Personal Finance

Steve's love for old Volkswagen vehicles grows into an award-winning business

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Restoration Hub KE founder Steve Warui during the photo session at his garage in Lang'ata on January 20, 2023. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Growing up in the low-income tenements of Dandora in the 1980s required ingenuity. Steve Warui was incredibly inventive and remembers making his own toy cars complete with suspensions and steering since his mother couldn’t afford to buy him any.

Mr Warui has always been artsy and prefers working with his hands. He was into drawing when in school but that was quickly shut down by the powers that be.

“I’d look at a matatu and replicate it at the back of my school books which attracted beatings from both my mother and teachers,” he says of one of the passions he’s let go of but not before ‘helping’ with his elder sister’s art project.

She passed with flying colours.

In his third year into a Bachelor’s degree in Science, Mr Warui realised he’d gone into the wrong career but it was too late to change. He is multi-talented and played music.

“I can pretty much play anything except for wind instruments!” he says. With his troupe, they played weddings and other events and soon realised the money they were making mostly went into transporting their equipment. He looked to remedy that.

His grandfather owned a Volkswagen Beetle he’d driven for over 40 years. He wasn’t willing to let it go. In 2002, the Beetle was grounded at his grandfather's house in South C.

“I went to see him every day at lunchtime,” Mr Warui says of the process of softening up the old man.

He had to listen to stories he’d heard the previous day, trying hard to pretend that he was hearing them for the first time. Eventually, his grandfather let him have the car. If the older Warui liked the work done, he’d let his grandson keep it.

Sh150,000 went into it, paid for piecemeal with performance money from his gigs. They would then take out the back seat to fit in the instruments. Soon after, the realisation that the Beetle was too small hit.

In 2006, someone told Mr Warui of a Volkswagen Kombi in Mathare that would perfectly fit his needs. Two problems, it was being used as a toilet and secondly, when they got there, someone else was bidding for it.

Luckily for Mr Warui, the other bidder was Sh 5,000 short and had to go to an ATM to get the balance. Once they left, he closed the deal, paying Sh30,000 for it and quickly towing it to his house in Ngummo minutes before the adversary came back.

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His love for this brand of cars was influenced by his grandfather’s vehicle.

“My only memory of cars was sitting in the back of the Beetle to take my grandmother to have her eyes checked in Kikuyu,” say Mr Warui of how green he was with his first foray into the automobile world.

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Outside of cars and photography, Mr Warui says that he goes on long road trips to recalibrate on January 20, 2023. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG .

Traumatic experience

He learnt the hard way. A mechanic he trusted gutted his beloved Beetle, selling the parts while he was away at university. Only the chassis was left when a mechanic at the garage called to ask him why he was selling it.

Soon after this trauma, Mr Warui met the man who he credits with teaching him everything he knows today. Together, they put the Beetle back together and brought the Kombi to life.

In 2016, Mr Warui decided to revamp his beloved Beetle (it had since been grounded) and have it compete at the Concours d’ Elegance – the vintage car competition. The following year, he entered the Kombi as well. That was when he met Larry Asego. “He was my rival at the Concours,” Mr Warui recalls of their meeting.

Mr Asego, a media personality in Kenya loved the work he’d done on the Kombi and wanted the same work done on his. Mr Warui protested that he didn’t do this as a business but Mr Asego was insistent. And he would pay!

Mr Asego won the Concours in the Kombi’s category for three years in a row hence, the run only being stopped by the Covid-19 pandemic which led to the cancellation of the 2020 edition.

“Others came to me and asked if I could do (restore) their cars like Larry’s,” Mr Warui says of the ballooning of what was initially a hobby. The referrals were so many that he had to move the enterprise out of his backyard, “My neighbours were complaining of the noise and paint fumes.”

Big break

Catapulted by the work he did on Larry Asego’s blue and white Kombi, Mr Warui set up a garage called Restoration Hub Ke in Langata where he has since continued the end-to-end car service as a business.

His is now a business where “You bring in a shell and drive out with a complete car.”

His is a social enterprise. On a patch of government-owned land in Langata, Mr Warui and his team of 30 young men get to work on their passion to restore Volkswagen vehicles.

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Steve's love for old Volkswagen vehicles has grown into a business that brings to life Concours d'Elegance Prize Winners in this photo taken on January 20, 2023. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

They’ve since diversified to other cars since as he puts it, “the mechanism is the same.” Once the job is done, they stand back proud, a piece of themselves leaving with every car that drives out of the yard.

Going forward, Mr Warui who is an events photographer in another life looks forward to getting permanent structures and working spaces at a location that is his own.

Most satisfying job

Asked about his most satisfying job to date, Mr Warui recalls a 1951 Volkswagen Beetle, the oldest in the country, that he worked on.

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From a rusty shell, he managed to drive it to second on the podium at the Concours d’ Elegance, a crowning moment.

Outside of cars and photography, Mr Warui says he goes on long road trips to recalibrate. “I discovered road trips when I got married in 2015.

Instead of a holiday in the coastal region, we drove down to Zambia through Tanzania!” He terms the long drives as his therapy when burnout sets in.

In 2023, he is planning a corporate-funded drive down to Cape Town. Of course, it would have to be in a convoy of Kombi’s.

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