Caroline Anyango inherited her mother's fish business and turned it into a well-respected enterprise. She tells MARIE MULLI why she has never looked back despite being shunned by friends for choosing such an occupation
We admire the business moguls of this world like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Walt Disney or our very own James Mwangi, because of their capacity to turn something small and insignificant into a magnificent enterprise; but we never lavish the same admiration for small business owners...perhaps because many of us feel it does not take any particular skill.
But Caroline Anyango, 34, has been running a successful fish business for the last 20 years and it's her business acumen that has set her apart from other fish sellers.
Anyango Fish, as she is affectionately called by her customers, started selling fish at 12 years when she was a pupil at Mbagathi Primary School. At the same age, Canadian singer and songwriter Justin Bieber launched his singing career. Just like Justin Bieber, Anyango's journey started with her mother.
"I used to sit next to her, observing. Whenever I left school early, she would teach me," Anyango narrates. Her mother immediately noticed that her daughter had an innate understanding of the business, so she gave her a bit more responsibility.
"She allowed me to run the business after school - since we were sometimes let out before she got off work. So by the time she arrived, she would find I had sold a couple of fish and made a profit," Anyango says proudly.
Unlike her mother, Anyango was an astute business woman and never felt the pressure to give discounts even though the customers were twice her age.
"My mother had many friends who would come to buy fish and she would give them fish on credit or sometimes huge discounts (that would eat into the profit) but when I sold, I did not do any of that."
With time, Anyango's mother realised the business was flourishing in the hands of her daughter so when she finished high school she relinquished all ownership of the business.
"She noticed when I sold I would bring a profit but when she sold there would be a loss, so at 17, after my education at Baringo Girls High School, I was left to run the business," Anyango says. Anyango's enterprising skills have seen sales triple since she took over the business, which is strategically located at Nairobi's busy Kenyatta Market bus stop.
"The customer is always right," Anyango says. I was amazed at how literal she takes this trite saying, I watched her jump to assuage a customer who was getting irritated by the minute because she felt that the girl serving her was taking too long.
Anyango was seated and as soon as she noticed, went over to the client said something in mother-tongue that made the customer annoyed look fade. She took over the frying and packing of the lady's fish. In two minutes, the lady was walking away smiling.
"My clients are my bosses. They have struggled to earn their money, so I have to respect and talk to them nicely. Also, if you talk to them politely, then they will bring other clients," Anyango says. And that's how Anyango's reputation has grown - solely from word of mouth. She has named her business Migingo Island, after the disputed island, because it immediately evokes images of fresh fish.
She says she is unable to quantify the number of clients, but judging by the lunchtime crowd, it's an impressive number. Unless you run a successful conglomerate, it's hard enough to show up every day and put in eight hours of work.
Now imagine that you are Anyango who has to wake up at 4am, seven days a week, to pick fresh fish from Kisumu then drive across town to her stall where she puts in about a 16-hour work day. But Anyango is always there, every day, come rain or sunshine. That's why she has a wide customer base, because she is dependable.
Like most people, Anyango does not find it easy to wake up at 4am full of enthusiasm. "I always tell myself – if I am in a bad mood - I should have stayed at home and 'eaten' the house – but since I have come to work then I should put on a happy face."
But moods are not the only thing Anyango has to contend with. I watched her trying to serve a difficult customer - she even spoke mother tongue in an effort to convince him - but he was unrelenting about the price he was willing to pay, so she let him go.
But she was not dejected because she immediately jumped to serve the next customer. Then it occurred to me why she is so successful, it's because she does not let small irritations keep her from landing other customers.
It may seem that there is nothing impressive about selling fish in Nairobi, but Anyango wears it like a badge of honor and even dresses up.
"Kazi ni kazi. I make an effort to look smart even though I only sell fish. Actually, none of my neighboUrs know what I do for a living because I look very nice leaving home. I can even wear a skirt suit. Then when I get here, I change," Anyango says.
"So no one should let a job define who they are. I wear whatever I want. In fact, one day I went to church fashionably dressed, and a lady told me I looked familiar – I guess she had seen me selling fish at this bus stop - but she went on to convince herself that she was mistaken because I looked so elegant," she adds, laughing.
Initially, she looked down on the job. "I used to be scared of what people would think. So when I saw former school mates walking past me, I would run and hide. When some of them discovered what I was doing, they despised me. But, when I started making money, I realised I could actually make a living... so I stopped trying to get their recognition and realised kazi ni kazi. If you wait for people to give you approval then you will never do anything," Anyango says laughing. "Now, those who were showing me contempt, actually come and buy my fish."
Anyango has managed to build a very successful career out of her fish business. She not only provides for herself but also for three children all under 10 years of age. She has also been able to buy a car with which she can pick up the fish from Akamba Country Bus Station every morning instead of using public transport.
Furthermore, she is creating employment for some young people. "Education is good but it is not everything, instead of waiting for jobs to be created for you, why not do anything to make ends meet, instead of losing hope. If you just use the talent that God has given you, with all your heart then nothing can go wrong."
Not all of us will get a chance to set up a blue chip company but, like Anyango, we can take a simple venture and turn it into something professional. Like Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich said, if you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.