Dr Simon Gicharu founder of Mount Kenya University
By Elizabeth Buhungiro
Sep. 22, 2015 (All Africa Global Media) -- Dr Simon Gicharu is the founder of Mount Kenya University. With 16 centres and campuses in East and Central Africa, including Rwanda, Mount Kenya University is one of the largest private universities in the two regions. This year, Dr Gicharu scooped the Eastern Africa EY Entrepreneur of the Year, and was inducted into the World Entrepreneur of the Year Hall of Fame. He spoke to Business Times' Elizabeth Buhungiro about his entrepreneurship journey:
How did your entrepreneurship journey begin?
Having acquired a Bachelor of Education from Jomo Kenyatta University in 1990, I was taken on as a part-time lecturer. I also taught applied mathematics at Thika Technical Training Institute (TTTI). However, I had always admired the hard work my father and his peers put into their small businesses. Therefore, I started the Kenya Entrepreneurship Promotion Programme (KEPP) to support them.
In 1995, I got a British Aid to Small Enterprises (BASE) scholarship for a three-month short course on how to manage enterprise development at Cranfield University. On my return, I discovered that I had been suspended from my job because I had not formally asked for leave.
Jobless, with a young family to cater for, I decided to venture into self-employment to earn a living.
How were you able to afford to start a business?
I started small... My initial start-up capital amounted to Ksh20,000 ($220), which was personal savings. Initially, I bought an old pickup truck and I started selling milk. I must say it felt demeaning. I had been lecturer only a few months before, but now here I was, lifting crates of milk. However, I continued to draw inspiration from my father, who had always worked hard to put food on the table.
Why invest in education?
Education had always been my passion. I loved education so much so that even when I became an entrepreneur, it was my sector of choice. Even while I was doing the milk business, I was still training young entrepreneurs through KEPP. This was in the mid-90s when computer literacy was beginning to take shape. To equip young people in our locality with computer skills I bought two computers and a generator because I was operating in a rural setting with no electricity.
Tell us about Mount Kenya University
I wanted to make the computer training formal, but it was clear that with two computers I would not make it. In 2000, I rented a room at TTTI, bought three more computers and started Thika School of Management Studies. I collaborate with Kenya Institute of Management for accreditation. However, I realised later that management courses were not attracting students. So, I decided to introduce health sciences, in 2003 and changed the name of the school to Thika Institute of Technology. The following year, I used my savings, school fees and a bank loan and moved the school to new premises.
In 2008, I applied and was granted permission to convert it to a university, and the university got a charter in 2011.
Any lessons from your entrepreneurship journey?
I have learnt many things; first, starting and maintaining a business requires critical thinking, persistence and focus. You have to be focused, like a lion chasing its prey, when you are still trying to grow the business.
Many opportunities may come your way, but you have to ask yourself how they will benefit the business. Another important thing is humility. You will always need people no matter how successful you are. Success requires being associated with people. Therefore, stay grounded no matter what you achieve.
Why did you decide to invest in Rwanda?
The return of the East African Community made it easy to work and invest in the different countries in the region. I was attracted to Rwanda because I had read some World Bank reports about the ease with which one could start and do business in the country. Moreover, Rwanda has a streamlined, well-structured and functioning system. Once you comply with the law, nobody will bother you.
In your view, when can one be considered as successful?
Most people think that you are successful when you have a lot of money. However, success is all about self-actualisation. You can say you are successful when what you have pursued is now a legacy and when other people's lives are better because of what you started. Personally, when I see students from Mount Kenya University building their careers and lives, I consider myself successful.
On becoming a teacher
During my school days, teachers had a good life. I used to admire their children and the way they looked nourished and smartly dressed. I wished for that kind of life and, that is why I decided to become a teacher.
Growing up in central Kenya
I was born in December 1964, in a rural village called Gathiruini in Central Province, Kenya. I am the firstborn of seven children. My parents are peasant farmers. For my primary and lower secondary, I had to walk about 15 kilometres to school, but joined a boarding school in high school. My father would pay school fees using income from coffee farming, but it was not enough. Therefore, my siblings and I used to pick coffee in people's farms to supplement it.
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