In 2005 Duncan Wanjohi met Vinita Otieno at the gym in Parklands Sports Club. He had just gotten off the boat from The US after a ten-year stint studying and working.
She - a health and wellness expert - was back from Canada with a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Saskatchewan.
Love quickly blossomed around dumbbells, which led to a marriage in 2008 (and three kids to date). Soon, the couple embarked on realising Vinita’s dream to “democratise” the fitness space and start a gym.
In 2016 Smart Gyms opened its doors at Junction Mall, on a massive 9,000 sq ft floor, the largest commercial gym at that time. Three years later, they are set to open their fourth branch at the Hub mall, in Karen.
Oh, and there he is, a fit-looking Duncan, walking purposefully, confidently, like Schwarzenegger in the movie The Terminator to meet JACKSON BIKO for a chat about fitness and health and how that comes together in a burgeoning business.
Where is Vinita?
Unfortunately she couldn’t make it, with apologies. It’s been a hectic day. Our daughter just graduated from kindergarten and we are throwing a small party for her, so she is running around to get that up and running. So it’s just me, I’m afraid.
Fitness has currently become a thing, right? They say that the midlife crisis now is not even buying a sports-car or running off with a girl half your age, it’s staying fit and eating right and standing on your head in yoga.
[Chuckle] Interesting. So, nobody is showing off their Ferraris anymore, they are showing off their abs, maybe? I don’t know about that but in this current lifestyle there is a need to be physically agile either way.
People have different motivations for being fit; some after their doctor says “Look, either you’re going to be on this medication for this time or you just work out 3 times a week.”
Some do it for the glamour, for selfies, for Instagram (Laughs). And then you have a whole bunch of guys who are doing it because they know it in their best interest.
When you work out, you get oxygen saturation which helps the clarity of thought and you make better decisions and . perform better. So there is a handful of guys who check in the morning, hands warm on a cold day, full of life and energy and vigour.
Was there anything in your past, in your childhood, that could have indicated you would have landed here, running a gym with your wife?
No. I grew up in South B, attended Consolata Primary School, then St Mary’s High School then at 18 I went to school in the USA; Missouri State University where I studied Computer Information Systems.
I worked after before coming back home. But I’ve always had an interest in Tech. I mean, started writing code when I was 7years old. I didn’t know I was writing code. We used to write code on ZX Spectrum.
It’s really a keyboard and you connect it to your TV and you load programs and games using a cassette tape. I worked at 3Mice Interactive, back in the day then joined Britam as the head of systems, because I wanted perspective in financial services.
I left to do something a bit Jua Kali. That was automation of the tea trading mill in Kenya. But perhaps there is the technology angle to it, Smart Gyms is smart in many ways in that apart from our smart pricing, smart appearance and everything else, we’re paperless, for one.
We have embraced technology. Our register is in an app, we don’t have any paperwork. You book your classes in an app, payment is paperless, through Mpesa or card. We have biometric access. As an entrepreneur, I like challenges. How are we going to do fitness in a way that can scale?
What gave you guys the courage to say, we are going to price this gym at Sh3,500 a month, one of the lowest for the quality of service you offer. Did you guys know something the market didn’t?
[Laughs] When we first opened, people thought we would raise the fee with time. We haven’t and we don’t intend to. What we’ve created is now becoming normal.
People expect our gyms to be well serviced and they expect to be pocket friendly. People imagine we are a franchise, we are not, we are a chain. The pricing is from belief. I mean, Vinita has been in fitness for a very long time as a personal trainer.
For a few years she was the brand ambassador for USN – Ultimate Sport Nutrition, so she knows it and understands it. She’s more the heart of it. My talent is more in setting up the operations.
We have directors, the main owner is a couple, Kenyan and a gentleman called Graham Hedger, an Englishman who runs ultra-marathons at 50. So you can see how these components made for a great execution and the confidence to see it through.
It just had to be convenient for people, how close to where you live and work. We figured that, that would allow more Kenyans to get active and if we gave them a product and they enjoyed that product then it’s more likely to be a successful one.
What is it like married to a fitness and wellness expert like Vinita? What do you eat, what’s your household like? Describe that for me.
Well. First of all, I don’t think my wife would let me eat anything I want. (Laughs). But you’ve met Vinita, man, there is something electric about her that really draws you. It’s what drew me.
I noticed it. She’s enthused, a bit of an outlier in many aspects. She wakes up at 3am daily, something our kids have picked up, so by 4:30am the household is buzzing! [Chuckles].
I have borrowed a lot of that structure from her and it’s made me a better person in that way. She’s also one of the best personal trainers around. When you’re taking sessions from Vinita, you do what needs to be done because she has zero tolerance for excuses.
Her expectations are higher than what your expectations are for yourself. She also has zero tolerance to calling out any mediocrity. That helped me even professionally. So I’m nowadays more firm with what I expect from people and the feedback loop is immediate. I think a lot of that has come from my interactions with Vinita.
This was her dream. Did you have a dream before you interacted with her dream and what was it? What happens when this dream has taken off and needs no babysitting. Do you remember your dream?
I don’t know if you used to watch the A-Team and Hannibal would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” So what drives me personally is making systems work seamlessly and efficiently. My dream has always been to set up something that works quite well and leverages technology, it helps now that it happens to ride on the back of Vinita’s dream. [Grin].
What’s your fitness regime like? How often do you work out?
I try to work out at least three times a week but I play squash at least once a week. So that’s four times. That’s my cardio day.
Squash, I hear it’s rubbish for the knees. Is that true?
You know, the older you get, the more you have to put your ego aside. (Laughs). That knee is fine, it’s just the ego. (Laughs). I’m 42, and at some age you go from relying on other athleticism and bravado to playing smart. One of the guys I see playing squash is in his almost 80 maybe.
Who is the oldest member of Smart Gyms?
What do you think motivates him?
I think they want to be strong. When I say strong I don’t mean Mickey Ragos strong. But there is something about being able to walk upright, having that firm back and being able to do certain things without being a distraction. You know, like, worrying about those stairs: Can I go downstairs well or can I pick up my grandchild? Few things we are affirming as a firm back.
What’s the most underrated workout in the gym according to you?
Hmm. Interesting question. (Pause) I’d say in terms of equipment, probably the stepmill. It looks easy but it can get intense. That and lunges, which a lot of people avoid.
I see guys who work out in the morning and evening. Is there something like being obsessed with physical fitness and what’s the impact of that?
You know, if someone wants to work out twice a day and their heart can take it, that’s fine. But, in most cases, you actually don’t need to.
My goal is always to finish a work out in 45 min and be done. Doctors recommend you to be active 30 minutes daily. And that’s minor, just walking. If you’re hitting the gym, you do need rest cause the body gets fatigued.
When you go to the gym actually what’s happening is you’re tearing your muscles internally. Small little tears which are repaired by protein. Remember the body building foods we learnt about in the 8-4-4? Even more critical, is the rest for your body to recuperate.
Do you drink alcohol?
If I had the time, I would. I don’t have the time. Also I’m a lightweight, If I was to take a beer now, I’d feel it tomorrow morning. It doesn’t help that Vinita doesn’t drink, as in, she has never drunk in her life.