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 I didn't need college to find my path

By Peter Theuri | October 21st 2020

Just fresh out of high school, young Al Kags (pictured) realised that the opportunity to pursue higher education for him then was a mirage. There was simply no money for college. But not one to focus on his limitations, he decided that he would do two things: One, learn all he could about computers and building websites. This would later bring him a fortune. Secondly, he signed up to volunteer in various organisations and the government. This would later land him squarely into his life’s passion. Today, the 40-year-old is the co-founder of The Open Institute, a non-governmental organisation that collaborates with governments, civil society organisations, citizen groups and private sector companies to find innovative ways to achieve sustainable development. He is anything but a novice in the world of technology. He shares his journey with Hustle.

What was your first jaunt into business?

I got into the business as soon as I left high school. I could not afford college and I am a believer in not staying idle. If I can’t do what I love, then I have to do what I am able to do at the moment as well as I can. I have done many things to survive - waited on tables, served cocktails in bars, worked in cyber cafes and written for The Standard as a correspondent.  All the while I was trying to, on the side, build my first technology business, Multiple Choices, which was hard because the environment was not enabling enough for business. Due to that, I volunteered with the government and others to create an environment that worked for businesses like mine.  The Open Institute came out of that effort.

How was the idea for the Open Institute born?

I was volunteering in the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) when I was put in a team that helped the government implement the ICT policy.  That is when I realised that the gap between the government and the citizens was so wide that it curtailed any chances of a smooth working relationship between the two. I decided to come up with something that would fill the gap. In a nutshell, our mandate is to work with governments (at national, sub-national and hyperlocal levels) as well as citizens, and other stakeholders to promote responsive governments that have the necessary capacity to listen and engage fruitfully with citizens and active citizenship by citizens who are informed and fact-driven.

Being a volunteer with a bright idea, how did you raise the capital you needed to set up?

We started off in a house, unable to afford an office. It was only later that we opened an office in Nairobi West. We started Open Institute with our own little savings and earnings from other businesses. Unlike in a typical business environment, you do not set aside a lump sum as starting capital. My partner Jay Bhalla and I simply wanted to do good and that was what we embarked on. Sometimes, we had to do consulting gigs to make money to allow us to do the governance work.

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Being an NGO means donors fund the projects. How do you create proposals that appeal to partners, and/donors?

Our model is to do what needs to be done and demonstrate that what we are doing can have good results and lessons. Donors have generally found us and supported our mission.

How different is it running a non-profit from doing another kind of business?

Running a non-profit is only different as far as the mission is concerned. The goal is to make our countries and our communities better. We do not aim for profits but for development. So we know our work is well done when we see that a community has a voice and the tools they need to make development happen according to their priorities.

Have you ever been in employment?

Yes, I have. At one point, I worked at the Kenya ICT Authority and at the Kenya Community Development Foundation and other places like restaurants.

But I treat employment as another one of my businesses - there’s a mission to fulfil and while I am there I need to fulfil that mission. My attitude is such that if I work at a place and I am not as committed as the CEO, I leave to go fulfil my purpose elsewhere. It means I am not being useful enough.

At one point, I couldn’t find something to do and my business wasn’t working so I walked into a restaurant on Tom Mboya Street and offered to work there for free for three months. I lived well on tips and got many contacts who opened new doors for me.

What are some of the mistakes you made starting off? How could you change that if you went back in time?

I think the biggest one was to assume that everyone in the non-profit world wants to do things out of sheer goodwill. Through that, I got to interact with some very unscrupulous non-profit people who left us in debt that took us almost 10 years to pay off. Now, I am aware that it is not everyone who is here to do good, so I would be more careful when dealing with people.

What are the biggest lessons you have learnt running the Open Institute?

Everyone wants to do great things with their lives and all they need is the environment that enables their effort. I have also learnt that you can do well in life by doing good, helping others and giving real value.  Other than that I am still very excited by our mission.

What are some of the biggest challenges in running a business and a non-profit organisation?

I think the biggest challenge is staying afloat until things start to pay off. And then after that staying afloat and not regressing back to the tough days. Any company’s and organisation’s leader is always worried about overheads — can I pay my people on time? Will we have what we need for the mission? Will we have enough left over for next month’s salaries?

I see many people saying they want to start something of their own. You need to be ready to walk from one end of the city to the other because you can’t afford bus fare to go see a client. And when you are doing this as part of service, you have to sacrifice.

Do you have other businesses on the side?

I don’t run other businesses but I have partnered with people who have great ideas that I support.

What is that piece of advice you feel would be crucial for up and coming businesspersons?

Be clear about this one thing: your mission. Not that trite thing that people write but you, as a person: what is your contribution to the world?  

If you are clear about your contribution to the world, it won’t matter if you are employed or in business, you can always find a chance to be fulfilled.

Having done a lot of volunteering, would you encourage people to volunteer?

Yes, I would. People should, and in a big way. If you are an executive and have a way to have an input in a way of supporting the government’s policy formulation and implementation. And I am not talking about politics, rather, the technical input that professionals can put in.

As an employer, what do you consider as superior when hiring; experience or education level?

Neither. For me, passion. If you are willing to learn, you will. The attitude is everything. I have had people I have employed straight out of high school and they have risen through the ranks, doing a smoother job than Masters degree holders. ?

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