Say you woke up today, a chilly Thursday morning and went to work as you normally do every day. Busy at work, you hear a breaking news announcement:

“According to information reaching our news desk this morning, an earthquake has just hit the Nation of Nepal causing the death of 8,800 people and leaving 22,000 more injured, with a majority of them being trapped under the rubble. Property worth close to a trillion shillings has been lost. The president called it the darkest day the nation had ever seen as he appealed for urgent humanitarian aid.”

That’s A LOT of people (a glaring understatement) gone in a jiffy! You might feel sad and a bit anxious but that’s only as far as it goes. Imagine writing a notice to your customers telling them you’d close your hardware retail shop for the day to mourn with the people of Nepal… It sounds a bit off, doesn’t it?

God forbid, but later on the same day, your very teary mother calls and breaks the news that your dear sister had an accident and succumbed to injuries sustained thirty minutes earlier. Suddenly, the situation changes. You might and probably will need to take the day off.

It is just one sister that passed on but you’ll feel her death harder than all the 8,800 lives combined. What if I told you that two years ago, the Nepal disaster actually happened? Do you see yourself tossing and turning tonight on account of this discovery? I bet not.


Because of the monkey number and I’ll tell you why.


It starts with a successful businessman by the name Bill Gore. As he was doing routine checks on his factory he noticed something peculiar: if the number of staff in a single plant exceeded 150, it would quickly get very clumsy. He then began introducing an upper limit of 150 staff per plant to make certain “everyone, knew everyone.” That way he could prevent such mishaps. His business model sparked a scientific research, which gave birth to the Monkey Number (or Dunbar’s number if you’d like to sound a lot smarter).

Simply put, it is the maximum number of people you can consciously relate with in your head. Beyond that, your relationships become fickle and basically, dysfunctional. Dunbar (the scientist behind the name) noticed that monkeys and other primates that existed in social groupings had a maximum number of members per group. In fact, he soon discovered that this number was connected to the brain size of the animal; bigger brains = bigger numbers. Turns out, Darwin was right. We’re just glorified monkeys – where our less intelligent cousins had a limit of 50, we had 150.

Long story short, if you were to list down everyone you care for/connect with family and friends included, it is certain you’d only have about 150 names. Beyond that, all the other 4,850 friends you have on Facebook, your fellow tribesmen, people in the Republic of Nepal; in your head become faceless labels, statistics and stereotypes.

Read on.


Monkey see monkey do: The Monkey Society

I have a friend who used to sneak out of the office on Fridays (under the guise of ‘fieldwork’) and head out for happy hour at a local pub. As he sat there on the barstool with a friend, he’d narrate just how smart he was for sneaking out, getting away with it and even getting paid extra for it (he would earn extra every time he would go out to the field). Occasionally, he would manage to overstate his expenses while “at the field” and make a few extra coins. Sly guy, huh?

He was also very vocal about the misdeeds of the government. The brunt of his anger was directed at “those politicians who sit there and do nothing else but plunder our money.” I remember when the NYS scandal came to light, he called out the lyin’, thievin’ politicians with such ardour that you’d have been quick to believe he was the leader of the opposition. To himself and in his circles, he was just another patriotic citizen looking out for his country.

Put him and the politician whose blood he bays for under a magnifying glass and slowly you’ll start seeing things differently. You begin to see parallels.

The politician is probably a family man who goes to church every Sunday and tithes 10% of his earnings with the hopes of financial breakthrough, wakes up disgruntled that it’s Monday again and has to go to work, will sometimes worry as to how he will pay school fees for his last born son, is afraid he could lose his job and has probably worn socks with peeping toes, much to the embarrassment of his wife. He will also sneak out of the office on Friday to watch an Arsenal match. Just like my friend. In many ways, they’re very much alike.

Yet for some reason, this reality comes as a surprise to many. It even starts to sound like I’m trying to whitewash the lyin’ thievin’ politicians by acknowledging their humanness.

Well, it happens that I’m not. I’m trying to present an altogether different angle of seeing things. F. Scott Fitzgerald would often say that the hallmark of a brilliant mind, was the ability to live with two conflicting ideas that shouldn’t exist together. That a man can be Idi-Amin-Dada-bad, eating out people’s brains and whatnot but the same man will lovingly cuddle his daughter to sleep every night and get his wallet stolen by petty thieves just like everyone else. He is no less human than you are.

I’ll admit it is easy to see ourselves as people who are fallible but harder to accept that politicians are too. In our heads we’ve grown to only see them as soulless corrupt leeches, sucking away at our already woozy financial lifelines. We never at any one point entertain the thought of seeing them as people who make the same schoolboy mistakes as we do. But perhaps we should. Your petty-cash pilfering is a full blown-NYS-type scandal for the next person. Where lazily delaying to submit an assignment will attract a few lashes of the tongue from your supervisor, for someone else the result is a nationwide crisis. In the end, if you can’t be trusted with little, not much will change if you were made cabinet secretary today. The corrupt politician is you and I. Only in a bigger office, with a better-looking business card.

That racist, serial killer, tribalist, thief, liar – are all people like you playing out their lives to a different storyline – so are the brilliant doctors, artists and presidents making our lives better. I guess my point in all of this is that we’re all just people. It is effortless to blame our problems on ‘systems and corporations and politicians’ out there, but the reality is that the buck stops with you. If you want a better, more peaceful Kenya, it starts with you. If you’re a cabbage seller, do it right. If you’re a president, do it right.

Easier said than done.


Monkey Business: The Monkey Number and Money

During one of those strenuous days at work, Madatally Manji left for lunch looking overly dull. He’d been that way for some time now. You see, Mr Manji’s bakery, the one that he had started from his bedroom, faced closure, The fault was not his. No. Because of the ongoing WWII, wheat had grown dangerously scarce forcing rationing of wheat flour. Bakeries had resorted to mixing whatever portions they got with Maize flour but the result was terrible bread. At that point, his business was facing imminent ruin.

On getting home, he found that his mother had made chapatis. Despite using the same mix of wheat and maize flour as he normally did, her chapatis were remarkably good. Mighty a baker as he was, he couldn’t tell why. So he asked her and she told him. The solution turned out to be as unembellished as a nun’s prayer; adding plenty of oil when kneading the dough did the trick.

The rest, as they say, is history.


Start a small business today with a good product. In your bedroom, perhaps.

You’ll find that gradually people will warm up to you. You’ll be that brave entrepreneur that ventured out sails on high, to solve society’s problems. Your customers will greet you with effusive smiles and buy from you, happy to support you. Assuming you’re good at what you do and you know how to keep the love coming, you’ll gradually start expanding. From your small bedroom, you’ll grow to a stall, stall to a mall, mall to a sprawl of factories and so on and so forth. Countless business people have similar storylines.

The problem is when they start to grow we slowly disconnect from them. Back again to the monkey number. There are only so many businesses/brands we can develop genuine affection for and most of them are small founder-run businesses: your hairdresser who always knows what to do, the very trustworthy lady who does your laundry, the milkman etc. Somehow, when they add more people under their wing, we stop seeing them as people trying to earn an income. We start to see them as monoliths of concrete that live to steal our bundles, pollute our rivers and tender in shady deals. I agree, there are those who deserve it but most simply constitute a group of people working together to eke a living.

As a business owner, you’ll find relating to your customers at this point becoming an uphill task and if you’re not careful, you could easily succumb to low sales or stiff competition. In a day and age when the world is truly our oyster, this shouldn’t be the case. Previously, businesses lacked the time, means and budgets to maintain a conversation with their customers. Not today. There are plenty of ways under the broad umbrella of marketing and in particular digital marketing that you can use.

You should endeavour to give the customer a front-seat in your business. They should know and feel that they are part of your wins, gains and even pains. Storytelling proves to a brilliant way to do that considering that almost every business has a story behind it worth telling no matter how simple, just like House of Manji‘s above. In conclusion, out of sight out of mind. We shouldn’t lose great businesses because they trailed too far from their customers’ memory.