The country is still reeling from the ongoing investigation into the Shakahola Massacre where the congregation of the Good News International Church in Malindi led by Pastor Paul Mackenzie Nthenge were convinced to starve themselves and their children to death in order to meet their maker in heaven. As this tragedy unfolds, one recurring question is, how were these people convinced to kill themselves in such a horrific manner?

Well, this is unfortunately a tale as old as time. 

Cults, especially religious ones, have existed from time immemorial. And heinous crimes have been committed through the ability of their charismatic leaders to lead their followers down dark paths. But then, all the talk about cults made me remember a similar phenomenon proliferating in our society right under our noses. Can we take a minute to talk about the business cults we have mushrooming at 1000 km/hr all over the country?

Multi-Level Marketing scheme (MLMs), network marketing, pyramid schemes – or whichever name it’ll come to be known by in the future – is any business that relies on recruitment of members through a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme, rather than selling goods or services. Oftentimes, most members never make any significant amount of money but simply supply the higher-ups with balloon payments in bonuses.

MLMs have been in Kenya for decades now and the wave is not abating. New ones just keep popping up. You know the ones. Like those selling supplements which have been the most prolific. And it makes sense. In a country where everyone is one medical emergency away from poverty, we are willing to do anything to prevent getting to that point. Or when Western medicine fails, you’re only one friend or relative away from a recommendation to some pills that will magically cure you.

Other than the preying strategy pyramid schemes use to recruit people, the reason I see them as cults too is their ability to similarly brainwash their members into believing whatever hogwash they’re spreading. For example, for those selling supplements or other health-based products, it may go haywire fast. They’ll start you out schilling Vitamin D tablets and then in the blink of an eye, they’ll have you convincing your Facebook connects about ‘force fields’ and ‘protection zones’ that can be afforded by adorning a necklace with a pendant stuffed with a powder only they know the ingredients of.

The height of the COVID-19 pandemic was their time to shine and they must have made a killing in those two years. Not only by selling these health products but also providing the illusion to people who had been laid off that they would be able to make a living off this business model. How it works in most MLMs is that the recruitment of people into your team, or what’s usually referred to as a ‘downline’, gains you more money than simply selling a product because you get a cut off of what each member under you sells as well. 

It’s therefore sold as a way more lucrative venture to recruit as many people as you can than to focus on the more legitimate part of the business that at least involves selling products. They’d rather you sell the dream of success – through a show of top members who have become millionaires, live in mansions and whose lives were ‘transformed’ by the opportunity.

I have a close family member who has joined a few of these pyramid schemes and continues to get sucked in, always convinced that the next one will be the one to work. At first, it was one based on travel, now it’s one of the supplement ones. I used to try and speak to this person and explain how, because of how much product they are required to buy each month as members, the actual profit made from sales and members recruited might be marginal at best when the sheets are balanced. I asked them to at least start to track their spending versus their sales but they were convinced they would rake in some good money by the end of the year, in profit. We’re still waiting. 

These companies are actually in the business of selling hope, is what I realized. The hope that you will be rich one day. The hope that your destiny is in your hands and if you fail, it’s only because you didn’t try enough. And that means you can succeed next time if you just try harder. 

John Oliver did a great segment about MLMs in the United States 6 years ago where he highlighted how predatory these businesses are by targeting vulnerable populations in society – those who have been marginalized or left to languish at the tail end of the economic food chain. In America, the targets are immigrant populations and frustrated stay-at-home mums. 

In Kenya, the hunting ground is way more diverse because in a developing country like ours where more things go wrong than go right, almost everyone is desperate in some way or other. Be it the unemployed masses, especially the youth, or those who have jobs but are unsatisfied with their salaries. 

“How were these people brainwashed to this extent? It could never be me!” 

Several versions of this statement continue to proliferate social media as the horrific scope of the Shakahola Massacre continues to unfold. But I promise you, it could definitely be you. 

Maybe you wouldn’t fall for a religious cult, but the business cults could get you.

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