Meet the Boss is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
1. What was your first job?
I worked with a quarry advising the miners on how to [work] effectively. I was 24 and had just graduated from university.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
One of them was my director in my first formal employment at an NGO. Elijah Agevi gave me the opportunity to think outside the box, come up with ideas and try them out. He was willing to allocate finances to implement innovations. It was not work as usual where you just report to the boss. I also admire Mahatma Gandhi for his efforts and belief in fundamental systematic change in society. Looking at Ecotact over the last six years, that has been the real motivation.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I worry about finishing reports that go to financiers and investors, especially when we have a deadline. The reports have to be very convincing. No one is going to invest US$100,000 or $1m if you present crap. It has to be really thorough. Sometimes I find myself revising documents through and through even at awkward hours just to get it right.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I believe I am diplomatic in terms of negotiations and creating linkages. I meet so many people from across the world and I am able to be in sync. It is important to be open to new ideas and challenges and admit when you are failing and look for answers.
5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?
Kenya is dynamic. Things keep changing in a way that is very unpredictable. We may not be able to accurately forecast what things will be like 10 years from today but the country is moving. I also admire the resilience of our people. Even in times of disasters and hardship, we are still hopeful that things will get better tomorrow.
6. And the worst?
The worst thing about this country is the way we are not able to harness our natural resources. We have almost everything we need yet we still want shortcuts and we want to go out there and look for money that we believe is cheaper but at the end of the day it is not. We have a lot of resources and our people are hard working. With all the resources we have in this country I don’t think we need to beg. We have gold here and we are going out there looking for silver.
7. Your future career plans?
I would like to play an advisory role on private public partnerships across the continent. I think I understand government and public sector and I feel I also understand the private sector to a good extent. What is missing is that bridge that connects the two.
8. How do you relax?
I go to the gym. I play chess because I find it engaging. I also read books. I try to relax during the holidays although I still find myself trying to come up with new ideas and find new ways of solving problems.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
The beauty is that our young people are well equipped in terms of knowledge, but it ends there for most of them. What they need to do is transform that knowledge to something that is relevant and economically sustainable. The young people should do what they enjoy doing. If you find a niche you will definitely make money. I think the youth are in a hurry to get rich and get to [prominent Kenyan businessman Chris] Kirubi’s level when it has taken him 30 to 40 years. You are not going to get there overnight. There are steps of growth and you have to influence others as you climb up. As long as you are focused and utilise your best ability, then you will definitely reach there.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
We need to improve our governance structure because everything else hinges on governance. How much I will work hard [and] how much I will invest in this country as opposed to say Rwanda where I can register a company in two hours depends on governance. Supposing the whole of Africa operated at a level of efficiency such as that of Rwanda? We need to get our act right as a continent. We need an Africa that can go digital, an Africa that can challenge China and India.
David Kuria is the founder and CEO of Ecotact Group, a Kenya-based social enterprise which provides affordable sanitation within urban areas. Ecotact builds and operates public pay-per-use toilet and shower facilities. Kuria was named Regional Social Entrepreneur of the Year for Africa in 2009 and is also a Schwab Fellow 2009, Ashoka Fellow 2007 and a newly appointed member of the Crans Montana Forum of New Leaders for Tomorrow.