The Fountain Enterprise Programme (FEP) Group of Companies is sending ripples across Kenya’s business community, committing hundreds of millions of shillings in new projects. 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. How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi talked to the FEP Group founding member and CEO, John Kithaka, about the group’s ambitions to change the way business is done in Africa and his “burning desire to create a club of tomorrow’s billionaires”.
How did you get into business?
I am trained as an architect, but I always knew from my childhood that I wanted to become an entrepreneur. I made my first investment after high school with the 6,000 Kenyan shillings (about $70) pocket money I had left. I started farming and made about 89,000 shillings in a few months. In university, I ran seven kiosks in estates within Nairobi. My breakthrough, however, came when the government announced that food prices at the university cafeterias would be increased. I knew for sure, students would not be able to afford the food. I saw an opportunity glaring. I transferred one of the kiosks and brought it to the main campus to offer students alternative food. At one point I was employing about 28 people while still studying for my degree in architecture. These early investments made the foundation of the FEP Group.
What inspired you to establish the FEP Group?
I was basically a trader for many years doing business in many sectors. I however knew that trading was not the way to go. I knew that the clique of millionaires and billionaires have sustainable investments while most traders would be successful at their prime age but die poor. So, I started doing my research on where do the poor part ways with the rich. My burning desire was to create a club of tomorrow’s billionaires. More so I was keen on creating men of integrity and value that can get rich and look back in pride and say; “I know where my wealth has come from”.
In 2002, we registered FEP bringing on board many other investors. We believe in the power of many. We have made investments in the financial sector, media, hospitality and education sectors. As an architect I am trained to build foundations that are unique and unshakeable. These two things are the concept behind the FEP Group. Our slogan is investing innovatively and sustainably. I only start things which I know will transcend generations. I love where the Bible says in Proverbs 13:22 that a wise man shall leave an inheritance for his children and his grand children.
To get an idea of the size of your group, could you give us some figures?
Right now we have 14 companies, all of them with a very clear strategy of reaching maturity by the year 2015. We have 18,000 shareholders, very ordinary people who just believe in our idea. We believe the long journey to greatness starts with the right mindset. We have made investments worth of 1.6 billion shillings right now ($18.3 million) and by 2016, when these investments are post maturity, we will be worth hundreds of billions. My focus is on 2015, when our businesses mature; we will celebrate having done things in a different way and succeeded.
What is holding back Africans from running successful businesses and making billions?
The employee mentality is a challenge. Investors look for opportunities, Africans look for jobs. It is the thinkers we are missing. When you tell people that they can get to that level of millions and billions they ask: “Are you sure?” In Africa there is also a problem of mistrust. Nobody seems to trust the other. Other people believe they can only get rich by conning others and stealing. A time has come to show that there can be a group that can change the name of Africa. We also have a problem with patience. You can never be an investor if you want things today. Nature has it, everything that you plant and harvest, the faster it takes to germinate, the faster it goes. Any tree that will last for 200 years, will take two years to germinate. This principle applies in business.
I know Kenyans are very enterprising but not all of them are billionaires. If anything, the wealth of most billionaires is acquired through questionable means. Why don’t entrepreneurs get this far?
I agree that most billionaires got their wealth through questionable manners. But there are also those who got their wealth by having invested right. By the way you cannot become a billionaire by stealing, unless you steal a system. Most billionaires are owners of banks, supermarket chains, media companies, hotel groups, insurance companies, etc. These are investors. They go for things that are sustainable and go beyond the owners. As long as you are a trader, buying things here and selling them elsewhere, no matter how enterprising, you will never be on the billionaires list because what you are doing is the business of addition. People need to create sustainable investments that influence the economy of a nation.
You are a big critic of working for someone else. But who will work for you if everyone becomes an entrepreneur?
Those who go into business will always leave room for others. I encourage my employees to work very hard not to be employable in the next five years. Let this employment be a stepping stone to getting capital. I don’t want to see somebody getting grey hair in my compound. Even me, as a CEO, I want to retire by the time I turn 45. I tell them to work hard and excuse themselves early enough and not wait to be retired at FEP. I teach my employees how to invest and empower them to understand how to transit and create room for others to come in.