ve forgotten the negotiation completely. The challenge for people from many other cultures is not to get stressed, not to yearn to get it over with, but to be patient and enjoy the good company. Try to tell some stories about your own successes and the extent of your network, give compliments, and win the other person over so that he/she decides to  do business with you.

Hence, while negotiation can be a linear process elsewhere, it is often a meandering road in Kenya. It can take a long time, trust and relationship need to be established, and some steps may be revisited regularly.

It is also true that in this business culture the definition of corruption may be somewhat different than in the western world. For instance, gifts or specific services may be provided in this exchange of favours to each other and at least some meals or drinks should be shared. At the same time, Kenyans understand when the exchange is entering the realm of corruption very well and we may find activities which are clearly perceived as corruption in local eyes as well. This is the challenge for foreign business: on one hand you have to adapt to local custom, which makes you slide away from what you’re used to. Indeed it’s good to be open-minded, yet on the other hand you should remain conscious of the law as well as the values of your own business. You wouldn’t be the first company from Europe who actually lost their own dignity with the excuse of culture.

In order to prevent you from falling into this trap, know and define your BATNA (your Best Alternative To No Agreement) very well: . Your BATNA helps you to protect your own values and it’s good advice to think it through in your preparations. 

The Negotiation table

Negotiation in a different cultural setting than your own is steered by two dynamics: 

  1. the cultural differences between you and the other players
  2. the different factors of negotiation, independently from the context

Meertens in his book “Do we have a deal?” (2017) has made these two dynamics into a model that functions like a Chinese dinner table with a turning plate in the middle. This allows you to look at every factor from a specific cultural perspective. In this paragraph, we will spin the negotiation table and look at the different factors of negotiation in relation to the cultural make up of Kenya.









Figure 1: The negotiation Table (Meertens, 2017)

In the inner table, the most relevant factors that concern Kenya, are the following: 

  • Factor 1: Goal of the negotiation: contract or relationship?
  • Factor 2: Persons: which persons are sitting around the table and what is their role?
  • Factor 3: What is the basic attitude and style of negotiators?
  • Factor 4: How do the negotiators communicate?
  • Factor 5: What does time mean and how time sensitive are the negotiators?

Factor 1:  The goal of the negotiation

As explained above, it is clear that in this collectivist culture, the ultimate goal of a negotiation is not a contract, it is the relationship that is built up in the process. 

Factor 2: Who are the people involved?

As was also discussed in other articles on this platform, Kenya is a large power distance society with relatively more hierarchy than other countries. The deals are closed with the person of the highest rank, he (sometimes she) will always make the final decision. It may be possible to prepare the negotiations with a lower ranked person, but be prepared that this person needs to verify with the boss and it may be wise to keep a final, more interesting offer in reserve for this last step. The hierarchy also makes it necessary for women or for younger persons to explicitly state who they are and stipulate their role, so they will not be considered as junior staff.

Generally,  important people rarely travel alone and it adds to your standing in case you have either a colleague or a junior staff with you. In addition, people often sit with more people at the negotiation table, rather than alone. It’s also possible to take local contacts along to build this sense of entourage. As a consequence, it is not always clear who the people sitting at the other end of the table are and what their role is. Patience and close observation will serve you well.

Factor 3: Basic attitude and style

So far we’ve gone over two of the three dimensions of national culture of Hofstede: collectivism and power distance. A third dimension that is at play is the finding that Kenya has a more masculine or achievement oriented culture than most other countries in Africa. It means that Kenyans are more tempted to try out new things, there’s initiative to take risks and they don’t need to think through every detail before they embark on a new journey. At the same time, negotiations can be tough and competitive. Rather than being integrative and enlarging the pie together (win-win), Kenyans have a tendency to negotiate more distributively, in a search to cut the pie in unequal parts (win-lose). This may seem in contradiction with the strive for building up a relationship and granting each other favours. However, as Meertens points out: a relationship is different from a friendship.

This, together with a possible power play, makes it necessary to move slowly and carefully. In some cases, you will find that people have stepped into the negotiations without actually having the ability or means to make it to the end. Moreover, keep in mind that people from Kenya don’t put their cards on the table at the beginning of a negotiation, so you should also hold your cards towards your chest and make sure to always leave yourself with future options.

Factor 4: Communication

In this collectivist culture we find a formal and a high context communication style. The explicit words are less important than the implicit meaning; the words that are not being spoken play a large role. Observe and listen very carefully. Listen to the silence as well. Some drama and acting are all acceptable, as long as you part on good terms. What is definitely not acceptable, though, is getting genuinely angry. Anger will break the relationship and it may not be possible to restore it. So do remain calm under any circumstance.

Factor 5: Time

Effectiveness is generally considered more important than efficiency. Negotiations can take quite some time and Kenyans are more keen to make sure all the different aspects are taken into consideration and the right steps to build the relationship are being taken. Meertens calls it ‘taking some swimming pool time’, or to build up the relationship slowly. Take time out for yourself to reflect as well as making time for eating or drinking together with your potential partner, to have a chance to talk about other things. 

Time can also be used as a power play. The person or group with more power may be late or leave early, leaving the other person waiting. If you’re in the waiting role, bring a book to occupy yourself and don’t get upset.

As said, negotiating in another culture is often challenging, but if you’re able to take these aspects into consideration, it might be a somewhat tiring, yet very rewarding thing to do.

Short case study 

A Dutch/Kenyan medical team wanted to set up a training institute for medical personnel. In order to do so, they needed a piece of land. They got into contact with the owner of some land which seemed to be up for sale and which they thought would be suitable. They entered into contact with the owner and during their visits, the initiators would always come with three or four people from their organisation. On the first visit, the team was welcomed warm heartedly and they sat down with the owner and some members of his family. They chatted about all kinds of things, while they also walked the land. At one point during the walk, one of the health workers was taken to the side by the owner. It turned out the father of the land owner had a medical issue and some advice on his condition was provided by the potential buyer and team member. 

On a second occasion, the team and the owner’s family sat down and shared a meal together. The conversation was about different things: the local economy, some family background, and information about the area and its communities There was some talk about the content of the plans, but the conversation didn’t go into the deal to be made. On the fringe of the conversation, the issue of the father surfaced again and this time the health worker promised to make sure a medical evaluation could be undertaken. 

Before the next visit, this medical evaluation was executed and it was clear that the father actually had to go through surgery. However, in a country like Kenya, with a very challenged medical infrastructure, it is very difficult for people to get access to affordable surgery and people may die while waiting.

During the next visit, the team continued on their relationship building journey, again with food and drinks and talks about the local news and the needs of the surrounding communities. Again in the confinement of a side conversation between one of the team members and a family member, it was mentioned that the team would do its best to find a place for the surgery to be done and at a low cost. And so it happened. The potential buyers didn’t pay for the surgery, but they did take steps to find a solution for the issue that had been put forward to them.

After another two to three visits to the owner of the land and his family, the actual deal negotiations on the price and conditions only took a few minutes. Almost like a ‘by the way’; something on the side and as if this had not been the reason for these get-togethers. In fact, it wasn’t. As we saw, the deal or contract is not the objective; it is the relationship itself which is the goal and the fact that the team had been able to solve a big issue for the owner was all part of the build-up of this relationship. 

In the end, the deal was closed, the father lived for another ten years in good health into his eighties, the training institute was built on the land and the relationship remained intact. This is not interpreted as corruption in Kenya, rather, it is seen in a very positive sense. It is an act of humanity, making use of the parameters at hand.


References & Interesting Links

  • African Studies Centre’s Country Portal:
  • Coene, J.P., Jacobs, M. Negotiate like a local. 7 Mindsets to increase your success rate in international business. Helsinki: Hofstede Insights, 2017.
  • Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., Minkov, M. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010
  • Meertens, J.V. Do we have a deal? Succesvol onderhandelen in andere culturen. Zaltbommel: Haystack, 2017
  • Wursten, H. The 7 Mental Images of National Culture. Helsinki: Hofstede Insights, 2019.
  • iGuide Kenya:


The original article can be found here: Negotiation in Kenya.