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Going it alone now a trend but at what cost?

Thursday January 26 2012

Ms Joyce Mbaya. Photo/FILE

Ms Joyce Mbaya. Photo/FILE 

By MUTHOKI MUMO [email protected]

During the Apprentice Africa competition in 2008, Joyce Mbaya made a name for herself. Even after she was ‘fired’, it seemed that her future was safe.

Back at her job with a leading telcoms company, she was a rising star on the fast track to management status. Then, in 2009, she quit.

“I had to make a choice. In the end, I knew that my place was not at the company,” she says.

According to experts, the Kenyan workforce is becoming adventurous. More people are leaving well-paying jobs with great benefits to start their own businesses.

Ms Mbaya chose to forsake a path that seemed to guarantee financial success at one of Africa’s most profitable corporations for an uncertain future at a her own start-up company, Gibébé.

In some circles, what she did would seem nothing short of certifiable insanity. But she was seeking personal fulfilment.


“People are more flexible with employment than they were three decades ago. Today, a job is part of a larger journey. Back then, it was the end of the journey,” says Dr Hazel Gachunga, a human resources professor at the Jomo Kenyatta Institute of Agriculture and Technology.

Modern workers want freedom to fit their lifestyles and a job, not vice-versa. Money seems to be a distant second to this all-encompassing desire to do something they love and appreciate.

The ease with which people can access financial resources is helping to fuel the trend. According to the Financial Access Survey of 2010, 67.2 per cent of Kenyans had access to financial services, formal or otherwise.

This has been complemented by government efforts to extend loans to vulnerable groups at cheap rates, especially the youth and women.

“The young are the greatest risk takers. So when you have them accessing money, you have more independent business ventures,” said Dr Gachunga.

Even with more money available, new entrepreneurs have to perform tricky financial manoeuvres to survive.

When Kariuki Gathitu decided to leave his bank job to start a mobile technology company, he saved almost every penny of his earnings and still had to take odd jobs to support it.

Mr Patrick Wameyo started his business in what he terms to be “the worst financial period of my life”.

After 20 years in the banking industry, he left weighed down by heavy debt that he had to get rid of before he could embark on his new life.

“I had to dispose of assets to pay loans. I said goodbye to a luxurious senior banker’s lifestyle,” he told Money.

But no amount of money can compensate for poor planning. According to Dr Gachunga, many start-up businesses fail within their first year because their proprietors haven’t thought them through to their logical conclusion.

Mr Mike Mutuma always knew that he wanted to be his own boss in whatever career path he chose. However, barely six months after founding his real estate company, it folded.

“I had to come to terms with reality. I had not thought through the skills necessary to run the company successfully,” he said.

Managerial literacy is another pitfall for entrepreneurs. Many of them do not know how to define their markets, how to position their products or how to manage a growing workforce.

While Ms Mbaya became a business expert through her experience at the Apprentice and by reading every book she could get her hands on, Mr Gathitu was lucky to qualify for a business incubation programme with technology organisation M-Lab.

The decision to abandon formal employment is by no means easy. There are fears of losing everything in risky ventures and some people simply fail to grasp the courage to quit.

For Mr Gathitu, the decision to leave employment was made even harder by his achievements during his tenure at the institution.

He had helped develop the bank’s flagship mobile money service and was unwilling to leave without seeing the innovation become successful.

Family can become a very important factor in the decision-making process. While most families will look askance at someone leaving a successful career for a doubtful venture, once brought around, they can still be a great source of support.

One of Mr Gathitu’s business partners was his fiancé, who would later become his wife.

“It was easier having someone I trusted on board,” he says.

Start-up ventures don’t always hit the million-shilling jackpot on their first year of operation. In fact, they are wont to fail dismally. Despite this, remaining firmly committed can yield desirable results.

Mr Wameyo started his financial firm with eight clients. Three years down, he counts 29 corporate clients, including 10 blue chip companies as part of his portfolio
“We have had explosive growth. But we had to be very patient,” he says.

Although Ms Mbaya’s company is still finding its footing, she remains confident that she will be able to grow it into a formidable enterprise, not just in Kenya, but across East Africa.