June Gathoni was meant to do business. She knew this from early in life and hit the ground running.
After graduating from Daystar University with a business management degree, she did not look for a job as is the norm with many graduates. Pressure from her mother to get ‘a proper job’ did not influence her either. She started her business at only 20 years in 2003 without a penny to her name.
“I knew I didn’t want to be employed. And so I defied my mother then a business person whose venture wasn’t doing so well,” she says, as she recollects finding a notepad recently in which while in primary school, she had listed potential business ideas which she would pursue later in life.
When she set out to start her first company of selling computers and information technology related services, all she had was an agreement with her supplier that she would honour payment of the goods once her customers pay up.
“The thing with me is that I wasn’t afraid of tarmacking — literally — in search of customers,” she told Money.
And the fact that she had no start-up capital did not deter her. “I tell people money is very important but it is not the only important thing. Find an alternative way, find a way of starting your business even without the money, there are options.”
On surmounting several challenges in her entrepreneurial journey, Ms Gathoni knew all too well the problems which small businesses face.
There was a gaping cranny on where small businesses could get relevant information, she says. It seemed too, there was disconnect between what authorities expected of such businesses and what the SMEs were doing.
She makes reference to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) survey which says that most local SMEs face a bleak future due to a myriad of challenges, key among them being inadequate access to relevant information. Interestingly, over 90 per cent of all businesses in Kenya come from this industry.
This is how Ms Gathoni, who says she has a knack for problem solving, got thinking about helping others out of the challenges she was certain they were all going through.
With that, she started her business, Maple Small Medium Size Enterprise Resource Centre, located in Hurligham, Nairobi, in 2009 with Sh5 million seed capital. She has a co-founder who prefers to remain anonymous.
But it was the overwhelming interest that the first SMEs’ expo at KICC which she organised in 2010 which brought to bear just how hungry small-scale entrepreneurs were for information on the industry.
“It is at this expo that my eyes were opened to the manner of problems facing businesses,” she says, “people were asking even what we thought were the most basic of things.”
An estimated 2,300 SMEs attended the expo. In 2011, 2,000 small-scale ventures attended while last year, 2,660 startups came for the show.
She cites a case where a client took five months to get a Kenya Bureau of Standard (KEBS) sticker. “These are the things killing businesses. If you need to do business in Kenya, you require dozens of permits… why not streamline this and have them reduced.
It is a pity a lot of discussions about reducing the hurdles to starting business have been centred on foreign investors and big corporates, not the local small business person,” she says.
It is such authorities, she says, she is trying to have engagements with in order to develop the SME industry.
“The corporates seem to have their way. But the small entrepreneurs have to really struggle before they can access some of these services. They are looked down upon,” she says.
She has been so involved in these processes so much so that she was nominated as a member to the SME Bill taskforce — the Kenya Private Sector Alliance unit championing for the issues that affect SMEs. The team is also creating awareness of the Bill among small-scale business people.
“In most cases, people only get to know of their sins when things begin crumbling. And when you look at what needs to be put in place, it could be something so simple if someone would have been there to show them the way, then they would not be in those awkward situations. That’s what we are here for,” she says.
Ms Gathoni works with both startups and established SMEs.
“We work closely with government by finding out and submitting the challenges SMEs are faced with and what they require to come through.”
Her business also serves as a data centre for government institutions which hold information on SMEs in the country.
The government, she says, seems not to understand the needs of small businesses. “But every other day, we are interacting and facing these problems directly with them, so we know them,” she says.
So, on the flip side, she acts as an advocate for SMEs.
“In extension of the annual expos at KICC, we also organise other events that bring together SMEs and government bodies concerned with the industry,” she says, noting that it is not that similar training has not been there but that those on offer have been too expensive for certain categories of start-ups.
Ms Gathoni has had her fair share of tribulations trying to access bank loans too: “I thought if you had an account and you deposited well then you would qualify for a loan, but shock on me… then loans were hard to get, I was told to go look for collateral.”
However, she says, even today, the interest rates and the terms on which banks give loans are such that they discourage business people from borrowing to help grow their investment.
As a result, the centre has set up a revolving fund with financing from an organisation abroad to directly give SMEs loans.
The centre does not stop with offering consultation services, it is adding to the fray a business school — the Institute of Entrepreneurship Development College — a purely business school to start next year.
With its registration having been completed this month, it will have its first campus in Machakos County where the governor has issued land for its development.
The niche for this institute will be the added incubation centre that will mentor students.
Maple Small Medium Size Enterprise Resource Centre has also been doing training for corporate institutions’ customers. And Ms Gathoni says she has her eyes fixed on the region having got requests to offer consultation services in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Nigeria.