Mary Okelo: Makini has set standards bar high


Business that started 33 years ago from the home backyard with eight pupils now runs schools and a college in Nairobi

Makini Schools founder Mary Okelo saw two signs that told her she had a future in school business: Passion for children and falling standards in public schools. That was in 1978. And that was when Makini was born in a home backyard with eight pupils.

“Public education started its downhill trend in 1978,” Mrs Okelo told Business Daily last week at her office, off Ngong Road in Nairobi.
“As one who always had a passion for children, I saw a big opportunity to step forward with an inspired alternative.”

After 33 years in the business, Makini is a success story in the sector that is growing competitive by the day. There are more than 1,000 students in pre-school, primary, secondary and college levels. It is also home to other nationalities.

Getting started was a major challenge, she volunteers.

“Women have come from far, far away,” she says. As recent as the early ‘90s women could not access bank loans and had to use third parties just for a signature, Mrs Okelo explains. “That was the main challenge I faced as the banks were out of question as I sought capital; I therefore did not start at the scale I could have wanted or from the ideal location.” The proprietor resorted to her savings and made sacrifices to see her idea take root.

Unique project
“I had to juggle my work at Barclays where I was the first Kenyan bank manager and running the school. It later became more challenging when, in 1987, I was appointed a senior adviser to the President of the African Development Bank in Abidjan and later vice president of Women World Banking in New York.” A multi tasking of sorts, she says. “One had to give.” In 1992, the signs were clear and she had to choose one role.

“We had become a seriously big school by then and I was struggling to keep track of the situation on both ends. I did not even resign; I just disappeared hoping I may be back.”

The Makini project had suddenly become involving with all the expansion we were then undertaking, she said in an interview. “My heart has forever been in developing young minds.” Makini, she adds, is a unique project which is more than just the good grades.

“Here, we have set the bar high especially in the way we develop our students. We are more into wholesome education where co-curricular development is as important as the academic aspect,” she says, adding that people mostly fail because of the copycat culture widespread in Kenya. “If you open an M-Pesa kiosk, for instance, everybody tends to copy-paste your idea. That way, nobody advances beyond the very basic level.”

Mrs Okelo says every success story must have a value proposition. “At Makini, we are now into the second generation. Those who were our students through the ‘80s and early ‘90s have now returned to Makini as parents. It is because they know the Makini project is more of a calling than a business. Here, we go beyond the call of duty to provide not just an education for work but also abilities for every life situation.”

Makini has been a key performer in the national examinations, finishing top place in six of the last 10 years. The school has been a regular winner in national, continental and global taekwondo, drama, athletics and arts among other activities.

Notable Makini alumni include Kenya’s first woman pilot Irene Mutungi of Kenya Airways, former TV queen Esther Arunga and media personality Martin Kasavuli and Mutula Kilonzo’s daughter Kethi Kilonzo, an advocate.

Mrs Okelo has been recognised for her role in education, including being a Millennium Development ambassador, a Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) presidential honour recipient, winner of the Africa Enterprise Award, and a key facilitator of the Global Fund among other crowns.

Setting higher standards and seeing unfinished business has kept her going. “If at any one time I felt I was doing well enough, I could have stopped trying harder long ago,” she says, adding that Makini is a product of an insatiable appetite to always improve.

Kiosk to shop

“People should always look ahead; there is a good reason the eyes are at the front of the head, not back,” she says, sounding exuberant and energetic.

“It means that we should always face forward, move from a kiosk to a shop to a store to a supermarket and so on; if you lack that kind of forward thinking, you stop trying and eventually, you fail.” To succeed, Mrs Okelo says, one must lean on strong values. “A business that only targets profits is unsustainable,” she told Business Daily.

“Fairness, accountability and integrity must be the pillars of any successful enterprise. Without any of the above, we could not have survived as long as we did.” As a business owner and leader, it is most important to take good care of your human capital, she says.

“Employees are either your making or your breaking. It is critical that they feel they are a part of the project. Business leaders must always endeavour to lead by example, listen keenly to their employees and appreciate their efforts. Only then do you create a winning team.” She has a word of advice to education providers.

“Much as this is a business, ensure that you do not compromise on excellence and virtues.” The bar, she says, must be set very high for students and their teachers “to push them to the limit of self-application, sacrifice and morality; that worked for me and it would for anybody.”

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