As he pursued higher education without breaks, his peers got fulfilling jobs, bought their first cars and got married while he continued being a student. It was a lonely journey for the young man. But it paid off eventually. In 2014, at age 27, Dr Victor Mwongera attained a doctorate from the University of Bristol. He would then land jobs in UK firms that are pioneers in the aviation sector. Today, Mwongera heads the Mechanical Engineering department at Kenyatta University where he was previously responsible for the development and growth of the Aerospace Engineering programme. The non-executive chair of the Youth Enterprise Development Fund shares his journey and how Kenyan youth can make use of available resources.
A PhD at 27! Why so ambitious?
Why not? I was in school between ages five and 27, continuously reading. At age 14, I remember our father committing to support us to study up to whatever level we chose. The promise was borne out of self-sacrifice. I decided to complete my PhD before I was 30 and “clear my studies”.
Why aerospace engineering?
I have always loved aircrafts from my childhood. I remember going to the Wilson Airport’s annual airshow and being mesmerised by the flying machines. I got into a fully packed aircraft for a 20-minute ride and watched in awe as the metal bird performed stunts in the air. It made me feel as if we were living in future. I wanted to be a part of that.
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How is campus life in a foreign country compared to local?
It is tough. Most students know it is a constant battle for survival and you learn to be money smart through your life experiences. There were times when I was operating with very few coins in my pocket. At times I would just drink some Coca Cola, which would make me full then quickly go to bed. But what was the hardest was at 25, trying to live a frugal life when my peers were working. But it taught me a few things about money.
I think the experience taught me the value of balance in life. With the financial constraints that came with that life, I learned how to live on a small budget and save any penny I could. When I bought something, I learned to value it and make it last for years. This is a trait I have continued with and one that makes some people to call me ‘fussy.’ I also started a business to get some income. I used to buy old bicycles in the UK, refurbish them then sell them as custom-built bikes. I made some money from the process. I loved cycling but the cost of new bikes was prohibitive hence the idea of refurbishing used ones. I learnt the value of patience—buying an old bike, investing money into it and hoping someone would like the end result stretched my financial resources to the limit. I also learned the importance of the personal touch in sales. Convincing a stranger to part with their money for something built in the backyard required not just a product but a story too. Though valuable, the experience also taught me that I am not a good entrepreneur, a revelation that I am happy with.
Then you got good jobs…
Yes. I worked for Rolls Royce and Leonardo Helicopters as a design engineer and at Bristol University as a research assistant. Rolls Royce makes engines for most of the aircraft while Leonardo helicopters are found in many civilian and military applications. Working in these established companies was an eye-opening experience. As a design engineer, my work would be felt for generations to come. But I also felt the process was above innovation. These companies have been doing things a certain way for decades and I got the sense that new ideas did not come around often.
That is why you quit?
Ultimately, east or west, home is best. Working in a developed country is exhilarating. The pay is good, infrastructure well developed and there is less politics in daily life. But there is always a thought at the back of your mind that your skills are being used to develop a foreign economy. I wanted to work in my country and make a difference in the economy especially the aerospace and aviation sector. I desire to be a thought leader in Kenya more so as an aerospace engineer.
Do you think Kenya can become a leader in aviation technology?
Kenya has an industry still in its infancy and can therefore decide what direction to develop it. For confidence, we can learn from countries and companies that have already gone through the process. Most companies attempting to launch flying vehicles in Europe and the us are facing heavy competition from the established names such as Boeing, Airbus, and Lockheed. They are also heavily regulated by governments and regional regulatory bodies. Kenya could decide to be a leader in this through a government partnership where the vehicle is locally assembled and regulations tailored for this market with skills sourced from the local population.
You are also a non-executive chairman of the Youth Enterprise Development Fund. What does that entail?
The board is primarily responsible for oversight on operations and to provide leadership through policy development. As the chair of the board, it is my role to provide leadership, guidance and strategic focus. We aim to grow the fund and resources to achieve its mandate of economically empowering Kenyan youth, five million of whom are unemployed.
What is the key challenge faced by Kenyan youth on the road to entrepreneurship?
Successful entrepreneurs have access to a mentor, someone to guide them in developing ideas, solve problems and advise them if and when they fail. Sadly, it is hard to find someone who has experience in entrepreneurship and willing to serve the youth. At youth fund, we want to provide linkages for young people to businesses and individuals who can help them build capacity and utilise the fund.
Any success story of the youth who have made good use of the fund?
We have too many success stories to list down. We have trained lawyers who ventured into farming, young doctors who have opened clinics in areas with limited access to medical facilities, youth involved in interior design growing their businesses, youth groups that have grown their asset base into millions in a few years.
What do I need to know as a Kenyan youth?
Youth Enterprise Development Fund provides affordable loans in an equitable manner across the Kenyan youth. To benefit, you need to do the following:
· Register a youth group
· Apply for an interest free C-Yes loan--you will get forms on the website (www.youthfund.go.ke)
· As youth grow their businesses, they become eligible for additional loans that boost their growth and ease the financial risks that they face.
We also expose youth who qualify for a loan to basic business practices that will assist them to use these loans to benefit the business.
Thinking about school? Go for it
It is hard to separate the two. A good education is not just about learning through textbooks and repeating them at an exam. Education shapes and moulds us. My time at university exposed me to different ways of life; good and bad. I have known friends who decided to drop out of university to pursue successful objectives, others went into careers completely opposite of what they studied while others who skipped university entered into entrepreneurship. If you have an opportunity to pursue higher education, it is an experience worth living.
Best advice you ever got?
When I was in my mid-teens, a neighbour sat us down and told us that we should not be in a rush to accomplish all our life goals in our 20s. Everything we wanted was achievable, but we needed to plan. He told us to spend our 20s in personal development and watch how the 30s unfolded. This advice has been a factor in a lot of decisions I have made. Consequently, I try to be a role model to people in their 20s and encourage them to focus on self-development, self-realisation and self-actualisation. I do this easily as head of a department at Kenyatta University.
And the worst advice you ever heard?
One of the biggest illusions I heard is that there exists a magical business idea that will launch one into success and fame. Many young people see the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and assume they had a brilliant idea and capitalised it into an overnight business success. The years of work that went into training, research and business development are ignored. Many entrepreneurs do not become successful with the first idea. In fact, it is the failures where most people learn how to run a successful business.
What one book you would gift a smart young person stepping out into the real world?
I highly recommend Great by Choice by Jim Collins. It examines various individuals and companies well known throughout history for being at the forefront of their industry. More importantly, it examines both their success stories and major failures and explores what could have been done differently and how to apply this to your daily life. A must-read.