In 1974, Dr Eddah Gachukia and her husband Dan took over a small kindergarten in Nairobi that schooled 20 pupils. The acquisition was driven by their passion for education. Gachukia, who is a teacher, was fascinated by how children learn.
“What I was interested in as a curriculum developer is how children learn to read and how they learn numbers from scratch. When they come to kindergarten they are very fresh. I find that really exciting,” she says.
The couple opened the school to African and Asian children and by the 1980s there was a demand for high levels of schooling.
“It became very interesting. Parents forced us to start a primary school with three students only. We divided up our living room to create a classroom and started teaching them. Eventually, two more students joined, so, the whole year we had five students in primary school,” says Gachukia.
Today, Gachukia runs the Riara Group of Schools which operates two kindergartens, two primary schools, a girl’s secondary school and a university in Nairobi.
Gachukia says the Riara Group of Schools has grown organically as demand for quality education increased. The Riara University, which is the group’s latest addition, was inspired by her desire to improve higher learning in Kenya.
“Look at the demand. As an entrepreneur you will be foolish not to look at the demand. The statistics show that the demand for university education in Kenya is very high,” she says. “As an educator I have that nagging feeling that perhaps I can improve the education offered at university level.”
However, establishing and running the university has been challenging.
“To go to a bank and borrow money to establish a university, I call it economic suicide. But entrepreneurship is always a risk. Every day is a risk. You can call it some level of craziness. It is an obsession. Building a university is really crazy.”
Women face challenges
According to Gachukia, running the business as a woman has been challenging and her husband’s support has been crucial in the success of Riara.
“Banks wouldn’t lend any woman money. The banks were purely prejudiced. They couldn’t understand that a home could belong to two people. Even the law then made women dependents. Women were not paying tax [and] did not exist as far as the Kenya Revenue Authority was concerned,” she says.
Gachukia advises African women to go for their dreams and take advantage of the gains made in empowerment for women.
“Many institutions still favour men; there is no doubt about it. But look at what we have achieved in the last 40 years. The world has become a much better place for women. A lot of restrictions have been removed and women today can afford to think bigger than we did. I would say start small and then grow gradually.”
Gachukia is passionate about the power of education to transform communities. For Africa to develop, she says countries need to prioritise education.
“Unless all our children are in school, we can’t talk about development. Development will not come from minerals and oil; it will come from the people themselves. It is the way they think and how productive they are in whatever they do,” says Gachukia. “We need to train thinkers and innovators. These are people who can make it wherever they go.”
Education is highly relevant
At a time when youth unemployment on the continent is high and stories of school drop-outs who have made their fortunes such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg make the rounds, Gachukia maintains that education is still relevant.
“Any wealth you have created or earned faithfully requires some intelligence. To me that is education. Education is an engagement, it is not an event or certificates. It is a process that gives you knowledge and enables you to think. Even entrepreneurship is something we need to teach in school.”
One of Gachukia’s sons quit his broadcasting job to go into farming.
“He is utilising every piece of that land beautifully, yet he has never studied agriculture. I am looking at education that leaves you with something, not with geography and history, but with that capacity to utilise whatever resources you have.”
Moving forward, the 77-year-old educator is focusing on growing the Riara University.
“We are being called to build satellite schools in towns neighbouring Nairobi. To manage that, for a person of my age, I don’t think I can. Old age requires that I sit back, meditate, grow the university and see to it that it turns out to be what we dreamt [it could be].”
To be a successful entrepreneur, Gachukia believes one ought to have passion, a compelling dream and a never say die attitude.
“If things go bad, you go back, recoup what you have lost and get on with it. Perseverance is very critical. That capacity for survival needs to be higher. Don’t be wobbly. If you are committed to that dream, you will see a lot of possibilities coming in.”