I built a school while still employed

Coleman Otage, founder Brookhill Academy. [File, Standard]

The recent announcement of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) results was a monumental event for Coleman Otage.

Not only did his school Brookhill Academy have its maiden class eight pupils sit and perform exemplary in the papers, but also his long-term dreams of setting up a fully-fledged primary school actualise.

It has been an eight-year journey that had seemed impossible at some point. 

After completing his degree in mathematics and physics at the University of Nairobi, Otage was determined to secure an IT-related job. However, he ended up working at the UoN as an administrative assistant on the board of postgraduate studies. 

He would work there for six years and later moved to the pension scheme where he rose through the ranks. 

As an employee, he harboured entrepreneurial ambitions and would try his hand in multiple ventures and fail.

“Through the years while still in employment, I had always longed to do business. I have tried, failed and learnt. I have tried businesses including matatus, supplies, butchery, car importation, and taxi services, among many others,” he reflects. 

After the constant frustrations, Otage in 2010 took a break from any business pursuit and gave himself time to reflect on which venture would suit him best.

He settled on setting up a school as he had identified a gap within Nairobi’s Embakasi area. The school's around the area lacked quality education facilities aimed at the lower middle class.

For over two years, Otage researched and developed a business plan to actualise this dream. After being satisfied that he had enough knowledge and understanding of the business, he approached three of his colleagues to invest and join in his dream.

They agreed to it and Brookhill Academy was born in 2013. “We held an open day in our rented facility at Fedha Estate on December 2012 and we got numerous inquiries. We were quite positive that when we opened a school in January 2013 we will have significant admission.”

“This was not the case as it was only my son Emmanuel who got admitted. We also got requests for scholarships from a Congolese refugee family that we chose to support. The first three years were quite difficult as our admissions were significantly less than our expenses but we rode through the tide,” says Otage. 

A section of Brookhill Academy pupils. [File, Standard]

Otage’s partners threw in the towel and decided that they would sell the school to any willing bidder. However, the only bid that they received was below their valuation. Instead, Otage bought them out as he was the originator of the idea and which he still believed in. 

To reduce the financial burden, he moved out of his recently constructed house in Fedha then and relocated the school there.

After this move, the school started experiencing a surge in numbers, prompting them to lease and develop temporary structures for their primary campus as the total population in the fifth year had hit 380 pupils. All along, Otage had been running the business while in full-time employment.

“My previous business experience and experience in recruitment and training at the workplace had taught me how to recruit well which was one of the things I got right from the onset.”

“Our first employees are still with us to date and over the years, I have instilled a culture that the school can run even without my presence. I have set out a sound management structure and above that, I am among the very few private schools with an independent board of governance,” he says. 

With the surge in the number of learners, the school bought its own parcel of land within Tassia Estate where it has established a five-storey school complex where the primary and junior secondary campuses are situated. 

The campus contains laboratories, a computer lab, a music room, a home science room and a library. This is in line with the school’s mission of building holistic students.

The school also sets up various activities to support the development of its students, including intentional exchange programs with Japan and China where their students are able to interact with students from various cultures.

The school also holds annual general elections where students choose leaders among themselves via the ballot. This was initiated to teach their pupils the value of exercising their democratic rights. 

On the introduction of the competency-based curriculum (CBC), Coleman was faced with one of the toughest decisions - to either transfer the class six students to other schools as they were less than the prescribed number to sit for a class eight exam or admit more to have their maiden class eight.

This dilemma saw Otage give full scholarships to needy and bright students who performed well, achieving a mean grade of 353 in the recently announced KCPE exams.

The business journey has shaped his maxim in life. He believes that when pursuing big goals, it's not what you achieve but what you become in the quest to achieve them. He lists his mentors as immediate former Education CS Professor George Magoha to whom he has been a mentee for the past 20 years, Prof Crispus Kiamba, and Prof Stephen Kiama. 

Brookhill Academy currently has a population of 800 students but Otage is aiming higher. He hopes to establish more campuses and impact thousands of students. The school has already established a branch at Syokimau.

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