‘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.
John Kithaka, CEO, FEP Group (Kenya)
1. What was your first job?
My first job was right after high school. I made my first investment with the 6,000 shillings (about US$70) pocket money I had left. I started farming and made about 89,000 shillings in a few months.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
The late Philip Ndegwa – a Kenyan investor, economist and technocrat – was a real influence in my life. I was keen on the businesses he invested in and they were not just any [business]. They were very clear, focused and strategic businesses that had synergy with each other. In philanthropic work, I admire people like Bill Gates, because I have a burden and a heart to give and touch lives. Every year I measure my success on how many people have smiled because of me.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Any new idea that makes me go, “wow”, in terms of where we can make money easily and help people. I always think of what can make us better tomorrow. God has blessed me with enterprising ideas and so I have to sit down and work at them. I am always looking at appreciating what God’s purpose for my life is.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I am very hard working. I also believe in people. Part of the FEP spirit is delegating with authority. I never struggle because this company is not me, everyone knows their work, and mine is to nurture and empower them to take our 14 businesses to the next level.
5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?
I am proud of Kenya. It is such an economic hub. Kenyans are very educated, enterprising and hardworking and I thank God for the gradual and sure progression.
6. And the worst?
The negative ethnicity, which is just the rich taking advantage of the people by introducing divisions for their own benefit. The other problem is corruption. This is brought by simple-mindedness because people are corrupted to take advantage of a very small thing and sell away their country. Patriotism is what I would really fight for. This would make leaders have the interest of our people at heart.
7. Your future career plans?
I would like to change the way business is transacted in this country. I would like to get 100 men and women and help them see things right and engage right. I want to look back and say, “it was worthy being around”. I will be very happy to be an entrepreneurship mentor. You are not successful unless your successor is successful. I want to make a difference.
8. How do you relax?
I enjoy swimming and golfing. I also enjoy going for holiday with my family and spending time with God; I know I have to tap from above. I am also a fan of retreats because, as an investor and CEO, my work centres on thinking, [not] where I am, so I can always think.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
For the youth the potential is just too huge. They should engage in research so that they will be able to do business from a platform of understanding. It is important to look back to those who have gone before them; don’t do what they did and failed. I will also plead with them to escape from trading because it is not sustainable. They should try as much as possible to focus on how they can become investors as opposed to traders. You can only use trading as a stepping stone and escape as fast as possible. They should also have very clear targets, timelines and a focused plan. I encourage the young professionals of Africa to put those ties down and do what real men do. Professionals are the people who should be shaping the destiny of this continent, but they are very busy working for others instead of thinking how they can be the creators (of companies). Lastly, they should have unity; if you go it alone, you will go nowhere.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
We need to have unity as countries in Africa. Politics has taken centre stage in Africa whether by design or by default. Uniting for economic reasons will be the hardest thing if politics continues to take centre stage, because politics is about acquisition of power and retention of the same. If Africa could put politics backstage and put economics at the front, we would go very far.
John Kithaka is the founding member and CEO of the Fountain Enterprise Programme (FEP) Group of Companies. The FEP Group, which has brought together 18,000 Kenyan investors locally and from the diaspora with the motto ‘the power of many’, has made investments worth US$18.3 million in 14 companies across a variety of sectors.