Let's be realistic about the rags to riches stories

Stories of rags to riches have been told and retold in different settings. But how realistic are they? How replicable are they? If they were realistic, Kenya would be oversupplied with millionaires because our streets, villages and hamlets are overflowing with hustlers in rags.

The celebrated hustlers from Jogoo Kimakia who once owned a fleet of buses in Thika, to Njenga Karume and his real estate, or even Steve Jobs of Apple Inc did not really start from rags. While they may not have had money, the socio-economic environment was full of opportunities, not rags. Their mindset was rich in ideas and observation powers. They noted the patterns in their environment and exploited them. 

In Russia, oligarchs made money by riding on the shift from communism to market economy. Some Kenyans made money in that era too, but not as much because we always had affinity for capitalism.

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Bringing it closer home, Jogoo and Njenga noted that the departure of the mzungu would create a business vacuum. They prepared for it. They bought land cheaply in Karen and Westlands - places by then considered far away from civilisation just like Kitengela in the 90s. With a low population, the demand for land was low and prices reasonable. Those who had access to capital, loans bought lots of land; they are reaping the fortunes of foresight today.

Those who never rode on historical changes such as the shift from colonialism to uhuru made money from technological shifts or innovations. Think of those who made their money training Kenyans how to use MS Excel or Word, things we now take for granted. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rode on massification of computers from mainframe to laptops, their operating systems and software. Zuckerberg has made money from our need to socialise, riding on the Internet. Larry Ellison of Oracle long realised that data needs to be managed, long before Big Data and analytics became bywords.   

When we tell hustlers to get out of the rags, the questions we should be answering for them are: Which wave should they ride on? Which innovation? Most hustlers jump into the field long after it has become saturated. At that point profit margins are razor thin. How will they become rich?

It is not just lack of innovations that deny hustlers opportunities to get out of the rags, our governments play a role evicting or hounding them into old pickups either into courts or to extract bribes from them. How do you tow a boda boda? Not that I am defending lawlessness. Like antelopes, such hustlers have no time to focus on the bigger picture. That might explain why American entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg or Bill Gates didn’t come from hustling background.

Tell the truth, the rags to riches fairy tale is hard to replicate but has been used to make lots of hustlers feel guilty for not being rich. Let us be realistic; getting rich is not easy, particularly in an environment where being a hustler is equated to being a risk to the well-being of non-hustlers.   

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