The effectiveness of the well-known corporate governance practices may not be universal due to fundamental differences in the environments under which firms operate. By using hand-collected data from all the non-financial firms listed on the unexplored East African frontier markets (i.e., Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), we examine the effect of board characteristics on the performance of firms. Our results show that board size has a negative and significant effect on firm performance. The presences of foreigners and civil servants on the board play positive roles on financial performance, where the agency and resource dependence theories apply. Further, we find that board members with higher education also contribute to firm performance. These findings still hold when we consider the 2008–2009 financial crisis period. Overall, we show that in a business climate where ownership is largely dominated by few shareholders, the conventional governance mechanisms do not work effectively.