From Construction Site Cook to Tycoon

  • A businesswoman checking messages on a smart phone
    A businesswoman checking messages on a smart phone
  • How would you prepare to welcome your only daughter back home after being apart for an entire year?

    Do you play it cool, or go all out with a party all the way from the airport? That was my dilemma a few weeks ago.

    I chose the latter. If 2020 has taught me one thing, it's that we often take the little things like waking up, for granted.

    Mwende (my daughter) flew out to Dubai at the start of the year. She had landed her big break at one of the most established architectural firms in the world.

    A plane pictured on its final approach.
    An undated photo of a landing plane

    The good news is that I didn’t have to develop grey hair trying to raise money to cover her expenses as my local chama came in handy. 

    After living in Kaloleni estate in Nairobi for close to 3 decades now, I had come to organize my fellow mothers into a small chama.

    We saved up religiously with Co-op Bank and got to enjoy the perks of a stellar record at the bank.

    That was how I managed to kickstart my life-long dream in the food-service industry.

    I wasn't a star chef on your favourite TV station, but if you work in the Nairobi CBD area, chances are you've sampled my legendary pilau or paper-thin chapatis.

    If not, then you've definitely quenched your thirst on my home-made fresh fruit juice.

    I started out small. I used to wake up at 4 am just to get everything ready. Mwende, my daughter, used to be the Robin to my Batman, but I always told her that she was meant for so much more.

    Her First Class Honours in Engineering at the University of Nairobi proved me right. Her graduation day was the proudest moment of my life. 

    Ask any single mum out there, and they'll tell you that raising a girl in this era of unfiltered content, instant gratification and sponsors should be an Olympic sport.

    That was why I cried when her name was read out on grad day… as she stood up in her capping gown, tears just came down.

    She had been my rock, my North star, the very reason for my being.

    Come to think of it, she was the one who actually helped me turn my kitchen skills into a profit-making venture.

    "We need to stay ahead of the curve mum," she used to tell me during our 4 am 'kickoffs'.

    You should have seen us with our mega-sized hotpots crisscrossing from construction site to construction site.

    A housing estate under construction.
    A housing estate under construction.

    I have to say, construction workers were the foundation on which our company was built.

    They trooped to our makeshift stand each and every day without fail. Their sense of timing would make the Swiss stare with envy.

    Breakfast was at 6 am, lunch at 1 pm and dinner at 5:30 pm. 

    After some 'spy level' work from Mwende, I had learnt that this hardworking group of men and women tasked with erecting skyscrapers were often so drained at the end of the day that they rarely had time to work on the last meal of the day.

    That's how dinner ended up as part of my menu.

    To these workers, quantity (of food) often outweighed quality, however, I offered to provide both. 

    “It's always better to make smaller margins for a prolonged time, as opposed to a windfall just once,” my ka-engineer always told me.

    Quality meals translates to more ingredients, which in turn translates to more capital input and one of two things... higher prices or conservative pricing yet with smaller margins... or so I thought.

    This is where Mama Och came in.

    Mama Och is what go-getters aspire to be. If you wanted anything farm related, she was the go-to-person.

    Her ability to find the best bargains regardless of the market conditions was nothing short of magical. This woman could find you the legendary Kitui mangoes dead in the middle of July.

    Her 'legend' led her to being named our chamas Treasurer unanimously.

    A photo of a Co-op Bank Kenya branch in Nairobi
    A Co-op Bank Kenya branch in Nairobi

    With her as my supplier, I managed to whip up meals that would be right at home kwa party ya State House… if my watu wa mjengo’s compliments are to be believed… coupled with my friendly prices…my business took off.

    Soon enough, even the engineers and higher-ups at the construction sites morphed into loyal customers.

    Mwende devised a 'special package' for them…  which she would deliver at their temporary offices… and we made100 bob extra from each delivery.

    It was during this period that my daughter advised me to approach my bank with a proposal.

    I needed money to satisfy the growing customer demand.

    The banking industry has really morphed over the years. If I were to define it in one word, I'd say 'personalized'.

    My savings, business and chama accounts at Co-op made the meeting with my personal banker seem like a date with an old friend. My request was processed in record time and I finally got the funding I needed to expand the business.

    Nairobi's real estate was experiencing a boom, and I was determined to make the most of it.

    Within a few years, I was not only at over 50% of the construction sites around, but making deliveries to offices within the CBD.

    Our chama had turned into a 'mini-logistics' company, with Mama Och on the driver's seat. We had at least 70 boda bodas zig-zagging through the crazy Nairobi traffic every single day.

    We also ventured into the beauty industry with a few salons and barber shops strategically located within neighbourhoods. However, most of these were swallowed up by the huge tidal wave dubbed Covid-19.

    Luckily, the boda boda investment proved to be a stroke of genius as they have been thriving during the pandemic, with more deliveries in the last 11 months than we had over the last 2 years.

    Meanwhile, Covid denied me the opportunity to spend some time with my precious daughter. She was to fly home over Easter, but by that point, the only thing one could fly in from abroad was hope and emojis.

    I had to familiarise myself with stuff like zoom calls... a tall order for a lady born at a time when sending a message involved an actual runner...the post office was only pursued when the message was meant to cross several districts or counties (as you call them now).

    We had lived our entire lives as a team; mother and daughter, Batman and Robin... she was my best friend. 

    I guess this is why the video calls have always felt a bit detached... I  had missed her presence, her infectious laughter, her touch...

    Months have felt like years since March, but I'm thankful that my ka-engineer is in good health.

    She jets in on Friday, December 18.

    Mama Och just called to confirm that she had just transferred some funds to my personal account, as it was my turn to get a bonus on our merry-go-round.

    Before she even hangs up, I get a buzz on my phone... I put her on loudspeaker and check my bank balance on the Co-op app (like I said, banking has really changed).

    Asante sana...nimepata...I tell her

    Make sure Friday uko free coz we are going to get Mwende na chama yote... ensure the rest know that we will not be taking anywhere to the airport bila mask...I add.

    I remember I need to pay the car-hire guy… and so I transfer some funds from my newly 'fattened' account directly to his MPesa number.

    Njoro (one of my boda boda riders) calls me from a different number.

    Mambo Mama Mwende...Simu ilkufa moto, but nimepata duka ya Co-op Mashinani hapa Buru buru and I've deposited za leo...

    Co-operative Bank Branch Along Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi. Monday, October 21, 2019.
    Co-operative Bank Branch Along Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi. Monday, October 21, 2019.
    Simon Kiragu

    Asante... I get another buzz before I'm even done informing Njoro that he is being promoted to manage the entire fleet of boda bodas.

    He has been with me since zile siku za waking up at  4 am and I value my 'day ones' (I learned that from Mwende).

    Njoro is so emotional on the other end of the call it almost brings me to tears...the plates of pilau and cups of fresh juices had taken his 3 kids through university.

    It's amazing how much can be achieved when people come together...

    Ulisema Mwesh tunamwendea saa ngapi? I have my boda guys on standby... Njoro says, interrupting my trip down memory lane.

    Haha... she's coming back on Friday, but itabidi jeshi yako mkuje tu home Ololo  (Kaloleni)...we still need to remember to observe Covid rules... There will be pilau for everyone...Mama Och pia anangoja pick up ya Maembe from Kitui on the very day...

    Sawa mum and once again...I am beyond grateful for the new  role...sitakuangusha.....he says before hanging up.

    It's time to set up for a video call with the engineer...I call Mama Och

    Ambia Och akuje anishikanishie hii zoom...I tell her and hang up...He's been doing it for almost a year now...

    After he's done with the video thingy...I hear my favourite voice on other end and soon enough I can make  out her pretty face on the screen

    Natayu mum...She says...I hope all is well on your end...I have some really important news to tell you. Alafu pia Friday...her face is suddenly static...screen frozen...

    What news? Friday imefanya nini? I say in response...I repeat this severally before realizing that she could no longer hear me.

    I restart my phone and call for Och again...this time with anxious urgency...I hope she's still coming back on Friday...I say to myself  as I wait to get back online.

    Och does his 'wizardry' and we are back...

    "Mum, I hope you aren't bringing Ololo yote airport on Friday," she says...she knows me well...halafu, the news I mentioned, I'll fill you in on Friday...its good news, I promise....she says beneath a sheepish smile...

    'Can't wait to see you," I respond, trying my best to hide the fact that I'm crazy about this 'so-called' news...I can't help but find myself thinking about the possibility of my Mwende with 'someone'....

    "Can't wait to see you too...she ukumbuke...don't bring estate yote...she adds before signing off.

    So here I am...both excited and anxious...'she  sounded and looked  happy' is the line I've been using to calm my  anxiety...just a few more days now...