Before Simon Kabu and his wife started a successful travel company with an annual turnover of “anything between Sh300 million and Sh700 million”, before his job as a turnboy working the graveyard shift in the milk industry, loading and off-loading milk at Tuzo and Brookside, before his gig in sales as regional head at Unga Limited, before he scorched the Internet with pictures of his wife’s birthday gift — a Range Rover reported to cost Sh20 million — he was a tout on Nairobi’s route 44, raising money to see him through Egerton University.
Now Bonfire Adventures has a staff of 100 and has seven offices.
The boy from a humble background raised by a civil servant father and a farmer mother has made his bones and now breaks bread at the main table with the boys (and girls) with long beards.
He shows up at Nairobi Serena quite tardy to meet JACKSON BIKO
I expected you to a have a better sense of time given that you are quite the successful businessman who must have a greater appreciation of the value of time. (He’s over an hour late).
I ran into some difficulties this morning and I apologise I didn’t send a message to notify you of my lateness. So, talk to me…
What lessons did you learn as a tout and how useful have those lessons been in running your business?
I learnt a lot. I learnt to interact with people and crisis management. As a tout you meet very many different people every morning; people with different moods, and you have to accommodate all of them. That has helped me a lot in my day-to-day life.
What were your ambitions growing up in the village, what were your dreams then?
(Chuckles) I wanted to be a doctor, then a banker and then at some point I wanted to be a pilot. But as I progressed through secondary school, physics and chemistry proved to be a bit difficult. Anyway, I found myself at Egerton University studying economics and statistics but I always had a sharp business acumen. I sold CDs, I supplied rental videos, and money was tight so I had to leave school to do the touting thing for a while to raise school fees.
What would you attribute your success to?
First there is God’s hand in this, yes, and a lot of resilience and hard work. My wife Sarah and I burn the midnight oil to make sure that the company succeeds. That hardwork has been consistent. When we started, we sometimes would not have food on the table.
We went the opposite way and started doing something that nobody was doing because travel was regarded as a mzungu thing. We made it affordable by creating packages; now for instance, we have Dubai rates that are cheaper than going to Mombasa. For Sh52,000, you can go to Dubai for five days including flight, accommodation, meals and excursions. How? With numbers we can negotiate with the airlines and hotels, work with low margins but capitalise on volumes.
Do you think success changes people?
If you allow it. What matters is how you have achieved that success and what your personality is. Yes, I might have changed my lifestyle but I still interact with the people I used to interact with. I still have them as friends, even if I have other people in a different league. Also, when you become successful you become busier which is normal, so you might not spend time with the people you used to because you are in different places. But humility is important. I still remember where I came from.
Most successful people say they sacrificed something for success. What did you sacrifice?
(Pause) I’m 42 now, I got married at 36 so I was a little bit late. But even after I got married, we took time to get our first born because we had to make sure the business was stable. We were too busy. Also because of being busy, you’re not able to nurture friendships as much as you would want to. Also having a family while building a business leaves you with less time for family so we sometimes bring our children to work so that we bond.
What’s your fear?
(Pause) As a CEO of a company I’ve been bestowed with a responsibility right now of feeding the families of 100+ and another 400 drivers who depend on us, so failure or fear isn’t an option. I think regardless of what I would be doing in life I would still be successful. This is because I’m resilient. If I was selling sweets, I would make it a successful sweets company.
What do you still dream of now?
To expand, diversify especially in hospitality. I also still dream to be a pilot and I’m sure I’ll achieve it.
So when you buy your wife a birthday present worth Sh20 million…
(Chuckles) That car…I won’t say how much it is but I will only say that it’s a Range Rover and there was an offer at the dealership.
Right. I’m curious, after that gift is your status as a husband elevated higher in the house, like small sins are forgiven or do you still suffer the same challenges husbands who buy a bottle of perfume for birthdays suffer?
(Chuckles) Eh, Biko, that car was taken out of context. I didn’t intend for anything to be blown out of proportion. It had been her dream car for four years and her birthday happened to have fallen on a weekday so I had to send it to the office. To crown it I had a cake… I wanted to do a big one. (Pause) She was very happy but I guess our family is like any other ordinary family who go through the same challenges.
Do you regret the attention it generated online? Would you do it differently if you had a choice?
I don’t ever regret it because I did that from the bottom of my heart. She deserved it, she’s my queen and she works hard. It’s not the first time for a Range Rover to be bought. People buy Range Rovers every day. It’s not the first time I have gifted her, last time we were in Seychelles, the other time we did a cruise for my birthday.
How do you top a Range Rover? What can you possibly get her next year?
(Laughs) I don’t know. I’ll look for something else.