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?
While I was in university studying Land Economics I used to work at a pharmacy during holidays. I would prepare orders and help around the store. It was a very nice experience. I learnt how to dispense medicine. I can still read a doctor’s jargon. I was earning KSh. 1,000 (US$11) [per month] which was a lot of money in 1982.
When I left university I had four job offers but they were all in government. I went into the Ministry of Lands and Housing and worked for six years as a civil servant. It was very interesting. I must say that I have a lot of respect for civil servants. The civil service has got very experienced and very well educated people… It can work but you have got to get the right people with the right attitude. I think there is need to reform the civil service.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
Oh, there are so many people. My father always told me: ‘Be a wise man and you will be able to speak to kings.’ He always emphasised that I should strive to get the best education. He is the one who encouraged me to do my master’s three years after getting my first degree. That is actually why I chose to go into the Ministry of Lands and Housing because that was the only ministry that could offer me the opportunity to do my post-graduates studies. I got a scholarship and went to the University of London in 1990.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Having enough money in our bank account to pay salaries at the end of the month. The day that I am not able to pay my employees or even delay their salaries scares me the most.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I am very determined to succeed. I am scared of failure and I am, I believe, someone who can be trusted. I value honesty and integrity. I don’t make quick deals. I am very calculated. I take risks but I am also cautious to some extent.
5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?
The best thing about my country is the people of Kenya. They are hardworking, peaceful, kind and very determined people. There is a huge entrepreneurial streak in a lot of people. They love education and we are proud of our country.
6. And the worst?
Corruption is the worst thing about this country. The wastage of resources by government is something that is disappointing. There has just got to be zero tolerance to corruption. The unfortunate thing is that corruption is not only in government. Corruption is also growing in the private sector. It is all down to the erosion of morals. It is a worrying trend.
7. Your future career plans?
I would like to grow this company and start other associated businesses. I would also love to go into teaching and do more mentoring.
8. How do you relax?
I occasionally play golf. I love travelling and I like relaxing at home.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
I would always advise any youth to work before going into business. Be employed for some years and then start your own business. You will learn a lot. There are [jobs], it is just a matter of looking for them. We should also be open to go and work abroad. One or two years of employment can be a very good learning experience.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
We need good governance, elimination of corruption and for us Africans to believe in ourselves. Our problems are not going to be sorted out by the Americans and the Chinese. We have got to start doing more business, Africans to Africans within Africa. We have not exploited the opportunities of doing business within Africa. Kenyans need to do business in Nigeria and South Africans should come here – that is how we will grow the continent of Africa.
Gikonyo Gitonga is the managing director and CEO of Axis Real Estate, a leading property firm in Kenya, offering varied services including estate agency, project and construction management, research and consultancy, valuation advisory services and fixed assets management. Gitonga co-founded the company in 1998.