Abok Isaac Kiche

Meet Kenyan’s Budding Motivational Speaker

Abok Isaac Kiche talks about his journey into writing and his upcoming book.

He works as a senior relationship officer at a bank but Abok Isaac Kiche has a side engagement that adds to his income.

Kiche is a motivational author and speaker. 

He does not consider writing as a side hustle but since launching his first book on May 1, 2015, he has sold 2000 copies, making $6,000. 

He is a frequent speaker in over 30 schools across the country where he charges between $50 and $100 for a two-hour session. Since he started in 2013, he has made about $5, 000 from motivational talks.

The book titled, ‘Climbing the Mountain of Success,’ retails at just $3. It was published by Benchmark Education Publishers in his third year of study at Maseno University. 

“The mountain represents the challenges we face, climbing-are the steps we take to walk over these challenges, ” Kiche explains. 

The book highlights hindrances to academic excellence. Using real-life examples interspersed with relevant quotes, he compellingly sets out valuable tips on how students can easily leap over hurdles in their academic journey.

At the bank, he majors in microfinance and individual loans. As part of the job, he guides groups and individuals looking for financial support to start businesses and those applying for loans to upgrade their businesses. 

“This is part of the motivation process. I am passionate about transforming my society to become great by utilizing its full potential. I always encourage people to change their attitude and focus on the bigger picture,” says Kiche.

When he is not working, he visits schools and universities to market his work.

 “There is a ready market for motivational books especially in secondary schools and universities. These are groups of people who are undergoing their academic stage which is characterized by ups and downs hence their spirits must be awakened. Many are sleeping giants who should be awakened and directed towards excellence,” says Kiche.

Back at Maseno University, Kiche was the Director of Academics in the Student Organization of Maseno University (SOMU). 

Abok Isaac Kiche

Besides earning him fame and recognition, authoring the book gave him an edge in campus politics.

“We told freshmen that traditionally the Director for Academics had to be a writer. This was positive propaganda,” says Kiche. 

It is rare for students taking science and mathematics related courses to embrace the literary world.

Kiche went against the grain. Despite taking Bachelor of Science in Applied Statistics-an arguably demanding course, he successfully penned the book. 

As a young boy in grade eight obsessed with the Bible, the Yala primary school alumnus had no idea that he was developing his writing skills.

“I would read the book of Proverbs so many times and try to interpret it,” says Kiche. 

He can now bask in this early taste of success, but his upward trajectory has not been smooth sailing. The book is reminiscent of his early life. 

The last born in a family of 6, Kiche describes his background as average. His parents could raise school fees, but he would walk for three kilometers to school.

Since he was a chronic latecomer, his teachers would cane him every morning. Unlike some of his classmates, he did not drop out.

“Irrespective of the challenges we face, our focus and determination propel us to the top. The challenges I passed through while growing up were my key motivation (to write the book) plus my desire and passion to motivate my generation to focus on their greatness irrespective of the mountains (challenges) they face, ” says Kiche.

He went to Kabianga high school in Kericho County where he nurtured his oratory skills. The school exposed him to dozens of leadership forums. He would represent the school in public speaking competitions at the regional and national level.

He remembers rubbing shoulders with the then cabinet secretary for Education, the late Mutula Kilonzo who presented him with an award during the 2011 national public speaking competition. Kiche had come 5th in the competition where he had given a talk on ‘The Kenya We Want.’

The achievement would earn him a scholarship at Mind Grow Institute of Leadership in Nairobi. As soon as he finished high school, he enrolled at the institution where he acquired leadership and guidance and counseling skills.

 In his gap year, he served as an untrained teacher at Yala high school. His interaction with students and the challenges he had experienced while schooling prompted him to put pen on paper. 

“I got a better understanding of the psychology that drives a student, particularly at high school level.  All that knowledge and experience inspired me to write the book,” says Kiche.

He began writing in September 2013 on joining Maseno as a freshman. However, when he told the dean of his school about it, he advised him to put his plans on hold as he needed to prioritize his studies.

 “I saw that as a mountain!” Kiche quips. 

His desire to write was unwavering, much to the disappointment of his girlfriend. Furious because he had devoted more of his time to writing than the relationship, she broke up with him.

One and a half years later, the dean would give a moving speech at the book’s launch and the estranged girlfriend would try making a comeback.

 “She called me several times…” Kiche says wryly.  

Kiche looks forward to serving in a political position. He has leaped into writing and he isn’t turning back. He is currently working on his second book, ‘ On the Road to Success.’ 

” I have completed five out of nine chapters to be launched by the end of this year (2019). The book focuses on what one needs to lay on their path to success,” says Kiche.

For now, he takes his dreams seriously as he gets most of his writing ideas in his sleep before keying them in his computer. 

“Never give up-you have the ability, never give up-you have the potential, never give up,” Kiche says with finality, his voice laden with conviction. 

Lake Basin Mall

The Lake Basin Mall

Lake Basin Mall Kisumu


The Lake Basin Mall (LBM), the largest in Western Kenya, is expected to provide visitors with a fully-fledged shopping experience, add to the country’s GDP basket while boosting the region’s economy and ease the unemployment burden to the country, once it is fully operational. 

According to the 2019 Economic Survey report highlighting Kenya’s economic performance for 2018, wholesale and retail trade accounted for 6.3% of the country’s GDP, ahead of the manufacturing sector and slightly behind the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector which accounted for 4.2% and 6.4%  respectively of the 6.3% overall GDP growth recorded in 2018.

The shopping complex is owned by the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA), a government agency established in 1979 by an Act of Parliament to plan and coordinate the implementation of development projects in the Lake Victoria catchment area. 

The entire project cost the taxpayer over 4.1 billion shillings ($41M). 

Lake Basin Mall Kisumu

The five-floor shopping complex has a floor area of approximately 60,000 square meters. It is located at Mambo Leo junction along the Kisumu-Kakamega road approximately 3.5 kilometers from the Kisumu CBD. 

Lake Basin Mall Kisumu

The complex comprises of a modern mall with all social amenities, a lower floor parking area for 330 cars and recreational areas. It has a three-star hotel, showrooms for vehicles and other household goods, a tire center for servicing vehicles and has an electric perimeter fence and 24-hour CCTV cameras for security monitoring. The National Police Service is also expected to post officers to the mall to enhance security. 

 The entire project covers an area of approximately 8 acres. Construction began in August 2013 and ended in 2016.

“A date has not been set yet for the official launch of the mall, but it has been open for the public since 2017. There are a few shops and offices that are already operational,” said Dr. Raymond Omollo, LBDA managing director.

Jobs in Western Kenya

Once it is fully operational, the shopping complex is projected to raise 220 Million Kenya shillings ($2.2 M) annually in rent besides generating revenue from other sources such as parking fees and advertising billboards.

“The mall is meant to encourage local investment, but foreign investors are also welcome. More than 500 jobs can be created, and this can ease unemployment and help grow the region’s economy and that’s why we built the mall,” said Dr. Omollo.

The government is struggling to cope with unemployment in the country. The Economic Survey report released by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics in 2019 revealed that the government created fewer jobs in 2018 compared to 2017 despite the country has recorded the highest GDP in years at 6.3 % in 2018 compared to 4.9% in 2017. 

According to the survey, the government created a total of 897,000 jobs in 2017 against 840,600 jobs in 2018 -a drop by 56,400 jobs.

Sustainable Energy Use

The mall complex is fitted with solar panels that power the hot water system in the hotel and provide street and perimeter security lighting at the complex. The design also provides for skylights that ensure adequate natural light in the mall. It has a biodigester for recycling of water.

Lake Basin Mall Kisumu

“One of our core mandates as the LBDA and provided in the Act (of parliament) that established the Authority is to pursue mitigation and adapt to climate change and ensure mainstreaming of cross-cutting issues in basin development,” said Dr. Omollo.

The LBDA’s compliance with green energy requirements is also informed by the Climate Change Act 2016, a regulatory framework providing for mechanisms to reduce Kenya’s carbon footprint. Under the Act, assented into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta in May 2016, all public and private entities must integrate climate change responses into their development planning.

Mall Tenancy

Tenancy agreements are still in progress with the retail space going for between 40 Kenya shillings ($0.4) and 80 Kenya shillings ($0.8) per square foot depending on the size and its location.

“As of now, the LBM is narrowing down to one (anchor tenant). We are in negotiations with a few interested international and regional retailers. As of today, (June 2019) 65% of the mall has already been booked and paid for,” said Dr. Omollo.


It has been alleged that the mall’s budget overshot by over 1.6 billion Kenya shillings prompting the Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission (EACC)-the anti-graft agency, to in November 2018, question nine former and current members of the LBDA management over the issue.

“The investigation is on-going, and it would be prejudicial to discuss it. The project was cleared as value for money by a team from the State Department of Public Works. The project’s final count was 4,138,895,104.89 (close to $41.4M),” said Dr.  Omollo.

Underfunding and Debt

The LBDA which depends on government funding faced financial constraints that delayed completion of the project. According to the Auditor General’s report on the financial statements of the LBDA for the year ended 30th June 2017, the Authority secured a 1.5 Kenya shillings ($15M) loan to clear debts owed to the contractor of the mall.

In it’s 2017/2018 financial year, the Authority allocated one billion Kenya shillings ($10M) towards the partial clearance of a bank loan. 

The Authority also recorded a 47% drop in its total income by the end of June 2017 after the government slashed its budget.

Dr. Omollo said a delay in paying the contractor led to the accrued interest which in turn increased the final cost of constructing the mall complex.

Establishing the complex is part of the Authority’s long-term strategy to engage in income-generating projects that will enable it to generate its own revenue and supplement its budget. 

Lake Basin Mall Kisumu

For now, efforts to get the mall fully up and running are on-going. Dr. Omollo said the delay in completing the Kisumu-Kakamega road which is right next to the mall had stopped some would-be tenants at the mall from starting operations right away.  

“We are in a strategic location. The Kisumu-Kakamega road that is being constructed will give access to the mall. We have engaged a property manager who oversees both letting and management. We encourage business owners and the public to visit the mall and talk to him for spaces available,” said Dr. Omollo.  

Photo by Billy Mugambi

Turning Old Shoes into Profit

Christine Gathiuni’s Journey to Creative Entrepreneurship

After one year of no consulting work, Christine Gathiuni was demoralized and disillusioned. Then one day God gave her a vision of a creative business idea she could pursue.

“In the vision I saw lots of used shoes being transformed into beautiful colors and designs, makeovers, fashion and up cycling combined. (This was) divine vision from God-to upcycle and design used shoes as a service to clients,” recalls Gathiuni.

Gathiuni now makes money from giving old shoes a makeover. She is the founder and director of Afrishiq, a first rising enterprise that primarily restyles worn out shoes.

She says Afrishiq is a fusion of the word African and Shiq- a play on ‘chic’ meaning tasteful or stylish. 

Clients bring their own shoes for color and design modifications including:

  • Changing heels to wedges
  • Resizing by up to one size
  • Changing stilettos to chunky heels
  • Shortening stilettos
  • Changing closed shoes into open shoes
  • Fixing new soles
  • Fixing extra cushions in linings
  • Accessorizing with flowers, straps or bows

Creating Eco-Friendly Shoes in Kenya

Before branching out into other types of fabric, Gathiuni worked primarily with shoes in African fabric. She has since incorporated bags, belts, sunglasses, boxes and accessories into the business idea.

In 2019, she ventured into custom made orders for apparel that she sells locally and overseas. Although she is still in the rudimentary stages, she reveals that the market has shown interest.

 “The business model is profitable to the tune of 30 to 40% net profit monthly. I have three permanent employees and four others who add to the team depending on the type of order,” says Gathiuni.

Gathiuni sees a connection between her business model and environmental conservation.

“Clients are reducing their respective garbage while saving money plus we also use recycled materials for some of the work. Sustainability is key because there is no limit as to the number of times a pair of shoes can be revamped,”

Christine Gathiuni

Growing up in Nairobi, she wanted to become a vet. She loved animals. However, upon graduating from high school, she decided to join the United States International University-Africa (USIU) in 2000, to pursue a degree in International Business Administration.

For five years Gathiuni had travelled across Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda doing holistic plans for individuals and families. She was a certified financial planner working at a financial advisory firm. But she quit the lucrative position to work as an Independent consultant for a donor funded programme.

However, it was not long before she was out of work. She had to come to terms with joblessness, something, she had never experienced before.

Upon graduating in 2004, she had worked in hospitality and sales for four years before moving to the financial advisory firm.

“l resigned because l was ready to consult on my own. l would travel around the country doing training and workshops for youth and investment groups. It was for a United States Aid for International Development (USAID) program,” says Gathiuni.

The USAID programme which started in 2010, ran for only two years.

As the program wound down, Gathiuni was optimistic about finding more training projects. She put out feelers in all her networks but no opportunities were forthcoming.

The vision God gave her was vivid and detailed and it immediately launched her out of her idle season.

Even though she had never worked in the creative space before, let alone designing, revamping or repairing shoes, she was highly convinced that her long-awaited opportunity had found itself in her hands. She grabbed it and held on to it, tightly and as it were, prevented it from slipping away.

She embarked on finding someone to work with.

Working With Local Designers

“I found a cobbler at a design and repair shop. When I used his services, we talked and he realized I would have more opportunities, so he left and came to work for me,” recalls Gathiuni.

Moving from offering financial services to a self-employed entrepreneur was not an easy journey for Gathiuni. Even so, demand for her services was growing, steadily giving her the confidence to carry on.

She started by giving her old shoes a makeover. Her friends and acquaintances, on seeing her in the restyled shoes, became her primary clients. Soon they were making referrals to her which ultimately grew her customer base.

After one years of running the business, Gathiuni started to attend trade fairs, expositions and other events around the country to showcase her products and services. She also set up a Facebook page to market her products online.

In 2016, she attended the African Women in Cultural Leadership (AWCL) program, organized by the Arterial Network as a mentee. She had been recommended to the network by experts in the creative industry.

The mentorship, she says, broadened her knowledge on different aspects of running a creative business. She also acquired skills on how to organize and run events on a limited budget.

Some of the challenges that Gathiuni faces in her business are standardizing the quality of output during busy seasons, getting good quality shoe soles and meeting demand for the shoe makeover service.

To offset these challenges, she hopes to get a bigger and better workshop with more equipment and machinery and to employ more people.  She works from a small workshop in Umoja, a neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya and has a drop off point in the Central Business District where clients bring their orders.

Gathiuni’s background in finance has played a key role in keeping her business afloat.

“I enjoy bringing my finance background into the creative space from time to time. Fashion business requires corporate knowledge especially when wholesale clients come to negotiate. Creative entrepreneurship is dynamic and unique and allows for more self-expression than the financial services industry.”

So, to what does she attribute her success thus far?

“My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who leads me in all things,” concludes Gathiuni.

The Young and the Jobless: Kenya’s Fledgling Youth Fund

In 2006, the government of Kenya established the Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF), one of four affirmative action agencies to drive down youth unemployment in the country by providing loans and business development services to youth-owned enterprises.

This was in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals which among other things, were developed to increase the number of youth who have relevant skills for employment, decent jobs, and to foster entrepreneurship–all by 2030.

But with the continued bulge in the number of young people in the country, this vision has not become a reality given the baby steps the country is taking in tackling youth unemployment.

Although the fund has made some progress, it is clearly unable to keep pace with the increasing youth population.

In its 2013-2017 strategic plan, YEDF, reported that between 2008 and 2011, over. 6.5 billion kenya shillings was lent to youth enterprises, 1,973 youth enterprises had received market support, over 200,000 youth were trained on entrepreneurship and another  9,370 were facilitated to secure employment abroad.

In February 2019, The Star newspaper reported that since its inception, the fund had lent out Ksh. 12 billion to 800,000 youth countrywide.

Young and Jobless in Kenya

According to the 2015/2016 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey released in March 2018 by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 9 in every 10 unemployed Kenyans are 35 years old and below.

The report, which focused on people who were actively looking for jobs, found that 85%  of young people were unemployed.

In his speech during the launch of the 5th cohort of the Tuskys Internship Programme in December 2017, Mr. Ronald Osumba, the YEDF  acknowledged that the country is struggling to deal with youth unemployment.

“We have a situation where the number of young (people) leaving school every year is much greater than the job opportunities that our economy is able to generate,” said Mr. Osumba.

A 2017 British Council Study indicated that about 500,000 to 800,000 young Kenyans enter the job market every year but Kenya’s economy has not been able to absorb them into the workforce and provide the necessary amount of employment opportunities.

While noting that the current education system is insufficient in preparing youth for the employment market, the study cast doubt on the country’s capacity to attain the Vision 2030 goals.

This, the report noted, despite an improving business environment in the country. Kenya moved from position 129 to 108, in the 2016 Doing Business Report.

Jobs in Kenya

The Kenya Youth Survey report published by the East Africa Institute, 10 years since the YEDF was established, revealed that 55% of young Kenyans between 18 and 35 years (80%of Kenya’s population) were unemployed.

So worrying is the situation that 30% of the 1,854 respondents in the study believed that corruption was profitable, with 47% of them expressing admiration for individuals who had acquired money and wealth through dubious means.

It also emerged in the report that the majority of the youth had entrepreneurial ambitions.  48%of the respondents preferred establishing their own businesses to studying law, teaching, medicine or engineering while 26% of them were keen on employment and careers.

But the Youth Fund has done little to actualize these self-employment ambitions among the young people.

Shouldering the Burden of Unemployment

The government, through the YEDF, is putting enormous pressure on Kenyan youth to create jobs for themselves.

Research published in April last year by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), found that Kenya needed to create 2,000 jobs a day to meet the growing number of young people entering the job market every year.

This is a mammoth task for a government that spends more than it earns, with more money going into salaries than development.

According to Kenya’s Economic Survey 2018, the national government collected 1.4 trillion Kenya Shillings in revenue while the county governments collected 32.5 billion Kenya Shillings in the 2016/2017 financial year.

The survey showed that the national government spent Ksh. 2.3 trillion in the 2016/2017 financial year and budgeted for Ksh. 2.8 trillion in the 2017/2018 financial year with Ksh. 2.1 trillion allocated for recurrent expenditure, while Ksh. 670.6 billion budgeted for development spending.

The ODI report, titled, Opportunities for Commonwealth Development: creating jobs, sharing prospects and increasing resilience revealed that the government of Kenya had created 400,000 new jobs each year between 2003-2016.

To realize Vision 2030, the report said that Kenya should create 600, 000 new jobs each year to provide work for the youth.


Demand for YEDF services is overwhelming resources. In the 2015/16 and 2016/17 budgetary allocations, for example, the fund received Ksh.300 million and Ksh.600 million respectively.

A 2016 study published in the Strategic Journal of Business and Change Management found that although the YEDF had created jobs among the youth, the loans which majority of the youth groups accessed was minimal compared to the number of people in each group who expect to benefit, making the trickle-down effect difficult to realize.

The study titled, Influence of Youth Enterprise Development on Youth Empowerment in Kandunyi Constituency, Bungoma County found that market linkages had not provided adequate market for goods and services produced by the youth enterprises.

Unskilled Entrepreneurs Abound

In May last year, 48% of respondents in a study published by the International Journal of Liberal Arts and Social Science reported that they had received the YEDF loans without undergoing any form of training.

68% of respondents in the study titled, Assessing People’s Perceptions of the Youth Enterprise Development Fund in Employment Creation towards Poverty Reduction in Meru County, felt that the fund created employment and reduced poverty.

More funding to the YEDF will certainly mimic some difference but real change will be made when Kenyan society begins equipping its young people with entrepreneurial values, attitudes, and skills. They need to be business-minded from a tender age. More importantly, they must know that corruption will not give them enduring wealth but a well-managed business will certainly do.

Battling to Draw: The Story of Two Kenyan Art Students

In 2015 two freshmen in college, Jerry Timbwah and Denis Mwendano bumped into each other while navigating the admission process at Maseno University.  Drawn to each other by shared aspirations and similarities in their past, the two visual artists instantly became friends.

They had both suffered rejection and had been struggling to fit into a society that was yet to approve of their carrier choices.

Having defied their critics, the final year students of Fine Arts are currently building a visual arts brand dubbed, Kuchora Tu.

“Some people would dismiss our courses as, “Kuchora tu,” (a Swahili phrase for “mere drawing”) that is how we came up with the brand,” says Timbwah.

Recently, they represented the university in the National Cultural Celebrations organized by the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO (KNATCOM) in Kisumu before taking part in the 2018 UNESCO Kenya Week in Paris.

“It was fascinating. We were like dogs that had been caged for years. Boarding the plane to France opened our doors,” says Mwendano.

Mwendano’s love for art began when a shoe polish company organized a drawing competition in his primary school to promote its brand. He was in class 3 (tBatthe equivalent of third grade). He drew a locally celebrated footballer pouncing at the company’s shoe polish instead of the ball. He topped his class and later joined a team of winning artists in Nairobi for a trip sponsored by the company.

After the competition, Mwendano would spend every spare moment drawing. A year later, his hobby got him into trouble.

“One day my father gave me the cane for drawing in my homework books. But he realized that l loved art because he bought me drawing books,” says Mwendano.

Growing up, there was something inherently different about Timbwah that made him quite troublesome. He could not find the correct medium to express it. One day, while in class 4 (fourth grade), he sprayed paint on his schoolbag. His mother bought him a drawing book. Then it clicked.

“l started drawing anything that could inspire me: trees, cartoon characters, spiderman…l was also doing calligraphy and wood carvings,” Timbwah says.

The tide started turning against them when they joined high school. They both landed in schools that did not offer art as a subject..

Although he was disgruntled, Mwendano was patient, , eventually, hoping to pursue art in college.

Timbwah got more and more irate, forcing his parents to move him through several schools in his native Vihiga county until neither of the schools could accept him because of his notoriety.

Although the school was not offering art, Timbwah was compelled to join a girls’ school that had only 15 boys. The school was transitioning from a mixed day school to a girls’ boarding school.

He too resolved to pursue art in college.

Timbwah and  Mwendano’s struggle to be accepted as artists continued upon graduating high school in 2014. Since he had performed better in physics and business subjects in his high school leaving exams, Timbwah’s father wanted him to forget about art and pursue a degree in either of the subjects.

Close to abandoning his dreams and unable to face his father, who had since moved the family to Voi, Taita Taveta County, a rebellious Timbwah ran away from home. With no final destination in mind, he wound up in Nairobi. He had never been to the city. Luckily, a friend took him under his wings as soon as he landed.

“l wanted to explore the arts industry. I walked into several art studios and exhibition shows. I was only going to change my mind if art was not what l expected,” says Timbwah.

Back in Taita Taveta County, Mwendano’s degree choice had attracted blowback from his family and friends. Although it was distressing, he somehow learned how to step back and neutralize t all the negativity thrown his way.

“Most of my friends were getting into short courses while waiting to join college. But l would hide in my room alone to draw sketches,” says Mwendano.

Even though they were still skeptical about his career path, Mwendano’s parents welcomed his admission to Maseno University to pursue art and design.

On landing at the university, Mwendano’s social anxiety quickly dissipated. He met Timbwah who was being admitted to the same course. They were keen to professionalize their talents. At first, they challenged each other to paint portraits of their janitors. Eventually, they started collaborating on projects. IThheir first gig was painting the interior of a local club.

“The most amazing part of the project was that when l would tell him what to do, he would do just that and vice versa. If l am painting on one side, l don’t care about what he’s doing the other side. We’ll merge the painting and it’ll be perfect, ” says Timbwah.

Even though they still faced obstacles about their courses, they were determined to prove themselves.

In 2016, Mwendano wowed a live audience by painting a portrait of the late reggae star, Bob Marley, in just 3 minutes. He was representing his class in the Maseno Got Talent annual competition.

Bob Marley by Denis Mwendano

Live Portrait of Bob Marley by Denis Mwendano

“There were too many flashes.People were taking pictures. I was tense. I was painting it upside down and had started with the nose and the mouth. I thought it would backfire but when l turned it, people were cheering and screaming,” says Mwendano.

His stunning performance won him instant fame. Students started to appreciate his work and approached him to do their portraits.

Timbwah and Mwendano would later turn their rooms into art studios and have been working collaboratively on commissioned work and occasional live performances. Their parents are proud of who they have become and They gentlemen have since found closure. Their current success is a fusion of various factors: patience, determination, teamwork, and friendship.

They hope to strengthen their brand Kuchora Tu after graduation.

Meet Michael Otieno, The Kenyan Entrepreneur Cashing In On Water Hyacinth

By Edwin Lisamira

Michael Otieno
Michael Otieno

Otieno is the founder and CEO of Takawiri Enterprises Limited. Established in 2006, the enterprise produces unique handmade stationery and craft items from water hyacinth. Some of their products include folders, envelopes, notebooks, seasonal cards, gift bags, and paper lamp shades.

“Lake Victoria is in a sorry state because of the hyacinth, we are trying to do something about it,” Michael Otieno tells me as we walk into his business premises in Mambo Leo, Kisumu county where he makes paper from the stubborn weed.

“I am trying to offer a sustainable solution to the hyacinth problem. The government has tried to eradicate it without success. The weed is endangering some fish species such as tilapia by drawing oxygen from the water and blocking sunlight.”

“The fish numbers have declined and access to the lake hindered because the weed clogs the lake making it difficult for fishermen to navigate,” Otieno says.

He regrets that the local community who depend on the lake for their livelihood are bearing the brunt of the invasive weed.

“During the December holidays, many people went out of business because there was too much hyacinth. Tourists were coming in for boat riding but the boats could not navigate. People were unable to pay rent and school fees for their children,” says Otieno.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2014, he came third in the Green Innovations Awards, organized by the National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND). He also earned a spot in the 2017 National Science, Technology and Innovation week, where he showcased his products. According to NETFUND, Takawiri Enterprises has managed to control over 20 tons of the hyacinth.

So passionate is this budding innovator that he is convinced his project could eradicate the hyacinth in less than a year while creating employment and conserving the environment by reducing the number of trees used in papermaking.

However inadequate resources to scale up his business continue to challenge that conviction. But for a man who never thought he would own a business of his own in the first place, he remains hopeful.

Born in Nairobi, Otieno moved to Kisumu where he joined Kisumu Boys High School in 1997. He wanted to be an accountant. Barely two years later, his dreams were shattered when his parents were unable to pay his school fees.

Disheartened and out of school, he reluctantly took his uncle’s advice to train as an artisan at the Kisumu Innovation Centre of Kenya, KICK (a charitable organization until 2002). His uncle was a painter at the organization.

Otieno joined KICK in 1999. He learned to make woven furniture from hyacinth and papyrus. The training was free and the organization would pay weavers 600 Ksh (about $6) per chair. Trainees would receive half of the amount and the rest would go to their trainers.

Hyacinth Gift Bag

It was not long before his dexterity caught the attention of his boss, Mr. Muchilwa. He began to nurture the young man’s talent. He would give him orders directly. This meant Otieno would no longer split his pay with his trainers.

After learning that he had dropped out of school, Mr. Muchilwa adviced him to go back.

Having saved some money to pay for school fees, Otieno went back to Kisumu Boys High School in Form 2 in 2002. He continued to work at KICK during the holidays and over the weekends.

Unfortunately, he says, his boss’ contract ended a year later and most operations at KICK were halted. He could no longer work at the organization as a part-timer. This dented his prospect of finishing high school.

Although he missed many classes because he would be sent home for school fees most of the time, he managed to sit for his high school exit exams in 2004. He reunited with his former boss who had established his own paper making microenterprise at his home.

“Mr. Muchilwa advised me to join him to learn more about paper recycling. He trained me in blending waste paper with hyacinth fiber. After working with him for 3 years, he advised me to start a business of my own.” says Otieno.

Although he was skeptical of going it alone, he embarked on getting equipment. He bought a small trough, a pestle, and mortar.

“I was not clear about what to do. I was young at the time and trying to venture into business for the first time. But l had nothing else to do, l decided to do it anyway.” Otieno says.

He began to manually blend waste paper and hyacinth from his residence in Migosi, Kisumu, producing business cards, book covers and envelops. The process was labor intensive because he lacked the necessary machines.

After the NETFUND awards, he received some seed money from the agency which enabled him to fabricate a calendaring machine and a pulping machine. This enhanced the production process greatly. The agency also supported him to undertake a one-year business course.

With the seed money, he also rented a 0.25ha piece of land in Mambo Leo, Kisumu where he moved the business. He also added gift bags to his line of products.

One of the major challenges Otieno faces is the inability to produce in bulk. He operates on a made-to-order basis. He regrets failing to secure business contracts with companies who wanted eco-friendly packagings when the ban on plastic bags came into effect in 2017.

“At the moment we can only make 200 pieces of paper per day. Once we get the pulp, we make the paper manually but there is a machine that can give us up to 3000 pieces of paper in a day,” says Otieno.

For now, with 5 permanent employees, Otieno makes Ksh. 60,000 on average per month. He believes he could make up to Ksh. 100,000 per day once he acquires the necessary machines. By mechanizing the entire process he says, he will be able to hire more workers and expedite the eradication of the hyacinth from the lake.

How it works.

  • Hyacinth is cut into small pieces before it is dried in the sun. When the weather is not conducive for drying, the weed is boiled for 3 hours.
  • Waste paper is added. The mixture is crushed to produce pulp before adding wood glue to bind it.
  • The pulp is put into a trough filled with water.
  • The mixture is sieved. The A-3 size sieves are put in the sun to allow the residue to dry, forming paper.
  • The paper is then passed through a calendaring machine where pressure is exerted to it leaving it smooth and foldable.