Travel agency Shian Travel was last year ranked as one of Kenya’s top 100 mid-sized companies by KPMG. The company was established in 2003. How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi talked to Shian Travel’s founder and managing director, Jane Gituto, about how she started the business and some of the lessons she has learnt in entrepreneurship.
Tell us more about how you started Shian Travel.
I did a degree in economics and French and worked for Air France from 1992 to 2002. I started off as a sales agent and climbed the ladder to assistant sales manager. In 2002, Air France decided that they would not travel to Kenya anymore. So they folded up and we were retrenched. I was four months pregnant and I knew no one would employ me while pregnant. I approached the management and offered to help them fold up the business knowing that it would take six months and my baby would have been born. They agreed and I worked for a travel agent managing the Air France business. The travel business was sold to somebody else with whom I did not see eye-to-eye. One morning I decided to resign. I met my husband over lunch to inform him about it and he advised me to start my own business instead of taking up another job. That very day I got an office. I also approached a former colleague who agreed to join me in the business. Today we have 20 employees and operate three branches in Kenya.
Describe some of the lessons you have learnt in business.
You cannot do without a motivated team. I will not say my team is 100% motivated; I have challenges like any other organisation. We have people who are pulling the team down and sometimes you get to a level where you discover you are not on the same wave length with your team. Entrepreneurship has been a tough call, but there is also satisfaction in knowing that you are managing your own business. There is fear that if something goes wrong many people will be affected. If I go down, my 20 employees and their families go down as well.
What are some of the major challenges you face?
Collecting money from clients is the biggest challenge. We are a distributor for airlines – selling tickets – and we pay them on the 17th of the month. The biggest challenge is dealing with companies; sometimes they just won’t pay me. This morning I am having a push and pull with a company that owes me US$38,000. Individuals on the other side can be very notorious even after forming relationships. You can’t chase them off because we value those relationships.
There are a number of airlines that have stopped coming to Kenya. I don’t understand what is wrong. This affects our business. The more airlines we have the cheaper the rates. The reason local flights are expensive is because one airline has a monopoly and their nearest competition does not have enough planes. That is why most people prefer to take a bus or drive themselves.
The growth of the internet has also eaten into our business. Today people can buy tickets online and pay by M-Pesa.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur looking to enter the travel industry?
First of all, you need to be passionate about what you are doing. You should only go into a business that you understand. You really have to understand the industry; it is diverse and there is a lot you can do. It is very competitive. About four years ago, airlines stopped giving us commissions so we have to charge a service fee. As a travel agent you must know what it is you are charging customers for that they cannot get directly from the airline. Why should a customer come to me? We must add value.
And your future plans for the business?
I really hoped that I would have expanded outside Kenya by now. I would like to tap into Arusha (Tanzania), Entebbe (Uganda), Kigali (Rwanda) and Juba (South Sudan). It is not going as well as I hoped. The March elections pulled our business down. There is still not enough money in circulation, so we are struggling to stay above board. Expansion is on hold for another six months. By next year we should go to Arusha and Entebbe, which are vibrant towns but the culture is like that of Mombasa; they are a bit slow. If I go there with the kind of service I have, I know I will make it. Kigali is an upcoming economy and my market survey shows they need market leaders there. I believe, if I step there, I will challenge the others and grow in the process.