forerunner entrepreneurs in Kenya

It is said that for one to know where they are going, it is important to understand where they are coming from. In the case of entrepreneurs in Kenya, it is necessary to understand the challenges, successes of previous generation in order to have a solid basis for future growth. This post is like a book review of “A profile of Kenyan Entrepreneurs” by Wanjiru Waithaka and Evans Majeni. The two authors have done a good job of trying to document some of the environment that some of the forerunner entrepreneurs faced in Kenya. They come close to documentary named “The men who built America” detailing the work of American forerunner entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford, J.P Morgan, John Rockefeller and Carnegie. I believe in telling of stories. That is how information, lessons are passed from one generation to another. As I said in an earlier post (Here), it is important for those who came before us to document their failures and successes in order to provide context to those who come after them. It’s a fascinating tale of the business environment before independence, the coffee boom, the africanisation policy in 1970s, political corruption and new hope in 2000s. The book covers more than a dozen entrepreneurs such as Ibrahim Ambwere, Sunil Shah, Esther Muchemi among others but i only review three in this post.

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S.K Macharia: A compelling account of struggles and successes of a pioneer in many things in Kenya. Went to study in USA under very challenging conditions, (took a bus from Nairobi to Kampala to Juba then to river Nile then to Benghazi,  before crossing the Mediterranean by ship to London and finally USA, a 3 months journey!!).  He came back and worked in civil service for a while before delving into business. He has had many businesses. Matatu business (failed), Ngwataniro enterprises- a project to manufacture clothing pegs, Madhupaper, one of the first tissue manufacturer in Kenya (lost it under unclear court cases, government interference), Royal Credit Limited -a hire purchase system that evolved to a credit card system), and finally Royal Media services. It’s a riveting tale of political impact on business environment, resilience, failures and successes. In between, you get a glimpse of how the famous ‘Biashara Street came to be, due to “Africanisation agenda’ by Jomo Kenyatta, KIE (Kenya Industrial Estates) role in supporting early business environment after independence.  Provides great context to the type of businesses that operated that time.

Manu Chandaria: Manu joined family business straight from his studies in USA and rose to become the CEO and Chairman of Comcfraft Group, an industry behemoth producing everything from plastics, steel, aluminium products. Indians plans their family direction long into the future. They ensure their kids gets educated as much as they want and then try to convince them to join the family business. They don’t prefer their siblings to work for multinational business but for family business, so they set up systems early enough to absorb them. He studied mechanical engineering in order to fit better into family business which was involved in manufacturing. He subsequently engineered production of everyday usage products such as sufurias, PVC pipes, aluminum tiles, exercise books and many others. These were products that were in high demand and they kept expanding.  They focused on areas they had experience- aluminium pots and pans, galvanized roofing sheets, steel galvanized pipes and tubes. However, as more family members joined the business, they ventured into new frontiers based on changing market dynamics. The new family members joined ranks with older family members to create immense pool of knowledge and skills. To show you how long term oriented they are, The Comcraft’s group investments in Africa were considered ‘sunset industry’- sufurias, pipes, roofing sheets, tubes etc, while also investing in new ‘sunrise industries’ in US, Canada, New Zealand such as ICT, media and electronics. In early years, they focused on what was needed in Africa especially after independence. Currently, Africa accounts for 25% Comcraft’s Group size, Europe and North America- 40% and South East Asia and Australia at 35%. A great analysis of how Indians plan their businesses long into the future and long term wealth creation.

Elizabeth Okello: She has accomplished many firsts. First African woman  bank manager, Barclays bank, first woman adviser to the President of the African Development Bank-Abidjan and later thrusting herself to more unstable environment as first chair of Kenya Women finance Trust. After that she co-founded Makini  Schools in 1978. . Makini School was among the first private primary school institutions. started as a nursery school, Makini schools expanded to Junior, middle and upper sections, later secondary and now even college to make up Makini Group of schools.  She advances the idea that people should always look to grow and expand instead of being comfortable with a small business- moving from a kiosk to a shop, to a store to a supermarket, a concept she was adopted with Makini Project.

Myke Rabar: One of the pioneers of turning deejay as a career and forming a media powerhouse, Homeboyz Entertainment comprising of: Homeboyz Radio, Deejay Academy, record label. Homeboyz was also involved in making of ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’ launched in BBC pre-school channel CBeebies in February 2010 and later sold to Playhouse Disney. This was a breakthrough project for Kenya involving fully equipped animation studios employing local designers, writers, musicians and animators. Homebeoyz DJs were pioneers of Radio Mix in Kenya through Tv show (H20), first DJ outfit to start a radio station, organised events in East Africa through working with Coca-Cola, EABL, Unilever, MTV Base Africa among others.

Myke started with free gigs in high school through to UoN, in 1990s, forming ‘Bad Boys’ and ‘The Crew’ later named Homeboyz. Started ‘Campus Night’ in clubs along town, selling tapes to matatus. He was later joined by his brothers and his wife to form a formidable force. Some ventures failed along the way too. ‘The Boxx’ opened in 2005 at Nakumatt prestige on Ngong Road to sell CDs failed: too expensive to maintain, music pilferage, and culture of buying music was too low. Another one ‘HomeGalz’ an all-girl crew launched in 2000 failed. The deejay academy took off.  Also ventured into sound hire industry through ‘SoundTraxx Touring’, studios and ‘Aktivate’- handles roadshows, experiential marketing and product launches. Homeboyz Records commonly known as “Producshizzle’ was less successful. Homeboyz brand was among the first to offer more than one service when it came to music. Currently, Homeboyz Group entails: audio recording studios, tv production facilities, events management, music technology academy, Homeboyz Radio, Homeboyz Rugby, PR and advertising agency. Not bad for an outfit that began with just deejaying. The ability of Homeboyz Group to make inroads in almost every aspects of show business offers lessons on how to build an empire in related industries. Also quite a tale on the growth of entertainment industry in Kenya through 1990s and early to mid 2000s.

In conclusion, the entrepreneurial hype and focus that is there today is good but it needs to be rooted in deep understanding of our social fabric, consumers, the way of life and systems in place. In addition, as one of my friend says, few are willing to put in hours, work ethic and grit required to build an empire today. The basics of building anything formidable to last a long time still remains even in the technology age. What better way to do that than to learn from forerunners and understand their way of thinking and the manner it influenced the businesses they created. I believe it is more relatable for an aspiring entrepreneur to learn from another person who speaks their language, looks like them and lives probably in the same country or at least continent than someone far away.

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