Is college education all you need to succeed?


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These young Kenyans did not go past secondary school, but are running well-to-do businesses. Lack of a college degree, they say, shouldn’t hinder you from achieving your dreams.

Tony owns Antelox Agency, a branding and digital agency that offers web designing and digital branding services. On average, his business earns him Sh200,000 a month.

Tony did not go past primary school. The only academic papers he has is his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education certificate, which reflects a poor score of 185 marks out of a possible 500 marks.

“My mother did not have a stable income, and was therefore unable to send me to secondary school. I was industrious from a young age though – for instance, while in class four, I would collect firewood on my way from school and sell it in the market at Sh50 a bundle the following morning before heading to class. I would hand over this money to my mum, a single parent of eight. After primary school, through the help of an uncle, I ventured into the water vending business. After two years and with only Sh1, 500 savings to show for my hard work, I decided to leave home, Riakanau village in Embu county, for Mwea town in pursuit of something more fulfilling and better paying. I was 17 then. I tried my hand at carpentry while living with a friend, and later, repairing and fixing tires under the tutelage of a brother-in-law who offered me shelter in exchange of my services. I worked for him for two years until some bodaboda operators, who had observed my diligence, offered me a loan of Sh46, 000 to start my own tire repair business.

In 2013, I set up shop, and would make an average of Sh1,500 a day. The business did so well, that I was able to repay the loan in just two months and rent a bigger space.

I even got myself a smartphone! Fascinated by the many things I could do with the phone, I bought a computer.

Unfortunately, I focused too much on the wonders I could accomplish with this piece of technology, I neglected my business, and was forced to close down in mid-2014 since I could no longer manage to pay rent for the business premises.

Challenges: My main challenge was poor money management. For instance, I moved from a house that cost Sh4, 000 a month to one that cost me Sh8, 500, rent I struggled to pay.

Once, I ended up losing all my household items because I couldn’t raise rent for three months. That was my moment of introspection – I resolved to be careful with how I spent my money. I also learnt that when you get into a comfort zone, you lack the hunger to learn and grow. 

How I got back on my feet:  After my business went down, I moved in with one of my sisters. While here, I made friends with a man that ran a cyber café nearby, and taught myself coding.

One day, a client who often found me found me dabbling with a computer asked if I could design a website for him.

I had no idea how to go about it, but I immediately said yes. Using Google, YouTube tutorials and some computer science books I purchased on Amazon, I was able to deliver the job in a week.

I charged the client Sh50, 000. Amazed by what I had achieved, I registered Antelox and started offering web designing services.

My turnaround came early this year when I was referred to a client from Cameroon who saw my potential and offered me a loan of Sh100,000, to be repaid in two months’ time.

I used part of the money to advertise my work through Facebook sponsored posts and OLX, an online market marketplace. Within one month, I had managed to bag 15 clients and was able to repay the loan within a month.

I work from home, and when the need arises, I hire freelancers through online platforms such as Upwork. The number of freelancers I hire depends on the load of work I am handling at any given time.

My rate for creating and designing a basic website is Sh15, 000 though advanced websites cost more.

Lessons learnt: I have made many mistakes in my entrepreneurship journey, such as spending more than I saved and getting too comfortable – and no, lack of a secondary or college education is not to blame for any of these mistakes. That is not to say that I don’t value education, however, I believe that when you believe in yourself, you can make something out of your life, highly educated or not.

Samuel Karanja, Age: 23 years

Hair dresser and Beautician

“When I joined secondary school in 2010, my first term results were proof that an academic struggle awaited me. My parents had sacrificed a lot to educate me, so the E grade I scored was disheartening.

Not knowing what to do with myself but convinced that school wasn’t for me, I decided to drop out. I did menial jobs, such as water vending and selling vegetables back home in Kiambu County.

In 2013, I was contracted by a certain businessman to hawk jewelry and watches; I noted that women’s accessories, such as earrings, were fast-selling, and I made a mental note that should I start a business in future, it would focus on women. 

I also realised that without any academic certificate, I would never get a well-paying job.

My parents, who could tell that I was struggling to earn a living, offered to pay for a mechanics course for me. I wasn’t interested in being a mechanic though, and chose hairdressing instead.

It took nine months of training before I was fully comfortable with my skill.  After the training, I decided to travel to Nairobi to try out my luck, moving in with a friend, who assured me that hairdressing was a lucrative business in the city.

Getting work here however turned out to be harder than it was in the village because most of the salon owners I approached for a job were more interested in my academic certificates, rather than the skill I had to offer.

This prompted me to start working as a mobile hairdresser and beautician, whereby I would braid my clients’ hair and do their nails in the comfort of their homes. In two years, I had managed to save enough to open my own hair salon in Zimmerman, in the outskirts of the city centre. Currently, I have nine permanent employees and occasionally contract casual workers depending on the work load. Braiding charges start at Sh700 onwards, and I offer special rates for occasions such as weddings.

I also offer on-the job training – I have 15 students at the moment. On a very bad month, the least I have ever taken home is Sh40,000 after settling other expenses. For a high school dropout, I think I have done well for myself.”

Runs the Better Life Development youth group in Mathare North

“I initiated this group in 2015. I was 25 years and unemployed. The seven of us run a poultry project that earns us about Sh15,000 a month, have an indoor sports area that fetches us about Sh8,000 a month, and also earn a monthly income of Sh6,000 from a church housed within our grounds.

The grounds, which had been turned into a dumpsite, belong to the Nairobi City County; they allowed us to put it to good use after we cleaned it up. I wrote to them through the ward administrator and permission was granted to us.

 At the moment, we are in the process of constructing a low-cost community school to serve the needs of many families in this area and also earn extra income from the venture.

How I started: I did not go past Form Four, but had informal training in community work. With knowledge on what members of a community can achieve when they came together, I mobilised young people in my locality and sold the idea of cleaning up the huge space littered with garbage and setting up income-generating projects on it. Out of the group of 38 that bought the idea, only seven remained behind when we started the hard and unpleasant job of clearing  the garbage. It was discouraging, but I forged on, and we managed to clean up after two long years.

The challenges: The initial challenges we faced were lack of money and the skills to run our various projects.

How we grew: In July 2016, I enrolled for six months’ training, offered by The Youth Congress, a local NGO. I also went through training on business management and how to save from Chai Sacco. These skills have helped put our records in order and enabled us to earn more from our projects.

After the training, Chai Sacco loaned us Sh100, 000, while we got a grant from The Youth Congress in the form of a 49-inch TV to air football matches.

This additional screen means we can air two different EPL matches simultaneously, which has increased our income.

We are able to earn at least Sh24, 000 on a good month. Of this amount, Sh10, 000 goes to one member each month, on a rotational basis, this way, our members have managed to establish their own businesses, such as second-hand clothing stalls, green-grocers and fruits and juice stalls. Out of our seven members, only four of us have gone up to Form Four, the rest have gone up primary school.

Advice: Instead of complaining about lack of jobs, young people could consider teaming up and looking for opportunities around them that they can turn into income-generating projects.

Keep your eyes open and stay focused, and remember that nothing comes easy; you have to work hard to earn genuine positive returns.

Co-founder and CEO, Gacal Realtors

With just a high school education, Joe has managed to curve out a space for himself in real estate.

“Doing business was a childhood dream, but since I didn’t have the capital to invest in a business, I first sought employment,” he says.

How I got here: My first job was that of a hotel supervisor at a hotel in Thika town, I was 19 then. Due to my strong interpersonal skills, I was later promoted to manager.

Two years later, the owners folded the business and decided to invest in real estate. They employed me as one of the sales people to market and sell  their property.

I was one of their best sales people, and as a result, earned a decent commission every month. I religiously saved all my commission and lived off the retainer.

How I grew: I was learning a lot about the real estate business from my bosses, from land acquisition, to managing the construction process until completion, and the actual selling of houses – I was saving with one goal in mind; to venture into real estate investment, whose returns were attractive.

After seven years of experiential learning, last year, I decided to go into self-employment, but I realised that I could not actualise this vision alone. In December 2016, I approached a friend, Joseph Mwaura Kimani, whom I had worked with for two years.

Mwaura, a computer engineer, is more learned than I am and understands the business management side of things. Mwaura too had some savings, and after several meetings, we entered into a partnership and established Gacal Realtors, a real estate firm.

With our savings, we first acquired a parcel of land in Thika town. We are in the process of putting up our first project, a block of three-bedroom apartments. We have a team of 16 employees. When employing, we do not focus on a potential employee’s CV, rather, their ability and talent.

The challenges: Though we had saved towards this venture, we did not have sufficient capital to kick off. We have had to plough back income from the sale of a couple of parcels of land we own to finance our current development.

Advice: Go about life with a positive outlook and visualise your success and then plan for it. If you’re employed, learn as much as you can from your bosses and then leave to start something of your own – leaving also paves way for others to find a footing. A job should be an enabler to your success, not the end result.

Petronillah Wariah, Age: 32

Owner, Nala Trendy Hair Salon

“I am the fifth born in a family of nine. My mother was a nurse, but did not earn enough to see us all through school. With assistance from a charity run by the Catholic Church, I managed to go up to Form Four, though much later, long after I had established my business, I went back to school to study a diploma in community development and social work.

I run a hair salon in Ruaka, Kiambu County. I established the business in 2006 when I was 17 years old. With the assistance of three regular employees, I offer a variety of hair and beauty services.

I am also a hair and beauty trainer, and charge Sh3, 000 for three months’ training. Most of these girls are unable to raise the money though, but I still train them as a way of giving back to my community.

How I started: I learnt most of what I know about hairdressing from my late mother, who plaited hair on the side. By age 16, I was already employed at a salon in Parklands, Nairobi, where I worked for about eight months, earning Sh5,000 a month. I was a member of a youth group in Mathare then.

A local NGO, Kenya Youth Business Trust, trained a number of us on how to start and manage a business, and after the three months’ training, loaned us money to get our start-ups off the ground. I got a Sh80, 000 loan in the form of equipment – a hair drier, two blow driers, stock of hair and beauty products and rent.

The challenges: I was very young then, so convincing clients that I could do a good job was difficult. Once they saw what I could do however, they kept coming, and would bring their friends along.

How I grew: I enrolled for a beauty therapy course at Vera Beauty College a year after setting up my business to diversify my skills.

With added skills in beauty, I was able to earn more and grow my business.

I also re-invested part of my income in modern equipment, such as wall-mount hair driers and manicure and pedicure equipment, which has improved the look of my salon besides making it possible for me to offer great customer experience. I make a profit of around Sh35,000 on a good month.

Advice: If you come from a poor background and did not complete school, don’t allow yourself to feel helpless or settle for less. Go out of your way to learn a skill – we all don’t have to be employed. Start from your point of knowledge and forge ahead.


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