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Cleaning Up

Robert Okubo, a tour operator-turned-cleaner, has given up his American dream—which was fast turning into a nightmare—and brought his business home to Kenya.



Robert Okubo switches on his vacuum cleaner and blows a cloud of dust from the boot of a grey BMW outside his office in Hurlingham, a suburb west of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. This is his third car to clean on this hot January afternoon and he has four orders to steam-clean floor carpets in the bustling city.

Many Kenyans may dread the choking dust that comes with this drought season, but Okubo is clearly making money out of removing it from cars, carpets, offices and houses.

Besides cars and furniture, Okubo, through his company aptly named 200Degrees, cleans the grout between floor tiles, kitchen and bathroom tiles, concrete (terrazzo), roofing tiles, pavements, mattresses, pillows and car interiors. It is a business he has run on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Okubo, who runs an identical steam cleaning business in New York, returned to Kenya in 2011 to open a subsidiary of 200Degrees. He is among an army of Africans who have made the Western world their second homes, but who are now returning home to invest their earnings. For many like Okubo, it’s a matter of survival—running away from the US, which was worst hit by the financial crisis that began in 2008.

He read in many reports that the business environment in Kenya had improved markedly and decided to try it out.

“Things have improved,” says Okubo, 43. “I registered the company in a day and getting licenses wasn’t much of a hassle.”

According to the 2011 Doing Business report by the World Bank, which tracks the ease of operating business globally, Kenya’s rank has been falling over the past three years, although it was among the top 10 reformers worldwide in 2008.

In last year’s report, East Africa’s biggest economy with 40 million people came in at 98, dropping four places since 2010, out of the 183 countries studied. It is this kind of optimism that is attracting hordes of entrepreneurs.

The report says Kenya made only two reforms: reducing the time it takes to get the memorandum and articles of association stamped and harmonizing tax. Registration procedures were cut and records at the registrar digitized. It also implemented an electronic cargo tracking system and linked it to the Kenya Revenue Authority’s electronic data interchange.

These, among other reforms, are luring Kenyans in the diaspora with money to spare to invest back home.

Okubo left Kenya 16 years ago to chase the American Dream after his tour and travel business was snuffed out by travel advisories issued by Washington in the wake of the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. In the US, he landed a job with Stanley Steamer, a carpet cleaning conglomerate, where he was paid on commission.

“What caught my eye was that my truck was giving this company about $400,000 a year and we were six trucks in my station, and I was getting only $4,000,” he says.

So after three years he started 200Degrees, named after the high cleaning temperature used, which earned $6,000 in the first year. In the second year, turnover jumped to $100,000 and doubled last year. He quit his full-time job to focus on his new business. “I realized I was living the American Dream,” he adds.

But when the economic recession struck, revenues dropped 15%. Paying staff on commission saved 200Degrees from the pain of a hefty payroll, but that wasn’t good enough to keep the business profitable. So to grow revenues, he cut his prices.

In 2009, when Okubo visited Kenya to see his relatives and friends, he was impressed at the way the economy was being run. But he discovered something else: there were no professional cleaning companies. “I decided to give it a shot,” he says. “Kenya is warm all year round, as opposed to US where most of our work is in seven months of summer.”

In just over a year, the Kenyan subsidiary of 200Degrees, is turning over $40,000, and retains more than 15 workers.

Professional cleaning is a new concept in Kenya, making Okubo’s business a little hard because he has to do more in terms of marketing and creating awareness about his service and why it comes at a higher price. “The biggest mistake that people make is using too much soap and failing to rinse it out completely,” he says. “What many people don’t realize is that if you don’t completely rinse out the soap, it keeps cleaning and suds a lot. Worse still, many vigorously brush out stains from a carpet, pushing the dirt even deeper.”

The marketing response has been improving, growing from a handful of clients to over 100. “It’s not easy,” Okubo said recently, as he waited in the lunch-hour traffic jam on Uhuru Highway, the main artery road to Westlands, a Nairobi suburb where some of Kenya’s richest reside.

After 20 minutes, the car has barely moved 10 metres. Then the phone rings. He twists his nose and grins. “Oh, no!” he exclaims, banging the steering, which unleashes a horn that rattles other motorists in the gridlock. “The client just postponed the job, man.”

Traffic jams are a major issue here, burning fuel worth $50 million every year. This has forced the government to intervene, and it is investing about $1.5 billion on infrastructure to revamp roads and establish a modern commuter train in the capital. Upgrade of the key 40km road connecting Thika, an industrial hub east of Nairobi, into the first regional superhighway is almost complete.

When I first interviewed Okubo in August 2011, he was serving clients in just few sections of Nairobi. Six months later, he has spread his business to major towns, including the coastal city of Mombasa, where he opened a branch in early January. “Business is not bad,” he says. “We are getting inquiries from neighboring countries and we are really thinking about going regional.”

The rains are expected in Kenya from March and Okubo will have nothing to lose. It will be business as usual, he says, or even more because of the mud. “Cleaning is a basic need. No one wants to stay in a dirty environment. Those who do so pay the price through higher medical bills.”

The job has turned into a passion and as Okubo sees me off, he remembers something. “Chief,” he signals as I turn the car ignition keys. “I forgot to tell you our slogan. ‘We don’t cut corners, we clean them!’” 


31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help




The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business




Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.

Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.

“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”

Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking ediblesher celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.

Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.

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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.

The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.

“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”

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Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age



By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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