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Teacher builds thriving side hustle from timber during pandemic school closures

Jennifer Cheruiyot, a timber merchant who owns a timber yard in Kapsoit trading centre in Kericho county. [Nikko Tanui, Standard]

Jennifer Cheruiyot has an eye for a good piece of furniture borne out of her passion for working with timber.

But there is more to the life of the proprietor of one of the biggest timber yards and furniture shops in Kapsoit trading centre; she is also a teacher at Kaitui Primary School.

Ms Cheruiyot spoke to Money Maker about balancing her career as a teacher and her side business.

How did you land into the timber business?

When my family subdivided the family land, 30 huge cypress trees fell on my portion of land. After cutting them down, they produced 10,000 running feet of timber. When I offloaded them for sale at Kapsoit Centre, I was surprised at how fast customers quickly flocked around and snapped them up. This encouraged me to take advantage of the closure of schools in 2020 due to Covid-19 to expand my side hustle. I applied for a Sh200,000 loan from a Sacco, which I used to buy trees from a farmer in Kipsolu. The timber from the trees earned me a profit of Sh90,000, which I used to open my timber yard.

How have you managed to master the working of the business in such a short time?

I have hired someone who is an old hand in the business and can give an accurate estimate of the running feet a particular tree can produce by just looking at it. This enables me to pay the exact amount the tree is worth, and that way I don't get tricked to buy a tree above its actual value.

What type of timber do you deal in, and how much do you make monthly? 

I mostly deal in cypress, pine, podo and other varieties of soft and hardwood, which grow in Kericho County. Sales from timber depend on the type and the running feet at the timber yard at a particular time. I have, for instance, customers from Oyugis in the neighbouring Homa Bay county who buy approximately 10 tonnes of timber weekly. Sometimes I also get a single customer who can buy up to 23 tonnes of timber a day. But our main customers are carpenters in local workshops around Kapsoit trading centre who buy timber worth between Sh10,000 and Sh20,000 daily. I have an arrangement with a few regular and trusted carpenters who take timber on credit and pay after selling the furniture.

What has been the highlight of your business so far?  

I once landed a tender to supply Kabianga Tea Farm with about 100 tonnes of timber. The proceeds from the deal went into buying a tractor, which has helped me in the transportation of the raw materials to our yard.

Apart from timber, what else do you offer in your yard?

To ensure that customers get more than plain timber, I also sell different carpentry tools such as saws. I have at the same time hired eight carpenters with expertise in making sofa sets, cupboards, wall units, beds, and doors, among types of furniture. From the sale of furniture, I can make between Sh150,000 and Sh300,000 monthly. I am in the process of negotiating with local supermarkets to stock our products.

How has the government-imposed logging ban affected your business? 

The sourcing of trees is a challenge as they are very expensive. A farmer can demand up to Sh60,000 for one tree. I sometimes have to travel outside the county to places as far as Timboroa, Bomet, and Olenguruone to get the trees.

What advice do you have for women going into this line of business?

The timber business is not easy, especially for women entrepreneurs. It calls for toughness. Sometimes I have to collect timber from areas with poor road networks and the vehicle gets stuck or breaks down, meaning I have to spend the night there.

What other aspects of the business do you handle at the timber yard besides handling the finances?

I have learnt how to mix and apply paint to furniture such as tables, chairs, and beds. I can also plane the wood. The only thing I haven't learnt yet is how to hold a hammer and nail the timber joints. I will be very happy the day I will manage to make a piece of furniture from scratch.

What are you doing to aid with reforestation considering your business thrives on the felling of trees?

I have planted about 5,000 tree seedlings on an acre of land.

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