Serah Munyiri: Tapping into diaspora billions

Serah Munyiri, co-founder Jambo List. Through Jambo List, she aims to promote and market goods and services to Kenyans in America. [File, Standard]

Serah Munyiri immigrated to America to further her studies in 1999. To make ends meet, she engaged in several hustles that also assisted her to educate her younger siblings back home.

After graduating with an economics and business management degree, she worked as a financial analyst before settling in the world of consulting and marketing. Through Jambo List, the business marketing company she co-founded with two other partners, Munyiri aims to promote and market goods and services to Kenyans in America.

She also assists Kenyans in the diaspora spend their money wisely by identifying viable investments in Kenya. Munyiri talks about the joys and challenges of working both with Kenyans in the US and business owners in Kenya.

What were your initial experiences in America?

I arrived in New York in January, in the middle of winter with a heavy sweater, sneakers and $750 (Sh95,625). I required $1,000 (Sh127,500) to see me through my studies and buy books.

Needless to say that I was homeless by the second week! I had to work different jobs to sustain myself in a new country.

Through these small hustles, I managed to not only educate my siblings but buy a home as well after being housed by another Kenyan lady for nine months. Such experiences, however, taught me humility - a quality that I would need later on in my business life.

How did you become a social mobiliser?

I immersed myself in community work where I found myself organising activities by people from my rural home, Othaya, in Nyeri County.

I organised summer barbeques and other social activities that attracted other Kenyans beyond Othaya or Nyeri.

I can say that I know almost all Kenyans in New Jersey, where I live. I have also served in the management of several organisations, helping Kenyans in America. Little did I know that such small acts would later turn out into a movement bringing Kenyans in America together.

Why are you so passionate about Kenyans in America supporting businesses owned by fellow Kenyans?

I listened to a podcast by a rabbi who said that he had never seen a broke Jew. Why? Because they support fellow Jews’ hustles. Even when a Jew wants repairs done at home or on business premises, he will search all over for a fellow Jew.

It is said that a dollar circulates for 25 days within the Jewish community and 18 days in Indian-owned businesses. Unfortunately, when an African opens a business, some are sceptical about offering their support. The dollar must circulate among our businesses longer than it does.

And that is the reason why you co-founded Jambo List, right?

Exactly. It is basically a business directory where we list all Kenyan-owned businesses. For example, we direct a Kenya in California on where to get the best chapatis and roast meat within his area.

We also connect businesspeople coming from Kenya with the diaspora market. We understand the business models of both groups and can mitigate issues that come up. We especially take on an advisory role and caution Kenyans in America should we feel that the money they send back home for investments is not being misappropriated.

How do you do due diligence to ensure such malpractices do not happen?

We have the means to do background checks especially when it comes to investments in real estate. This is the key area where Kenyans in the diaspora keep on losing their hard-earned cash. Through our Kenyan staff, we can visit any property and ascertain if it is legitimate or not.

Kenyans in America will only invest when they are sure of the business environment back home. The problem comes when one is dealing with relatives who should be trusted with carrying out the wishes of their kin here in the US. It is unfortunate when such ones squander cash meant for investment purposes.

You have organised a business expo in New Jersey towards the end of May 2023. What do you hope to achieve?

This is actually the second expo we will be organising, having had the first one in 2022. We have invited Kenyan business owners and managers, mostly in the property market to come and interact directly with buyers in America.

Such face-to-face meetings minimise mistrust between the two parties. We want to go further and invite lawyers who can help close any deals and reduce legal risks involved in property transactions.

We will also try and get accountants who can help with taxation and other financial matters peculiar to the Kenyan market. In the future, we would like to replicate these ideas in the hospitality market.

How is the government assisted you in such endeavours?

We are actively engaging both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We would like to have a clear path to investments including how to transfer retirement funds without penalties.

We are happy that the new government has established a Diaspora desk within the Foreign Affairs ministry. However, it can be frustrating, especially when we don’t get simple services delivered on time. For instance, we have a friend who applied for an identity card in November 2021 and is yet to get one. Her passport expired and she cannot renew it without the identity card. In addition, policies made in Nairobi are enforced overseas without input from those affected. 

Do you feel Kenyans in the diaspora are not appreciated enough?

Sometimes. We feel Kenya is not harnessing the human capital in the diaspora enough. You see dance troupes at Kenyan airports entertaining foreign dignitaries yet you have never seen those Kenyans who remit billions from the diaspora get such treatment. When Jewish children in America visit Israel every year, they are invited to dine with the country’s top leadership as a token of appreciation. In contrast, nobody recognises our children when they visit Kenya.

How are you nurturing the next generation of Kenyans in America to ensure the continuity of remittances to Kenya?

Since 2019, we have pioneered a movement known as Empowering People of African Descent (EPAD).

It mentors young people through different stages of life, especially those graduating from American colleges.

For example, we have Harvard graduates who are serving in high positions within the American medical system.

Such young minds can be used to train Kenyan nurses whenever they come to Kenya. Our children are the next remitters of cash to the Kenyan economy. We should tap into such human capital even now.

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