Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they would show up at a mobile phone repair shop in town every morning without fail. They were there to learn the craft. As apprentices. And learn they did. With big dreams and slightly hazy visions, Helson Ongeso and Bolton Majale hoped they would make it in the big city. They would, however, soon go separate ways, Ongeso to the university to study linguistics while Majale slowly made his way through different service centres including Nokia and Samsung.
14 years later today, Ongeso, 36, and Majale 35, own Boltech Training Institute; a training ground for phone repair technicians, an endeavour seven years in the making. The school attracts students from all over Africa. They have still retained a phone repair wing. They speak to HUSTLE about their ups and downs setting up roots in the informal tech market space.
Was this business idea a natural choice for you?
Majale (M): Yes. It was for me. By the time we started, I had acquired a wealth of knowledge having been trained by experts from Dubai while working with some of the big names in mobile manufacturing.
Ongeso (O): Same for me. I had also spent a significant amount of time repairing phones as a side hustle at the university. But my studies were not for nothing. University did help to expand my mind. But despite knowing that we wanted to start our own repair shop, we had no capital. And before we could dig our heels in, we felt a need to find out if it was a viable idea.
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How did you do that?
O: We commissioned a research firm to find out how many phones needed repair in Nairobi and if there was a market for it. The results showed that in every household, there are at least three unused phones that could become expedient if repaired. But if we were to do this, we needed to be different.
M: At the time mobile phone repair technicians had a poor reputation, they would always work slow or would diagnose phones with more made-up issues making clients cynical. We wanted to change that perception.
Later on, we did a deep-dive in research and found studies like the 2017 Pew Research Centre study report that showed Kenya had 80 per cent mobile phone ownership rate, and that was three years ago. We were in the right business.
How did you solve the no-capital problem?
M: We knew we wanted to start a major service centre in Nairobi. So I leveraged my relationship with Samsung, my former employer and secured a contract with them to set up a service centre that would service their clients. But they had one condition.
M: We had to find a shop on the ground floor. So for three years we tried our hardest to secure a good deal on a large space but the cheapest we could find required Sh1 million goodwill. We didn’t have that. Samsung was gracious to give us all the time we required but we just could not get the money. So we eventually opted out of the deal and narrowed our ambition to start small. We collected enough money from friends and family, amounting to less than Sh100,000, we paid rent and bought only the most basic equipment. But it was a hard lesson for us.
What business lesson did you learn from this?
M: That you need to crawl before you can run. We were young and hungry and thought as long as we had the idea we could do anything. Business is more than just passion. I would tell my younger self to be more patient and build from the ground up.
What sets your business apart from your competitors?
O: Professionalism. We teach technicians time management, quality work and customer service, which are rare to find in the informal sector.
Secondly, we have built up a good brand as technicians. Not only to clients, but also fellow phone technicians in the city who use our services too. We pride ourselves in being the only ones able to do phone refurbishing, a skill that has attracted students from Ghana, Rwanda, Congo, Uganda and even Comoros.
M: We also do not focus on profit. There is a bigger picture. When we train technicians to be professional, we are preparing for Vision 2030. At the moment Rwanda has set up a phone manufacturing plant. They have a small population compared to Kenya’s 40 million. We are the target market. We may set up a similar factory in the next 10 years so we want to be prepared.
When that time comes, service centres will be already set up and trained technicians will be there to meet the high demand.
What are your rates?
M: A three-month course on fixing broken phones costs Sh35,000. Every single technician leaving the institution does not rush to get employed. They always opt to set up their own business. For those who wish to seek employment, it is still possible. We are accredited by the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) to offer short courses in mobile phone repair, which is recognised nationwide and our students can have certificates to present if they choose to apply foR jobs.
Speaking of money, how profitable is the phone repair business?
O: At the time we get on average 20 phones a day in need of repair. Our school is at full capacity at about 25 students a month and we are constantly growing. We recently expanded our portfolio of short courses to include business related programmes like business training, ICT and data management.
What challenges do you face?
O: The school is growing faster than we expected. Finding space to expand is difficult because paying what they call goodwill in Nairobi can go up as high as Sh10 million. So now we have spread out our workshops in different locations in Nairobi. Another issue is our workshops are mostly on the third floor meaning our customers are constantly poached by those on the ground floor. This is a fast growing space and competition is so rife, and a person may decide to set up shop literally next door to capitalise on our already established customer base.
M: As for the school, we have a shortage of manpower. We train technicians but they go out on their own and we still require technicians. We now have staff of around five, but we still struggle.
Another challenge we are working on is getting more women to be interested in mobile phone repairs. Despite research showing women make better technicians, are more trusted and are more productive than men, not many Kenyan women have taken an interest. Women’s participation in the informal tech markets of Asian countries is marginally higher than those in Kenya. We get at most two women every month looking to learn the craft. So currently Boltech is offering scholarships to women to encourage them to join.
Have you had to change operations due to the pandemic?
O: We introduced online classes where we teach the software skills and do demonstrations for the practical lessons virtually. Once a week we invite small groups of students to come in for a one-on-one session to track their progress. Shifting to virtual learning we have unlocked new opportunities, like we can now reach people from counties as far as Narok. We even have a student right now from Ghana. The students usually works on phones they source from neighbours and friends. This helps us to give them a practical lesson in pricing their skills.
M: Surprisingly, the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise. No one in a sector that requires hands-on skills has been extremely affected by the virus, not economically anyway.
Since most people are working remotely, our devices have become more of a basic need than a luxury. We have more people now wanting to have their phones repaired than previously. As a result, we have even expanded our services to include laptop repair as demand peaked.
Are you worried that with phones becoming cheaper, people will have no need to repair but instead replace broken phones?
M: 10 years ago when the smartphone boom happened in Kenya, everyone thought the phone repair business was dead. But here we are in 2020 and the business is thriving. As the telecom industry grows, so do its associated businesses.