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Life on the get-a-way lane

Saturday August 29 2009


In the minds of college mates at Strathmore University, Daphine Mwanza Okonji stood on the other side of daily expenditure. But her reality was no different from the ordinary girl next door; humble and simple. “I used to hassle. I used to carry paper bags of cakes and deliver to shops. I used to eat in the kiosk and sit on a bench. I was an ordinary girl,” she told Lifestyle.

A year ago, the 25-year-old alumni of Strathmore University founded Jaydan Gardens, an exclusive get-a-way off Kiambu road together with two partners, and Elle Interior Designs. Mrs Okonji who is happily married and praises her husband for being there for her reminisces her days as a student at the campus where she boldly tried her entrepreneurial skills in baking and selling cakes.

And that one step that she made is what has propelled her to greater heights even to this day, standing out as one of the few young women who have dared to go out on their own and start a business. While at Strathmore University, she would bake cakes at her mother’s bakery and pack them early in the morning before heading for a lecture and distribute them around kiosks adjacent to the campus.

Despite the expectation of her as a student was to totally devote her time to studies, she defiantly engaged in business and every morning depending on the number of orders coming in, she would distribute to the kiosks and in the evening after class she went to collect money before dashing off to tutor students at their homes for one hour.

“That is the money I used for fare, salon and airtime. I never used to ask my parents for pocket money,” she said. “The earnings went into supporting me and my school life. It really taught me how to use money. I used wisely the small money I collected after selling cakes.”

In fact, for this entrepreneurial bug, many of her schoolmates referred to her as hassler and many shopkeepers approached her asking for her products. Mrs Okonji makes for an interesting company and her razor sharp wit together with an aura pervades the room.


Describing herself as a go-getter, free-spirited, self-motivated, confident, extroverted and sociable, she said she doesn’t have a typical day since most of her days are usually different. She values her sleep and as a result wakes up at 6.30 a.m. and arrives at her office by 9 a.m.

“What makes me smile is that I know every day when I wake up there is Jaydan gardens and there is Elle, and I am serving people, and they walk out with a smile,” she said matter-of-factly. After months of looking for an appropriate place to set up the business, they founded Jaydan gardens a year ago.

And while she was furnishing Jaydan gardens she didn’t have any clue she could make the exercise into a business and earn a living from it. No sooner did someone ask who had furnished the place than she realised it was a business worth venturing into.

“Someone was like, ‘who furnished this place’, and I said I did. They advised me to register the interior design business and teach people how to furnish their houses and offices,” said Mrs Okonji. Elle pecialises in interior design and decoration in residential homes and service apartments and offers interior design training.

“It’s women who usually respond to interior design decorations. The main aim of our training is to help women open up their own interior decorations businesses,” said Mrs Okonji who took to business partly because she found her job as a human resource administrator “boring.”

“HR is all about structures and how people are taking leave, when they are coming back and warning letters. It was not challenging to me. In fact I was thinking they were wasting my salary on me. Clearly I wasn’t seeing myself earning what they were paying me because I was not bringing in any business.”

Her voice rose during the interview as her manicured nails brushed the laptop computer on her desk, underlining the confidence of a woman who means business. A sharp and stylish dresser, Mrs Okonji says she, however, doesn’t have a fetish for clothes and shoes. As a result she rarely shops. When asked if she could buy a suit at Sh30,000, she looked up and leaned forward, asking: “What for?”

She believes she inherited her toughness from her mother whom she recalls on her wedding day whispering into her ear, “Don’t stop working hard. Please keep it up.” Mrs Okonji says she is proud to be a wife and a mother and and that she loves to cooks, wash dishes and clean the house.

“Affirmative action “does not work with your husband,” she said in jest. Getting married changes your life, but getting a child changes your life forever,” she said, adding she works hard so that her children can get the best in life. “You can’t compare marriage and business.”

Does she subscribe to the belief by men that it is difficult to understand women? “I don’t think it is hard because they have sisters whom they have grown up with. When it comes to a wife, it is certainly hard. They only start complaining when they are married,” she said.

What has been a little secret to success? “As a young person don’t wait for things to happen to you. If you wait for things to happen to you, I am sorry but you won’t progress. Make things happen for you. Know what you want and go for it. Make things happen and you will see the difference,” she said.