I heard this complaint several times during fieldwork: people ask me to be different from “the others” (i.e. other researchers) and to advertise the Kariobangi industrial cluster in a positive way. I never thought about it too much, but today I had a conversation during fieldwork that clarified the issue.

Basically, some entrepreneurs feel that researchers focus only on the challenges constraining growth in the local economy. Some talk about rampant poverty and its effects, others  about lack of human capital, non-compliance with government regulations, tax evasion, low product standards, low productivity, corruption, criminality, evil ethnic networks and what have you. On the other hand, entrepreneurs get cheered for their resilience and capacity to survive despite everything. So they become the highly romanticized ‘survival cluster’ which is loved in the field of development studies but rarely attracts new businesses to work or invest in the area.

If the study is successful (according to the researchers’ standards) the situation gets worse. The effect is that the number of MA and PhD students in the cluster increases exponentially,  so entrepreneurs get to fill out a million other questionnaires and the cluster becomes a “hot topic” in development studies; and that’s usually bad news. Potential clients, investors or business partners are not only neglected in the process. They may even gradually shun away from the cluster: who wants to do business with someone known for poverty and low quality of their products?

This might be an unknown collateral damage of development studies: over the long term, being a “hot topic” is a form of negative branding for the cluster. The problem is even worse for an area like Kariobangi that it is considered relatively advanced in the local economy, but tends to be depicted in terms of informality and marginality in most academic studies.  This is definitely bad marketing for local businesses.