By John Kariuki
For the business community in Nyahururu and its environs, Rashid Mtalii is a household name.
This man has been writing most of the town’s business names and sign boards for the last 30 years.
Besides, Mtalii is an accomplished rubber stamps maker, car painter and an interior decorator of repute.
And as often happens in the devolvement of business ideas, Mtalii’s talent showed early.
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Precisely, while in standard two at Rugongo Forest Full Primary School in Subukia in the 1962, he would scribble many attention-grabbing portraits of his teachers, fellow pupils and nearly anything!
His teacher would encourage him to hone this talent and by standard seven, Mtalii’s drawing skill was perfected.
And fascinated by the impression that the school stamp made on some documents, Mtalii invented his first rubber stamp while in standard five!
After primary school, he traveled to see the world and landed in Kisumu in the 1970s as a commercial photographer.
But soon, the glamour in photography faded and money became scarce.
"In 1978, I went into one hotel, totally broke and convinced the owner to allow me decorate its interior," remembers Mtalii.
The hotel owner bought all the requirements for the job and offered Mtalii food and shelter.
"In five days, the hotel was done and the man paid me a handsome Sh900," says Mtalii.
"This huge amount of money, then, convinced me to abandon photography and stick to my childhood talents of painting and drawing," he says.
Mtalii went to Tarime in Tanzania where he would do interior decorations, sign posts and rubber stamps for four years.
This artist, whose real name is Rashid Wanjohi, was named Mtalii from his travails.
"The name stuck and I have chosen it as my business signature," he says.
Mtalii returned to Kenya in 1982 with a capital of Sh30,000 from Tarime and set up a photo studio in Ndaragua, Nyandarua County.
"The studio business did not pick up and I closed it, opened shop at Nyahururu bus stage and went back to my first love of drawing and writing sign posts," he says.
"I have written so many business names and signs than I can not count in Nyahururu alone over the last thirty years," he says.
And his clients span from major shops to supermarkets, schools and hotels.
"I often travel to Meru, Naivasha, Nakuru and Baragoi in Samburu County to decorate buildings and design sign boards for my clients," he says.
And when Tree Is Life, a local NGO needed artists to adorn some buildings in town with murals that have a conservation theme, they hired Mtalii.
And what are the secrets to his longetivity in the trade?
Mtalii says honesty is paramount to success in interior decorating and signage writing.
"I am often left inside many businesses and houses to do my thing but I have never taken anybody’s property," he says.
"I do every sign post or billboard as if it’s the last one I am doing in this world," he says. This way, he adds, he has never needed to advertise his skills.
Mtalii, who has trained four apprentices for free over the years, says his trade requires one to use good quality oils and paints lest the signage begins to fade in a few months.
"I have seen artists going for cheaper paints but nobody calls them again after their work starts to peel off within weeks," he says.
According to Mtalii, the greatest factor that can break any business is failure to meet clients’ deadlines.
"When for any reason I fall back on my work, I make up for it by going for extra hours in the night to ensure I beat deadlines," he says.
A teetotaler, Mtalii decries the consumption of alcohol as a path that leads to the ruin of many artists.
"Of course no client will entrust an artist with any job if he or she can only hold the brushes with shaking hands," says Mtalii.
Alcohol impairs concentration, a crucial skill in an artist’s job, he adds.
Mtalii advises people to settle down on one of their many trades by the time they hit 30 years.
"It is unlikely that one will ever learn a new trade after 30 and it’s therefore sensible to settle on what one has tried his or her hand on," he says.
And decrying the speed with which many young people want to get rich nowadays, Mtalii cautions that one cannot plant seeds and harvest the same day.
"Many people don’t want to go through the full cycle of a business but ship out at the slightest hint of recession," he says.
In the 30 years he has been around, many people have come, emulated his trade, and left convinced there is no money in Nyahururu, he adds.
When asked by Business Unusual what he earns from making rubber stamps and writing names, Mtalii chuckles and does not put a figure on it.
All he says is that each job is considered on its own merit.
But this father of two grownup and employed children admits that his many artist skills have enabled him to buy a plot in Nyahururu and construct a house on it.
He has also been able to buy two business stalls at Nyahururu bus stage which are run by his wife. These investments run well above Sh700,000.
"I live off my painting and rubber stamp making job besides educating my children up to form four from it," he says.