‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose the same ten questions to business leaders across the continent.
Edward Kirathe, CEO, Acorn Group (Kenya)
1. What was your first job?
While at university I worked at Diners Club, a credit card company. I was a debt collector for about three months. I used to earn peanuts, but it paid my bus fare and entertainment. I learnt a lot collecting debt from people. It was quite interesting. I took up part time jobs all through university where I was studying architecture.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I grew up in a middle class home. I admire my parents’ determination to see us through school. Without the education I got, I don’t think I would have been able to achieve what I have achieved. My first boss was my first formal business mentor. I learnt a lot about the industry and how it works from him. Over the years, I have learned from people much older than I am, people like Chris Kirubi who is a good friend of mine. There are a lot of other almost father figures who have taught me a lot about business.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Many things worry me. Principally, I think it is how to grow my people; how to make them more productive and effective. People are the best opportunity [for a business] and the biggest challenge as well.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
People tell me that I inspire them. Inspiring people is important because to achieve success you can’t do it alone. You have to motivate other people towards whatever it is you are trying to achieve. I believe I am also determined, focused and generous.
5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?
Look outside [the window]: the weather. Where else do you find this weather? I think our people also are generally very hard working. There are fantastically talented [young people] in Kenya. It amazes me every time I recruit young people. We are bringing up some pretty sharp guys. They no longer believe in boundaries. The other great thing about Kenya is the opportunities here across all sectors.
6. And the worst?
Crime is unacceptably high. You want to be able to do your business without having to worry if you will get home in the evening, or whether you be waylaid or carjacked. That is always on the minds of every Nairobian or Kenyan. People talk about corruption, but I think it is not as bad as it used to be. Honestly we beat ourselves on this corruption index and I know it is still there but is getting better. People are more conscious and aware of it as vice; something you don’t want to be associated with. There was a time kitu kidogo [a phrase used to solicit a bribe] was almost lingua franca, it was the parlance.
7. Your future career plans?
I want to spend a lot more time in empowering and mentoring young people. Like I told you, these guys are talented, they are ambitious and boundless. But what they don’t have are sufficient mentors to help them channel their energies and potential forward. I would like to spend more time growing people.
8. How do you relax?
I read. I love to travel. I often just get on a plane and travel somewhere. That is how I unwind. I also like to spend time with my wife and children.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
We are how many people in Africa? We can’t all become business people and entrepreneurs. Not everybody has the mindset to become an entrepreneur. That is not an arrogant statement; that is the reality. Do we now all try to become athletes because we have good runners in Kenya? If we became a nation of 40m athletes, who will do the rest of the stuff that needs to be done?
First, you have to know that you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. We can’t become a continent of a billion entrepreneurs. You must have the passion and the will to go on when everyone else advises you to quit. Those who feel they have what it takes have got to be very disciplined and focused.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
Africa is moving in the right direction. There are three things that Africa is starting to get right and should continue. The first thing is democracy. Africa is more democratic now than it has ever been. The second thing is education. We cannot realise our potential with an uneducated population. We must continue to expand tertiary education. There is a huge correlation between education and economic development.
The third thing is infrastructure. Everywhere you go in Africa, every single government is focusing on energy, roads and rail [construction]. This week, three presidents [Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), Paul Kagame (Rwanda) and Yoweri Museveni (Uganda)] are in Mombasa, Kenya, to open a berth at the port. The fact that our leaders are focusing on infrastructure is a fantastic thing for Africa. The entrepreneurial spirit will do the rest. Give us the democratic space, an educated workforce and infrastructure. Leave the rest to Africans, they will sort it out.
Edward Kirathe is the founder and CEO of Acorn Group, a real estate company offering varied services in property development, construction, management and property trading in East Africa.