Once in a while, we all need inspiration. We need to be reminded that we can rise from humble beginnings and make the best of our lives. That most of the time, all we need is the right attitude, a ne’er-say-die spirit and a clear vision of where we want to be. Two men who struggled through their childhood tell us how they turned their lives around in this feature.
GEORGE MINANI: “My childhood has made me who I am”
Growing up in Kakamega Town, George Muruka Minani and his seven siblings slept hungry for most nights, and had taken to lack of basic needs such as clothing, and shoes as normal. “We knew no other life apart from this,” says Mr Minani, 42, and a father of three.
The third born in a family of eight, George saw his parents struggle. “My father was a cook at an Approved School in Kakamega, while my mother was a housewife who toiled to make ends meet. She retailed sukumawiki at the nearby market and at times, she would distil chang’aa, to supplement our father’s meagre income,” he says.
Mr Minani wore his first shoes when he joined Form One in 1993. His father had only one pair.
“It was a black shoe, but you couldn’t tell its shape. Later, when I was able to buy him a new pair, I asked him to give that shoe to me. It is the only inheritance that I asked from my father, and is a constant reminder of the struggle, of how far I have come, his resilience and his commitment to hard work. It fuels my determination,” he says.
To accompany his one shapeless pair of shoes, his father owned four pairs of trousers and two shirts.
He wanted the best for us
“He knew the importance of education, and struggled to take us through school. Because he could not afford, he once had to fundraise for secondary school fees for four of us who were at the same level,” Mr Minani recollects.
For years, he struggled between school and home, where he was often sent for the lack of fees.
He eventually did Form Four in 1996 and scored a C mean grade in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education. His parents could not afford to send him to college, so he hired a bicycle at night and did boda boda business to supplement the family’s income.
“That is how I survived the whole of 1997 and part of 1998,” he recalls. The school-leaver, his mother and his siblings later moved upcountry after his father built a house for them.
“He had taken a loan Sh20, 000, part of which he used to build the semi-permanent upcountry house,” Mr Minani says.
In December 2000, Mr Minani joined his cousin in Magongo, Mombasa, to train as a mechanic. “During this time, I saw an advert in the newspapers of a Company, Hawkeye Limited, which wanted to train and hire young people for their sales department,” he says.
He immediately applied for the job and was hired in 2001.
He so much wanted to continue with education that after earning his first salary, he applied for a certificate course in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations at the University of Nairobi, Mombasa campus, where he attended evening classes.
He worked hard, and within a few months, he was appointed trainer in his workplace. Before the year ended, he was promoted to Mombasa branch manager. In early 2002, but a few months later, the company shut down.
Mr Minani found himself jobless, again, but this did not stop him from pursuing his passion in sales. “With my colleagues, we came together and started selling wares, ranging from calculators to toys and stationary in offices in Nairobi.”
Working on a clear vision
In 2009, they opened an office on General Mathenge Road in Westlands, and hired sales representatives at a commission. “We became very aggressive. We advertised our products in newspapers, posters on electric poles and walls in the city. We also trained our sales team,” he recalls. They were now selling kitchen knives, toothpastes and solar lighting systems.
Whenever he was not working, Mr Minani would visit Uchumi Ngong Road or Sarit Centre from where he would see husbands, wives and their children driving for shopping. “I admired that. I knew that if I worked hard, I would get there,” he said.
But the solar systems were not doing well in Nairobi given that there was electricity.
In 2015, he moved on to start and run his company, Sub Sahara Promotion, a social enterprise, which connects rural homes in Western Kenya with solar energy, where he had found a niche. Today, he has branches in Mumias, Kakamega and Luanda towns.
He retails solar lamps with panels, a rechargeable battery, a cable to charge mobile phones and connectivity for bulbs to light three of four rooms, which go at Sh3,500. He also sells hand-held solar lamps, which have a torch and cables for recharging mobile phones that retail at Sh1,200.
He has been able to convert rural populations from kerosene to clean energy. “This has reduced respiratory problems by limiting harmful emissions. Besides, children can study for longer hours at night,” he commented.
Every year, he goes to China, where he shops for his goods and learns more about new technologies in solar energy.
Mr Minani has a lot of respect for his parents. He treasures them “because of the sacrifices they made for us.” He and his siblings have built their parents a permanent three-bedroom house, complete with electric power supply and a borehole.
They’re now settled as are his siblings, who are going about their business, says the Baba Dogo resident, who owns some rental units.
He regards his father as his teacher. “He was a strict disciplinarian. He taught me the value of hard work, not to choose jobs, and to desire the best in life. I’m who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.”
Mr Minani mentors youth in his village and at the local church in Gem on the value of hard work, resilience and patience. He could never exchange his family, his parents and his childhood for anything. “It has built me and made me who I am.”
MOSES GITONGA NTITIRU — You too can define your life
The third born in a family of six children, Moses Gitonga Ntitiru, 36, grew up in a humble family in Mworoga Village in Imenti, Meru County.
His father, Mr Stanley Ntiritu Mutungi, a retired primary schoolteacher, was determined to give his children the best education he could afford. Moses attended Muthangene Primary School from 1987 to 1992. He was almost always at the top his class. In 1996, he joined Ndagene Secondary School.
Three weeks to sitting his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examinations (KCSE) in 1999, he fell ill and had to be away from school to seek treatment. He returned to school two days before the final exam. Still, this did not deter him from scoring a strong B- grade, two points below the Joint Admission Board (JAB) cut-off.
Determined to acquire university education, he started sending college applications to all universities and, in 2000, Daystar University offered him a place. His father organised a harambee, which raised a paltry Sh140,000.
He joined Daystar University, Athi River campus in 2001 for a Bachelor of Arts in Community Development.
Gitonga fell ill again in the first semester, and the little money that his father had for his education went to his treatment.
In his second semester, lack of food became a reality. “At one time, I went for six consecutive days without food,” he recalls.
“It was so painful, studying with students who could snack even in class, eat well every day, some even driving to and from school, while I went for several days without food,” he recalls.
When the situation got worse, Gitonga approached the college dining hall servicemen/waiters to allow him eat leftovers that remained from those who could not finish the food on their plates.
“Lack of school fees saw me take longer than my classmates, some of who completed within three years,” he recalls.
On several occasions, he dropped out of session to look for jobs in Industrial Area for his school fees.
Two lecturers, Mrs Mabel Odima and Dr Ken Ongaro, took note of his neediness and once in a while bought him maize flour and rice.
In his second year, he started sending job applications, but he did not get any response. However something happened.
Four days after Gitonga graduated in June 24, 2006, he was called for an interview at K-Rep Bank (now Sidian Bank).
He was immediately posted to the Mtwapa branch as a microfinance officer.
“My role was to mobilise groups, recruit and lend and collect loans from microfinance clients,” he says. But there was a problem: “I always had a weighty heart every time I thought of going out to the field,” he recalls.
One day in November 2006, he found customers staring at a TV screen in the banking hall, which was running videos that had nothing to do with the bank.
“It struck me that I can do success stories of some few clients of the bank and propose to management that the videos be displayed,” he says.
He approached two of his major clients and requested to do their stories. They agreed.
With his little salary, Gitonga bought an analogue microphone from Mtwapa Town and loaded all the images in the Windows Movie Maker software, which he had taught himself how to use, and developed a video documentary.
Gitonga then sent the video DVD to the management of the bank together with an accompanying proposal. But he never received any response.
Two years later, in 2008, a newly-appointed executive director of the bank took interest in the promo videos that Gitonga had produced.
She contacted Gitonga and asked him to do an intranet.
“I obliged. Yet, I had no idea what an intranet was. I went and researched,” he says.
With the help of a consultant, he developed a vibrant intranet, which was launched in March 27, 2008.
Unknown to him, this was his turning point. His self-taught affair with ICT had begun.
While at K-Rep Bank, Gitonga attended a two-day content development summit by Ignite Africa held at Windsor. Here, the former communications Permanent Secretary, Dr Bitange Ndemo, took notice of Moses’ interest in content and started mentoring him on ICT entrepreneurship.
“Every time, he picked my calls and gave me attention when I reached out to seek advice on animation,” says Moses.
In December 2009, Gitonga left the bank and co-registered a pioneer 3D animation company.
Using online learning, Gitonga already knew the different coding languages like PHP, HTML, JAVA, CSS, Ruby on Rails and databases such as MYSQL, besides SMS software.
He was hired as part of the team that built the Kenya National Examinations Council SMS platform in 2010.
His efforts started paying off when together with his team, they developed a six minutes 3D animation for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to fight poaching. For this, KWS honoured him with an award. He has won six awards in ICT, including the overall award winner (Platinum) Citi Bank Award beating a pool of 189 Nominees in 2014. He has been appointed and certified by several international software companies as their local and regional deployment partner.
Daystar University also recognised his efforts in 2016 when they gave him Business Progression Award.
Gitonga does motivational talks, and entrepreneurship mentorship to youngsters who wish to go into business, especially ICT or animation.
He also coaches parents on tools that they can use to ensure that their children are protected from indecent online exposure.
He charges Sh20,000 to train parents in seminars and forums such as parenting workshops.
For remote consultation, he charges Sh5000, and Sh10,000 for physical deployment.
Gitonga advises young people to make deliberate choices: “Visualise where you want to see yourself and set your eyes on the prize.
“Patience and hard work does pay,” he says.