Talking business with private education entrepreneur Simon Gicharu

For many years Kenyans had very little to choose from when seeking university education, a situation that is partly to be blamed for the country having less than a million degree holders nearly 50 years after independence. Today, the government and private investors are channelling investments towards the education industry amidst growing demand.

Simon Gicharu

Simon Gicharu

One such investor is Simon Gicharu who started a small college with second-hand computers in 1996, that has since grown to become one of Kenya’s leading private universities. Gicharu told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi how getting fired led him to start a milk distribution business, thus setting the foundation for a multi-million dollar worth university. The entrepreneur also shared his secrets to success, ambition to take the university to Somaliland and Tanzania and his most trying moments in business. Below are excerpts.

I understand that you went into business after losing your job. Tell us about that.

I got fired because I left my teaching job without proper clearance and went to Cranfield University in the UK in 1995 for three months to study enterprise development. When I came back, I was suspended for a year and during that time I bought an old Chevrolet and acquired a distributorship with a local milk processor and began supplying milk. I built up on this business and started a small commercial college with 20,000 shillings (US$233) as capital. The college has grown to become the Mount Kenya University (MKU), which is today worth millions of dollars. We have 11 campuses across Kenya and in Kigali (Rwanda) with 1,000 employees and over 20,000 students.

What plans do you have in regard to regional expansion?

We have a campus in Kigali, and we plan to expand to Somaliland and Tanzania. We identify and enter countries that require our services. We had plans to enter South Sudan, but we have hesitated opening shop because their education system has not taken root. You must have a very stable school system in the lower levels to support a university and this is not established in South Sudan yet. We have received the necessary documentation to begin operations in Somaliland and we expect to open by September.

Describe the challenges you face.

We want to be the best university in Kenya and to achieve this we need the infrastructure, which requires a lot of resources. For instance, we want to establish a 100 million shillings ($1.2 million) research lab. We want to do so much but we have financial constraints. Another challenge is getting faculty in the field of health sciences. Whereas there are so many graduates in the field, getting professors is a major challenge. In the near future we expect this to be addressed as more health professionals go back to school to advance their training.

A private university has to worry not just about quality, but also about profits and sustainability. This must be a tough balancing act?

Luckily, I don’t have investors who demand dividends at the end of the year so we don’t worry a lot about profits. My family and I own the business. However, we manage the university as a business and therefore everything must be sustainable.

Kenyan institutions of higher learning have been accused of producing half-baked graduates. What are you doing different to ensure your graduates are ready for the job market?

When it comes to private universities, students make the choice where they want to go. We are very conscious about quality. If we don’t give students value for their money they will transfer to another institution. We don’t need to be told by anyone about quality because without it we will go out of business. We make a deliberate effort to provide our students with the best infrastructure, faculty and all resources needed. This is a question of willing buyer and willing seller. Quality is what we sell.

Everyone is telling the African youth to become job creators and start their own businesses. Is entrepreneurship really for all?

Entrepreneurship is not about starting a business. It is about looking for opportunities as opposed to sitting at home and asking for jobs. We talk about freelance journalists. If you are a trained journalist, you can work for How we made it in Africa on commission without being a full time employee. Entrepreneurship is about looking for opportunities and exploiting them. There are a thousand and one unexploited opportunities.

But entrepreneurship is no walk in the park. Have you ever thought of quitting?

Yes. Education is not like any other business. I deal with academicians who are very bright and students who are very demanding, therefore we have to work very hard. There was a time I was looking for a charter from the government. The process was very frustrating and I almost gave up. A certain businessman approached me with an offer to buy the university land for several millions of dollars. I almost agreed to take the money and go relax in Cape Town, South Africa. But I realised an unchallenging life would be worth very little and so I held on.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

Africa offers immense opportunities for upcoming entrepreneurs. You need to be courageous to exploit these opportunities not just in your country but also within the region. We need to encourage our governments to move barriers in the region, expand trading blocks and create a bigger market that can accommodate all of us. Entrepreneurs should look beyond their countries. We need to be aggressive.

Lastly, who do you look up to?

I admire Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Indian business magnate Mukesh Ambani who is the chairman and CEO of the Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries Limited.