I held the woodcarving of a giraffe gently in my hands. It was carved so expertly that even the brown mane was visible. I was determined to ensure this artistic fabulous and loft giraffe would stroll around the world. That would only be possible if I sold the giraffe, together with various other African curios and handicrafts to a global market.
It was early 1989 and I was 19 years old. Although I had already secured my first job as an accounting clerk and export officer, my mind was constantly exploring business ideas. Two years later in 1991, these ideas crystallised into an African curio and handicraft business.
I resolved to finally move from plan to action and sell my products to a wider global market. Within a few months, through Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), I was part of an African trade exhibition in Osaka, Japan. As such, I penetrated Japan, the second-largest economy in the world at the time. I returned to Kenya one week later with a profit of Sh50,000 resting proudly in my wallet.
Medium and Small Enterprises (MSMEs) like the one I was running at the time, are the largest employers in Kenya. They account for 98 per cent of all the businesses in Kenya.
Just like that giraffe carving, they too can stroll around the world. The millions of Kenyans who run these MSMEs need to venture beyond the borders of Kenya and trade with the world. I started doing it in 1991 and have never looked back.
In 1993 two years after my initial visit to Japan, I returned to the same country for yet another trade mission. This time, my experience left me with a lifelong lesson about triumphing against all odds. I secured an appointment with the owner of a major departmental store in Japan who could end up buying a large number of my merchandise on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, I was eight minutes late for our meeting. Those eight minutes proved to be the sole reason why he declined to do business with me. This experience drilled in me a deep appreciation of time. Indeed, time and tide wait for no one. If you want to triumph against all odds, make the most of every day, every hour, every minute. If you fail, you have an opportunity to start afresh.
Auctioned at port
Fueled by this desire to make the most of time, I strive to create opportunities at every corner. At the age of 25 while on yet another business trip to Japan, I struck a deal to purchase 12 used cars that had already been shipped to Mombasa Port. I excitedly, through a bank loan, paid Sh2.4 million and received all ownership documents. But at the stage of clearing the cars, I discovered that eight of those cars had already been auctioned for overstaying in the Port.
I did not realise it at the time, but this baptism of fire launched me into the automotive industry, an area that I am still actively involved in today. You can only triumph against all odds if you learn to use stumbling blocks as building blocks for a better future.
By the time I turned 28, I had encountered a myriad of stumbling blocks, chief among them being joblessness. Lack of regular revenue strikes at the very core of manhood since it leaves one feeling helpless and impotent especially when you have a family looking up to you, as was the case with me.
It was during this bleak period that a spiritual encounter drastically realigned my value system. Armed with a greater sense of destiny, family, responsibility, focus, integrity and diligence, I immersed myself deeply into a business of selling agricultural products. In two years of functioning like a wounded lion, this business had opened floodgates of reliable revenue. That’s how I owned a home at the age of 30.
According to the 2019 Census, Kenya has only 7.3 million homeowners. This number should increase drastically. Despite the odds, it is possible for young people below 35 and those in their middle ages to own homes.
At the age of 31, I founded the Green Africa Foundation, an organisation that continues to make a social, economic and environmental impact across Africa.
As long as there is a heartbeat in your chest, and you are intentional, don’t be harassed by any current turbulence. You shall triumph. Just think green and act green.
–The writer is founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation. www.isaackalua.co.ke