From tout to CEO of leading tour company

Wednesday March 18 2020

Simon Kabu is the CEO of Bonfire Adventures. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP


In 2008, around a bonfire at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Bonfire Adventures, the brainchild of Simon and his wife Sarah Kabu, came to life.

The couple started the company with Sh20,000 and in just a decade, it has grown to post an annual turnover of over a billion shillings, while employing more than 200 staff.

The entrepreneurship side of you manifested itself quite early…

Quite so. when I completed secondary school in the early 90s, I first worked at an aunt’s food kiosk, preparing and selling chapatti and mandazi. This is when I knew that I wanted to engage in business fully or as a side hustle. At Egerton University, where I studied bachelor of Economics and Statistics, I sold music CDs and rented out movie videos. Not in my wildest dreams however, did I think of venturing into tours and travel.

In 2008, a group I was in comprising of young professionals suggested a meet up. I was 35, and the sales regional head at Unga Group Ltd.

Sarah and I were among those that volunteered to organise the getaway. After successfully organising the first and second meet up, one of the members asked us to organise a corporate team building, for which we would be paid.

Come payday, he insisted on writing a cheque, but we didn’t have a company. We ended up settling on Bonfire Adventures.

We started our company in a shared office, using the space during lunch hours and evenings. After a couple of months, we took a risk and quit our jobs to concentrate on our company.

We now have nine offices countrywide and a staff of about 200. We also work directly with more than 300 tour guides drawn from various parts of the world.

To get here, we have had to make many sacrifices - for almost a year, my wife and I worked day and night, managing just a few hours of sleep to keep our company afloat.

How would you describe yourself?

I am a focused and ambitious person. For instance, during my second year at the university, I had to defer classes for a year because my parents couldn't afford to pay my fees.

I had two options, to drop out, or look for school fees. I chose to look for school fees. During that one year I was out of school, I worked as a tout, plying Githurai route 44 in a quest to raise fees.

When it comes to work, I am not picky. For instance, after I graduated, the first job I got was that of a turnboy, loading and offloading milk.

What is the biggest lesson you have picked along the way?

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. There’s a lot of dedication and passion needed, sometimes I don’t get enough sleep because although I have delegated, there are many things that my employees consult me about. It calls for a lot of persistence.

Most people would not be keen about working with their partners, how have you managed to sow a fruitful working relationship with your wife?

The truth is that working with one’s partner has its own challenges. To overcome them, there has to be trust, respect and boundaries.

Your roles also have to be well-defined. My wife is the managing director while I am the CEO – our roles are so clear, sometimes we don’t even see each other an entire day.

What is the best decision you have made so far?

The day I woke up and decided to stop being a tout. It was a good lifestyle – I got paid well, every day, and there were always women around me. I am happy that I decided to challenge myself and complete my university education.

Back then when you were hustling to make ends meet, did you have desires that you have managed to fulfill?

I desired to travel so much, that as a young man, I wanted to become a pilot so that I could see the world. After founding my company, I have been able to travel to more than five Continents.

Interestingly, what I don’t have now is the time to travel.

What is the best advice you have received so far?

Richard Branson is my mentor, and when we meet, he sometimes talks to me about humility.

If you met him in person, you wouldn’t believe that he manages more than 400 companies. He has taught me that humility opens many doors. He also stresses on the need to be authentic.

How do you unwind?
I love swimming, reading and spending time with my family. We travel a lot together.

Bonfire was one of KPMG’s top 100 mid-sized Companies in 2015, and last year, you joined Club 101. Would you say you have you achieved success?

In the 10 years we have been in operation, I have changed how business in tours and travel is done and offered employment to hundreds of youth.

Also, the company has received many awards and won many clients along the way, yet I strategise and innovate on a daily basis, introducing new products – it is not enough to be the leading tour company.

This year, for instance, we launched two products: Okoa Holiday, where one can travel and pay later, and Okoa Ndoa, where we organise getaways for couples to rekindle their love.

Is there a recurring challenge you encounter as you run your business?

Getting the right workforce to share and carry my vision.

What advice would you give a young person reading this?

Success is not a one-time event, it is a journey that calls for dedication and a lot of sacrifice. Don’t be afraid to start small and always have a vision for your growth.

Importantly, be a team but think individually. What I know for sure is that there is fulfilment in making a living off your sweat.