James Mworia is one of Kenya’s most respected business leaders. At 37, he is CEO of Centum, an East African investment company with interests in a variety of sectors, including energy, real estate, financial services and fast-moving consumer goods. Mworia is credited with transforming the company, set up in 1967, by championing investments in new sectors and expanding its geographical reach.
Earlier this month, Mworia spoke at an entrepreneurship boot camp in Nairobi organised by talent management company Africa Talent Bank. He shared his journey in corporate Kenya, and offered tips on business management and entrepreneurship.
He explained that many people fail because they don’t give themselves permission to succeed.
“We think success is for other people. We think we were put on this world to be strugglers,” said Mworia. “It is very easy to make excuses and say the reason I am not succeeding is because I am poor, or I do not have this or that. In theory the most successful people should never have succeeded if you look at everything they did not have. You have to say, given what I have today, what am I willing to do with it?”
Mworia urged young entrepreneurs to recognise and go after opportunities around them, however small.
He recounted how he joined Centum in 2001 as a 23-year-old intern whose role was to file documents. Seven years later he was appointed CEO.
“When opportunity comes knocking on your door it does not come written ‘my big break’. It might come as a small job or a small introduction,” said Mworia.
Don’t do average
Although securing financing for start-ups is often challenging, Mworia noted “there is no shortage of capital for credible, bankable ideas” that are well put together. However, to attract customers and investors, entrepreneurs ought to deliver excellent results, and aim to be among the best in their industry.
Citing the case of football, Mworia explained there are thousands of teams but just a handful are known worldwide, and it is only the top players in the elite teams that earn fortunes.
“How many people play football for a living and they can’t make ends meet? The person at the top is not there by luck or accident. If you hear there is an opportunity in [the] design [industry] it doesn’t mean everyone in design is making money. It is just the people at the top. You have to aspire to be the very best in your industry. In any business, if you are in the top crust you will do well.”
“People ask me why is Centum doing well. It is succeeding because I am uncompromising when it comes to results and to excellence. I don’t accept average. I would rather we repeat 30 times until we get it right because I have set certain standards for myself.”
He observed many companies struggle collecting payments because they offer sub-standard services and eventually lose relevance to the client.
“How many of you have problems with debtors? The reason why the client is not paying you is because you are not important to them. Clients pay their most important service providers first.
“If you ask how many people have paid their power or water bills [you will find] everyone has. But if your service is not valuable, as a business person I can afford not to pay you. I will put you last on my list because it doesn’t make a difference whether or not you offer that service.”
Define your own reality
Even when they lack adequate finances and experience, Mworia urged young entrepreneurs not to settle for ‘safe’ ideas.
“It is easy to settle for simple dreams and tell yourself, ‘let me be realistic’. But dreaming is free. The effort you put in to dream that you will grow your firm to employ five people is the same as the person dreaming of growing a pan-African company employing thousands of people.
“So give yourself permission to succeed,” said Mworia. “Today there might be a mismatch between your capabilities and your dreams… but don’t let that hold you back. A tree will always be a tree. [But] what makes us humans is the ability to transform ourselves and be something better than we were yesterday.”
“Don’t look for validation in other people. Somebody might tell you it cannot be done and you believe them, then it becomes reality. I have decided that I will not let other people’s opinion become my reality. I will define my reality with the gifts God has given me,” said Mworia.
“In fact I get motivation from those who say it cannot be done.”