Robinson Kimani was a matatu driver in the Nakuru- Nairobi and Nakuru- Eldoret route for a couple of years before throwing in the towel to concentrate on his mitumba business. And in 2013, he got a chance to go to the USA where he did odd jobs including driving long distance trucks.
He saved all he could and came back home where he set up Rokim Shuttle Services, a car hire service. In 2020, he hoped to expand the business, but the pandemic hit.
Still, the hustler in him, will not rest. He shares his business journey with Hustle.
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You were a matatu driver. What advice would you give me if I wanted to buy and run one?
That you think long and hard about it. Matatu business is not for everyone. Many get into it thinking of how quickly they will make money. They do the math on paper which looks impressive but the reality on the ground is different!
There are pitfalls in investing in this sector as well. the condition of a vehicle determines a lot of factors including downtime. If the matatu is not rolling, then it is not making profit. Investing in an old vehicle will cost you more in the long run due to the number of times the vehicle breaks down.
Anytime you’re at repair shop, you’re losing revenue plus paying for repairs. Also, the most valuable asset in any transport business is the driver, and so without a good and honest driver, you’re basically bound to fail.
Finding a good driver can be a challenge and so is finding an honest mechanic. Don’t venture in this sector if you know nothing about vehicles as you can be ripped
What was the best business lesson you picked from being a matatu driver?
They say you have to begin from somewhere if you are going someplace and, yes, I began life as a matatu driver in an industry considered as the most chaotic. I got to meet a lot of people from all walks of life and learnt a lot from that industry. The experience I garnered is still applicable to my life today.
Why invest in the mitumba business?
My mother sold mitumba back in the 80s. And I would help her in the selling. Through her I learnt not to rely on one income. And so when I was a matatu driver, I sold second hand clothes on the side.
Also, in the matatu industry where you’re an employee, you may wake up and the next day, you find out that you have been fired overnight without any notice. I needed the side hustle. Eventually I quit my job and got into the mitumba business fully. It was making better returns and I quit to focus on it. It felt good dedicating my time in growing the business.
Why then later move to America when the business was doing well?
Let me tell you. The ‘American Dream’ as they call it, is a fallacy. At least that was my experience. My experience there taught me that you can make it if you try hard enough, and also, you can get swallowed chasing after that dream. You just have to choose your path.
I came back home eventually. I was employed in different sectors doing different kind of works as I settled down. It takes time to know a place and adjust accordingly owing to culture shock.
So after a while in the land of opportunities as you call it, I realized I was cut out for a driver’s role. This was after doing a thorough research and I knew driving was the best bet and so settled for trucking.
What was that like?
Trucking gave me a great experience in driving. I drove through 46 states. It was like being a tourist of sorts while behind the wheel and the experience is kind of nostalgic.
Trucking is not for everyone though. It is exciting, lonely, tiresome and adventurous. It can be very dangerous going by the fact that America has one of high road speed limits compared to what we’ve locally and road fatalities are high too.
I don’t do long distance driving anymore but that experience was priceless. I had a plan to start a business back home.
Is that how you raised the starting capital for your car hire services?
Yes. I saved up from my other business and from working there while remitting money back in the county to invest in vans. I began with one vehicle for hire and I would top profits with remittances to add to the fleet as time went by.
Finding a good driver plus overseeing my business while 8,000 miles away was the biggest challenge I faced starting my current business.
Why the private hire business on coming home?
My choice for private vans for hire was mostly because of the experience drawn from the matatu industry. I opted to go for private chauffeured transportation than public transport as an upgrade of the matatu way of doing business.
I have in mind people who wished to travel as groups but still weren’t sure of hiring the ‘yellow lines’ (matatus) for the occasions. If, for example, a group shows up in an event with matatus that have leaves or branches to indicate they’re on hire, they may look odd or broke, and this can be embarrassing.
So I thought of some vans with customised extras and came up with ‘Rokim Shuttle Services’. We have six vans in operation currently.
What does your shuttle service entail?
We do chauffeured services where if you hire any van, let’s say for a duration of days, you basically own the van as per agreement.
We also have packages like airport and hotel transfers, weddings, family reunions, game drives, road trips, road shows, staff vans, and so on. Operations began in Nakuru and have currently expanded to Nairobi.
How much can you make in a given month?
Shuttles for hire have been the backbone of business success and before the coronavirus pandemic, each vehicle would return a maximum of Sh100, 000 on a good month. It is not like the matatu business where you go to work daily and are assured of an income, but you have to wait for clients who need vans for hire with weekends being such occasions. We have five drivers among other staff on permanent employ.
How has the pandemic impacted your business?
When the pandemic came, we were forced to close doors, park the vans and lay off staff for two months. We reopened in June but with limited staff.
Things are really tough but we’re hopeful the situation will normalise and the economy will fully reopen. However, we had to adjust with reality by introducing planned events to different destinations like road trips instead of hire services.
Lessons learned so far?
Employees can be indispensable assets to a business. And it is always wise to listen to their suggestions. Your employees are always out there interacting with the clients and they have more insight than you seated in the office.
I am also a firm believer in diversifying and investing in other opportunities as cushion if one investment is not doing well.