The door closed but a window opened

Thursday February 16 2017

Lillian Kiama, 28, has spent most of her life

Lillian Kiama, 28, has spent most of her life in the UK, where her family lived. For a long time, she looked forward to working and earning her own money, so when her first job opportunity came up, she gladly took it. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU 

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Lillian Kiama, 28, has spent most of her life in the UK, where her family lived. For a long time, she looked forward to working and earning her own money, so when her first job opportunity came up, she gladly took it. At the age of 16, the legal working age in the UK, she got her first job as a cleaner at a fashion brand.

After completing her A-levels in 2007, she travelled to South Africa to study aviation, but her stay here would never be smooth. “I had not experienced xenophobia before, but the moment I landed at Port Alfred, I immediately became conscious of my skin colour. At the school, I was accorded less flying hours and generally discriminated against.”

She left South Africa six months later for Florida in the US, where she would stay for one-and-a-half years. It is here that she finished her aviation studies and got her private and commercial licenses.

Lillian returned to Kenya in 2010 full of optimism, ready to start working right away, but it was not to be.

“To be hired as a pilot in Kenya, one must have a Kenyan license and 1,000 flight hours, requirements I didn’t have. Most aviation colleges guarantee you only 250 flight hours at the end of the training.”

Despite her overseas training, the hurdle effectively rendered her unemployable, locally. To earn the extra hours that would enable her get a proper job with commercial flights, she sought small jobs at Wilson Airport.

“Luckily, my papers helped me to secure short contracts which required me to fly short distances to deliver cargo, earning me some income and improving my portfolio.”

With jobs that were few and far between however, garnering the required 1,000 hours would take a long time. After several months, Lillian, then 23 years, left Kenya to try her luck in Tanzania. According to her, aviation rules are less stringent there, and for someone with two operating licenses, she felt, landing a flying job would be easier.

“I had not been to Tanzania before, but I was determined to get a job. I had only one contact, a friend, at whose place I stayed for a few days as I looked for a job.”

After days of searching, luck smiled on Lillian. She got a job with a law firm in Arusha. Her job description was to deliver cargo to various destinations in the country. It was a now matter of time before she clocked the number of flight hours required back home.

“I had free accommodation and my salary was tax free. For someone still in training, Sh30,000 a month was plentiful.”

Six months into her new job however, she crashed in the mountainous region near Kilimanjaro International Airport.

“The weather was bad that co-pilot and my only companion in the plane died on the spot while I was in ICU for a month, with a broken skull. I was hospitalised for three months,” she recollects.

While no charges were brought against her, the crash drove a wedge between Lillian and her employer, prompting her to return home in 2012. Left with a lifetime scar and even more psychological bruises, Lillian felt she had no strength left to start looking for a job all over again. Instead, she went back to school. In 2012, she enrolled for a Business Administration course in USIU-Africa, aiming to give entrepreneurship a shot, and as a distraction from her traumatic experience.

It was here that Lillian met her business partner, James Githu, who coincidentally, is also a trained pilot. Theirs was a remarkable partnership.

“James is a good market researcher while I’m skilled at the front end of business. To start our business off, we started by hiring out decks I had bought earlier to our DJ friends. We would get between Sh9,000 to 15,000 a week, money that we spent on entertainment.”

Eventually, they realised that unless they got serious, they would never achieve anything. They sold out the music equipment, borrowed Sh50,000 and set up a business that involved making and selling popcorns and potato crisps.

“At first, we used my kitchen as our premises, but the business  outgrew my kitchen, so we rented space at Githurai 45, in the outskirts of town. We also hired someone to help out.”

Like many new businesses, penetration of the external market was a challenge.

“We would pack a 100 packets of crisps and popcorns to sell to retailers, but after driving through estates the whole day, we would return with as many packets in the evening. We also gave out too many free samples at the beginning, with minimal return on our business. But we pressed on.”

The pair’s resilience later paid off, and today, the business is doing well. 

Candy Pop, now registered as a limited liability company, employs, besides the two partners, a driver, a chef and an assistant. The partners are able to pay taxes, salaries for their employees and rent with ease.

The two are optimistic, and though they are at a stage where they are unable to compete for supermarket shelves with established dealers, they have their eyes trained on becoming a leading food production firm in the country in the near future.

Does this then mean that Lilian will never fly again?

“Oh, I will, ultimately I want to be a pilot, but meanwhile, I wish to fully focus on business,” Lilian, who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration last year, says.