Kenya’s Ken Oyaya on making money from doing what you love

Expanding his business

Having overcome many challenges along the way, Oyaya is keen on expanding his business. His next venture? Setting up canteens in informal settlements in Nairobi. Oyaya outlines why this venture will work.

“In the CBD people go to supermarkets but in the slums it is the kiosks that sell everything. You only need one employee and one licence for one shop and there are no electricity or water expenses. You require very little money to open one canteen and you can make KSh. 500 (US$5.82) as profit per day. Now, what if you opened 100? In Kibera slum alone you can have 1,000 shops and they still won’t be enough. How many slums do we have in Nairobi?”

Oyaya believes the retail sector is the low hanging fruit as Africa’s middle class expands and low income-earners struggle to fend for themselves and climb up the social ladder.

His biggest lesson in business has been investing in human resources and ensuring professionalism in all his businesses.

“You will find someone operating a bar with one or two waiters and a barman who also serves as the manager because the owner wants to make 90% profits which is never long lived. You have to invest in people and motivate them to perform efficiently. If you try cutting costs by compromising on human resources you will run one shop until the day you die. If you want to expand, you have to embrace professionalism and hire good talent.”

Embracing failure

Oyaya reckons that entrepreneurs should also embrace and learn from their mistakes as well as attend professional courses to improve their capabilities.

“I have started businesses that have failed. I choose to look at failure as a learning process,” he says. “Our education system is wrong. It teaches kids to never fail. The focus is on being number one and nothing else.”

This best or nothing mentality, Oyaya warns, makes people afraid of failure and taking risks, and formal employment with a monthly salary is considered a safer option.

“I have a friend who sells sweets and makes over KSh. 500,000 ($5,824) a month and another friend who wears a suit and tie every day, drives a company car but takes home KSh. 30,000 ($350) a month. When we sit down, it is the guy in the tie and suit who will brag the most because he works for a big company and drives a company car. Meanwhile, the guy who sells sweets and wears jeans all day is quietly thinking of where he will open the next shop.”

Oyaya warns young entrepreneurs not to focus too much on image but rather start businesses that actually make money. He adds that most young people would not want their peers to know they sell mandazi (Kenyan doughnut) for a living and would prefer to be software entrepreneurs for instance.

“Do what you really love and start small. Let the business grow gradually. Be proud of what you do and do it well,” he advises. “I see most young people eager to make money overnight. You have to patient and put in the hard work.”

While he has no regrets about venturing into business, Oyaya cautions that it has its downside, citing an event last December in which he lost KSh. 600,000 ($6,989). Such unexpected losses, he adds, can have serious repercussions on his entire portfolio.

“As an entrepreneur I am not just responsible for my family, I am responsible for my employees. It’s like having more than 100 dependents,” he says Oyaya. “But I enjoy this. I wake up at 9 o’clock and eat breakfast as I watch TV. No one asks me why I am late for work.”