This is how you become entrepreneur of the year

Catherine Nyongesa is an oncologist and the founder of Texas Cancer Centre
The latest Ernst & Young (EY) Entrepreneur of the Year Awards went down last month.

Six CEOs made it through the nomination, vetting, forensic scrutiny and judging phases, beating out more than 250 nominees in Eastern Africa.

The EY entrepreneurship awards have grown to become highly respected in the business world. So in December, inside an auditorium at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Nairobi’s Upper Hill, there was palpable anxiety as the finalists were called out to receive their trophies.

When she heard her name, Dr Catherine Nyongesa Watta walked gracefully to the dais for her award. She was among six finalists and one of three women in the EY Winning Woman category.

Catherine, an oncologist, is the founder of Texas Cancer Centre (TCC), a specialist health facility for cancer patients that’s based off Mbagathi Road in Nairobi, with a branch in Eldoret.

Following her EY win, she shared with Hustle her story of starting small, persevering through financial hurdles and the commitment she has to making a difference.

When did you get the idea to start Texas Cancer Centre?

I have a master’s degree in oncology from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. It’s a course I undertook from 2002 and graduated in 2006. After graduation, I came back home and joined the public sector as an oncologist.

It was then I fully internalised the sad reality that there weren’t enough cancer treatment machines and specialists in Kenya. The patient list was so long, yet many people couldn’t receive the services they needed in the country.

TCC was my way of giving cancer patients not only an option, but also making specialist equipment and treatment available to the average Kenyan.

It must have cost you a pretty penny to start.

I didn’t have money, but I was old enough to understand that every big thing has to start small. I started with a cancer clinic. All I had was a desk, my white coat, a stethoscope and basic medical equipment.

I’d rented a three-bedroom residential house on Kabarnet Road next to Kibera.

What challenges did you experience back then?

We were receiving so many patients that the space wasn’t enough. I remember a neighbour in the estate constantly pestering us to move to other premises. He’d shoo patients away, and always expressed his displeasure with our presence.

Did you find new space?

Luckily, we did. We found a five-bedroom maisonette in Hurlingham and moved in.

Now you occupy your own property. How did you get here?

In 2012, I shared with a friend my vision of a world-class cancer facility. That friend talked to me about getting a loan from the bank and alluded to the fact that banks love funding medical projects like what I had in mind. I took that advice and visited the bank.

And just like that you got the loan?

Oh, no! You make it sound easy. The first thing I did before going to the banks is an evaluation of the vision I had.

I told myself that if TCC was going to be what I wanted it to be, then I’d need to avoid paying rent. So, the first loan I went to ask for was to buy the land the facility is built on today.

It was a mortgage. I raised 6 per cent by selling my house and pooling together all the savings I had. The bank financed the rest.

How did you finance construction?

That was the next hurdle. I had no money to build anything, and I was paying a mortgage while still renting at Hurlingham. This was when the financial strain became so much that I almost gave up on the TCC dream.

But you didn’t. What happened?

Someone said when you get to a point where you want to give up, think about the reasons you started. And so the images of long queues of patients needing treatment from one radiotherapy machine jolted me.

Plus, my younger sister got cancer when I was in medical school in 1994. As a family, we struggled to get her treatment. She was part of the reason I specialised in oncology. I couldn’t give up.

What did you do then?

I went back to the bank and asked for more money to build phase one. Surprisingly, they gave me the money. We built and moved with our patients here. I’ve since gone back and got more loans to finance phase two – inpatient wards.

Today we treat about 250 patients per day who are receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

TCC may be a health facility, but you’re still a business at the end of the day. How do you deal with patients who can’t afford treatment?

God has a way of balancing things out. Patients who are able to pay somehow cover the cost of the ones who can’t, to some extent. We’ve had to waive fees on many occasions because the Hippocratic Oath demands that we don’t chase away critical patients.

Are you making money?

Yes, we are, and it’s because of the commitment the TCC workforce has. God has also seen us through patients who can’t afford to pay for treatment and medicines.

What’s the future like for TCC?

TCC will outlive me. TCC is a bastion of hope. It’ll be a place to train doctors and conduct research to find a cure for cancer. The sky is the limit.

You haven’t studied management, yet you’re managing your business successfully. How?

Experience is the best teacher. That being said, however, I plan to enrol for a course in management to sharpen my skills.

What would you want upcoming entrepreneurs in the health sector to know?

One, don’t take large loans that you’ll struggle to pay.

Two, try and buy property from where to run the business because paying rent may not be tenable in the months when you don’t make much.

Three, don’t overstretch yourself. There was a time I was managing other facilities. I’m now concentrating on just this one.

Texas Cancer CentreUniversity of Witwatersrand