Despite scoring 386 out of 500 marks in the 2007 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams and getting a letter of admission to Mang’u High School, John Kuria was unable to pursue his studies due to lack of fees.
What made things worse for him was that his parents separated two days after he received the admission letter. Reason? They differed over whether or not the young Kuria should go to high school. His father wanted him to drop out while his mother insisted he should proceed to high school.
“My father who was a casual labourer said his income was not enough to support my secondary education and at the same time take care of my other five siblings,” he says.
“My mother could hear none of it, and insisted that all resources should be invested in my education as I was the brightest.”
In a huff, Mr Kuria’s mother took off taking with her all the children and started life as a single mother. She soon found a job as a casual labourer in a Thika-based coffee plantation.
“She thought her wage would be enough to support my secondary education only for her to realise that it was not. With no option, my childhood dream of becoming a pilot dissipated and instead, I joined her in working in the coffee plantation. Our joint wages went into meeting our basic needs,” he says.
In 2011, when he was aged 18, he enrolled for driving lessons, after which he worked as a driver for two years in a dairy company, also in Thika. His money went to support his mother who was then paying secondary education fees for three of his brothers and sisters.
In 2014, he shifted to operating a bodaboda in Thika Town. He had spent the savings he had painstakingly made to buy the motorcycle. His life, however, took a major turn in the morning of June 15, 2014 after meeting a businessman who was making soaps in Murang’a County.
“This man had devised a formula for making soaps from onions and tomatoes. He employed me as a distributor in Thika Town and its environs,” he says.
Mr Kuria soon won the trust of the businessman so much so that he trained him on how to make the soaps. And voila! That was the beginning of his business journey.
Having mastered the art of soap-making, Mr Kuria retreated into his Kihiu Mwiri village in Murang’a County and started making his own products.
It didn’t take long for his startup to set off in an upward trajectoty, and now it has blossomed into a lucrative venture raking in on average Sh250,000 net earnings a month.
Taking into account how small he started, the business growth can only be described as remarkable.
“I started off with Sh1,200 capital that I used to rent a premise and acquire raw materials. I bought tomatoes worth Sh50, onions for Sh20, chemicals worth Sh100 and basins as well as packing materials. I was then ready to go,” he says.
In the first week, he earned a profit of Sh3,000 from the 100 pieces of soap that he had made.
“My bodaboda came in handy because I used it to market and ferry my products. By 2018, my business had grown in leaps and bounds and I was literally minting money,” he says adding that his role model is the late businessman and politician, Njenga Karume who rose from selling charcoal to a billionaire.
Mr Kuria says he has bought a piece of land for his mother and siblings in Gatanga Sub County and built them a house, and they no longer work in the coffee farm.
“I have also bought myself land, I own a car and I have employed 10 youths to help me in my enterprise,” he says with a palpable sense of pride.
“I recruit bodaboda youths to market my products and they earn a commission.”
When he was starting off, one of his toughest challenges was getting credit. He says the government and financial institutions have to come up with mechanisms to support brilliant ideas.
“Our financial institutions only fund stable enterprises. It is very hard to get credit to incubate a creative investment idea,” he says.
“When I was struggling to stabilise my enterprise, I approached several institutions but they turned me down,” he laments.
But when he “broke even after hard struggle and borrowing from friends, the same financial institutions were ready to lend me using my plant as collateral”.
Mr Kuria says “a deeper and honest” relationship between the financial sector and startups is needed to foster creative and innovative business minds in order to create wealth.
The entrepreneur urges the government to find ways to ensure that Uwezo and Youth Enterprise funds make a positive impact, saying the allocations are yet to live up to their expectations
His dream is for his business to hit a billion mark by the time he hits 50 years in 2043.
Mr Kuria is a father of five — aged between two and nine – with three adopted as a way of saying “thank you to God” for the achievements he has witnessed in his venture.