In an employment-seeking economy like Kenya’s, the plan is often to get a job and retire at 60. But at the altar of employment, ambition is sacrificed.
Peter Macharia recognised this a few years into employment. “As I worked, the ambitions I had nagged me even more,” he says. He worked in the banking industry for two decades, navigating his way from one department to another. All this time, he held onto his dream: to start his own business. If that dream had a heartbeat, by the time he was turning 40 the beat had grown louder and stronger. “When I turned 44 I opted for voluntary early retirement against the advice of my superiors,” Macharia says. “Immediately afterwards I set up Jijenge Credit Limited (JCL).” It has been five years since and Jijenge, a registered non-deposit taking microfinance institution, has grown hundredfold, “beyond my wildest dreams,” he says. Macharia shares with us the secrets behind his success. You retired when relatively young, why? Because I still had the energy to work on my long-held dreams. I remember analysing my performance with my employer: I had achieved and surpassed the targets set for me. I realised that if I wanted my own business to succeed then I better start off when I had the fire to get things done. You could still have started a business at 60… At 60 years, one is more or less tired, your best years are behind you. Past 50 one generally becomes risk averse. You only want to invest in something you are sure of the returns. Before you join the business world you should know that there are ups and downs. You need ample time to manage that risk. When the business flounders you should be able to rise and start afresh. This is only possible if you are young. What did you leave behind when you retired? I worked with a bank as the relationship manager in charge of business banking in the Mt Kenya region – Thika, Murang’a, Embu, Karatina, Nyeri, Nyahururu, Nanyuki and Isiolo. I had a free house, free company car and of course a decent salary. But for me all these could not match the dream I had been harbouring for all those years. Just what pushed you into going for it? As the business banking relationship manager I was the one who processed loans issued to start-ups and other businesses that eyed growth. I would see these businesses grow and flourish and I realised I could be the one taking a loan to further my business. My salary compared to the amount of money I was generating for my employer was like a drop in the ocean. Why not make the money for the business of my dreams? How soon after retiring did you start Jijenge? I retired in March and by April I had initiated registration processes and office set-up. By May we were rolling out our services. But I had ‘trial runs’ while still employed. I would lend money to my colleagues and they would pay back with some interest. I took inventory on a small booklet: it was so informal and manual. With Jijenge I was merely formalising the business. How did you market in the initial stages to attract clients? We used word of mouth, and we set out to give clients the best service. Good customer service is the perfect way of marketing because our clients referred more clients to us. I learnt this with Jijenge. Clients came to us with the belief they would be treated well and would leave if they were mistreated. What is your flagship product? Our main product is loans against logbooks. With the systems we have put into place it is very easy to process that facility – in one hour or less if the client has all the necessary documents. The other product that is doing well is loans to salaried customers. There were numerous micro-lenders by the time you got to the scene. How did you deal with competition? One of the things I did as we grew was set up a research and development department. Every month they provide us with the numbers that tell us how the business is fairing against competition, while also innovating on new ways we can stay connected to our clients and attract new ones. Where did you get capital to start Jijenge? Have you forgotten I took voluntary early retirement? I went home with a good package, a golden handshake. It was indeed the golden egg that hatched into Jijenge Credit limited. We started with one client, today we process about 500 facilities every month. We have over 5,000 active customers in our system and since 2014 we have served at least 20,000 clients.