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Kenyan Billionaire Once Ranked 41 Richest Black Man in the US Emerges From Retirement

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Businessman David Karangu

“A lot of times, people will start a business without doing research and then wonder why it fails.By research, I mean, if you want to open a restaurant, you have to go talk to people who own restaurants. It’s amazing that we Kenyans are so shy about picking up a phone and going to talk to someone with specific questions. People will tell you how they became successful. “Talk to people and listen to how they did it and you will learn different things,” says David Karangu.

Becoming a dollar millionaire at the age of 30 earned David Karangu a place at the table owned by an illustrious clan of  5.3 million households drawn from the largest economy in the world with a net worth of 1 million U.S. dollars and more.

The year was 1997. The Place: Augusta-Georgia. The number of U.S households passing the one million dollars threshold  –101 million.

Ten years later, after earning his millionaire stripes, Karangu sensationally retired from his daily grind, selling his entire business to revel in his next earthly adventure that includes globetrotting and building luxury homes.

And if you want to appreciate the sacrosanctity of time, coalescing around Karangu, you will appreciate whatCarl Sandburg meant when he commented, “The common man is not concerned about the passage of time, the man of talent is driven by it.”

Karangu manifests a time discipline that plays to a pulse similar to that of a military regiment.

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 On a certain day of the week since his arrival back to Kenya last May he meets up with disparate professionals who are involved in some ways in his businesses -with each group seemingly allocated time for engaging. And if one is running late, Karangu is not averse to dialing the digits of a latecomer; politely informing them a meeting has already begun.   

From his telling, he’s currently involved in some real estate projects inMalindi where he has bought some serious acreage of land.

 Understandably, he’s jittery having his story run – for now, for very obvious reasons, he prefers to court anonymity with a vengeance – and if you were expecting to see a current photograph of his – you will have to wait until the cows come home. 

But your correspondent reminds him of the Parable of talents – and assures him that He, who lives in the firmament, is certainly proud of him.

The rest is history.

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“ Where most business people make a mistake is when they become too attached to a business,” says Karangu, whose judgment call, influencing him to call it a day at the age of 40 led the Columbia Business School to write a white paper sponsored by the US Government called “The Owner’s Journey,”

The Paper interrogates eight successful entrepreneurs, including Karangu, who nurtured and grew their businesses, then unwittingly wrestled with Cognitive dissonance as they routinely faced a lackadaisical lifestyle that upended the adrenaline-driven modus vivendi that they were so accustomed to.

 It includes first-hand accounts of their experiences shared, lessons learned, and reflections on what they could have done differently.

In the case of Karangu, as the days and nights unraveled, paving the way for a fresh year, another year, and almost another year, he raised the white flag. An unquenchable hankering for the business he first fell in love with when he was 18 years old, namely that of running a car dealership, was seductively strangulating his pulmonary veins.

Undoubtedly saying that Karangu is loaded is an understatement, this man has the chops for minting money and one would be forgiven for wondering if this Kenyan – American ever considered becoming a venture capitalist.

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And he badly needed to breathe again.

On July 14, 2010, he purchased the former Steve Rayman Chevrolet South dealership, the biggest in Georgia, attracting unprecedented recognition by both the state government and the business community, and renamed it, Ivory Chevrolet. Then on April 2, 2012, he purchased Sutherlin Mazda, signaling the beginning of a new chapter in the auto industry.

He went on to own a BMW dealership in Columbia, South Carolina, followed by Volkswagen and Subaru dealerships in the same state.

In 2013, Karangu, then 46, became the first African immigrant to make it to the coveted list put out byBlack Enterprise Magazine(BEM).

“As the owner of one of the top-grossing metropolitan Atlanta-based businesses, he joins a small but significant list of iconic African-Americans who shape the economic landscape of this country,” read the magazine’s annual report.

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The magazine honors men and women with a proven record of prudent money management and the use of technology in business.

It also highlights companies in which individuals have at least 51 percent of controlling shares, if they are listed in a bourse

“A lot of times, people will start a business without doing research and then wonder why it fails. By research, I mean, if you want to open a restaurant, you have to go talk to people who own restaurants. It’s amazing that we Kenyans are so shy about picking up a phone and going to talk to someone with specific questions. People will tell you how they became successful. “Talk to people and listen to how they did it and you will learn different things,” says Karangu.

Undoubtedly saying that Karangu is loaded is an understatement, this man has the chops for minting money and one would be forgiven for wondering if this Kenyan – American ever considered becoming a venture capitalist.

His thoughts about the proposal are well thought out.

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“That’s a good question. What always happens is that people come to me with ideas that I call half-baked. People will come up with ideas without having done their research. For example, if you come to me and say, “We will make a lot of money opening a radio station in Kenya,” I will ask, “What kind of research have you done?”

And then someone will say, “There are a lot of people who listen to radio stations in Kenya,” and the next question I will ask is, “Where is your data?” Where are the numbers? Just like anyone else will ask you. Someone will say, “I don’t have that,” And I will ask, “How do you know the business will be successful?” Someone will say, “I think it will be successful.”

The other request that I usually get is, “I have this idea and I want to do it,” I will then ask, “How much money are you putting in?” And someone will say, “ I am not putting in any money.” Are you still going to keep your day job, I ask? ” ‘ Yes’ what are you risking? Nothing!”

“But if somebody is really committed, for example, if someone asks you to invest half a million dollars and they choose to do it part-time, they will certainly not be successful.” But if you are committed, believe in the idea, and are willing to give up your day job, then this is something I would look into.

But what I find about so many people is that their commitment is not there. If I’m going to do the research, I might as well do the business myself. If you have a concept, I will say to develop the numbers. Numbers don’t lie. “If you are truly committed, other people will believe what you believe, and that is what happened to me.”

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In his telling, Karangu says other qualities needed to push one to succeed in business include a liking for people, embracing a circumspect attitude while hiring human capital and possessing money management skills.

As of 2021, an estimated 2% of black households in the U.S., or roughly 340,000 families, had a net worth of over $1 million, according to the economic state of Black America report. In comparison, more than one in every seven White households had surpassed the million-dollar mark.

“Wealth flows through us, not to us,” says J.D. Smith, author of Financial Distancing: How to Economically Quarantine Your Wealth, in an interview with BEM. “We shouldn’t be six feet apart when it comes to building wealth.”

He continues, “We are constantly transferring money from one institution to another.” We go to school and have to take on additional jobs to fund our education and overall living expenses. Money typically goes from our jobs to the education system. And this pattern doesn’t stop after graduation.

When we get into the workforce, money often flows from our jobs to pay hefty mortgages and student debt payments to keep up with the lifestyles of our colleagues. “We need to allocate more money toward investing if we want to build wealth.”

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As of 2021, there are roughly 11.8 million millionaires in America, making up roughly 3.5% of the population.

It turns out, the journey to the U.S. for Karangu, once associated with the 26th largest minority-owned car dealership in the U.S according to the BEM- with annual sales hitting over $100 million, is traceable to his father, Dr. Mwangi Karangu, a beneficiary of the Kennedy Airlifts who ended up becoming an egghead at Morgan State University.

“ I got started when I was 17 years old. That is when I relocated back to the US from Kenya. People who knew me then in Baltimore will tell you that I used to walk around saying, “I will be a millionaire bef“ I got started when I was 17 years old. That is when I relocated back to the US from Kenya.

People who knew me then in Baltimore will tell you that I used to walk around saying, “I will be a millionaire before I’m 30 years old.” And they would say. ‘ That Karangu kid is crazy ’.But this is something I badly wanted to become more than anything else. “So, retrospectively,” Karangu, 54, says, “the first personal quality one needs to have in order to achieve success in business or indeed in any other sphere of life is ambition.”

According to Entrepreneur magazine, “Self-belief is the foundation of success.” This is an iron rule. Nobody ever became unreasonably successful without a strong belief in themselves…. Self-belief must ultimately become specific to the field in which you will ultimately triumph.

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Belief in your destiny will fizzle and fade without a clear idea of the stage on which your success will be played out. “Nobody reaches a target without defining it and believing, –sometimes naively and to almost universal ridicule – that it is attainable.”

In his telling, Karangu says other qualities needed to succeed in business include a liking for people, embracing a circumspect attitude while hiring human capital, and possessing money management skills.

“You have to know how to hire and keep discipline.” This is one talent you must have. People’s relationships are crucial. For example, how does one deal with their customers? The other area where people fail is managing money.

This is where education and going to college come in. In business, the first thing you learn is that profit and cash are two different things. If you are not managing your money properly and there is a lot of cash tied up in inventory, you can be cash-poor, and this phenomenon affects a lot of people. “Managing money and managing people are the two biggest things that can make or break a sale,” says Karangu, who was born in 1967 in a U.S hospital.

And being disciplined says Karangu is an attendant quality that one requires to be successful in business.

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“One requires undivided discipline; I worked every week 70 to 80 hours, not because I had to but because I took my business extremely seriously.” He added, “When it comes to business, I’m very strict; I do not hire people because they are my friends, as I have always protected my reputation and my integrity,” says Karangu.

Back in the United States, he is arguably the only Kenyan progeny to have a calendar day named after him, as evidenced by the Mayor of Augusta, Georgia, declaring July 28, 2005, “the David Karangu Day.”

In addition, the bureaucrat also awarded this entrepreneur, widely thought to have been one of the top ten business operatives in the ancestral home of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business with an Honorary Key to the city.

While the Governor of the State of Georgia appointed Karangu to the board of the second-largest hospital in the State, for a period of three years.

Understandably, these accolades singularly underline Karangu’s unvarnished pedigree as an influential entrepreneur back in the States.

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His first job upon completing his undergraduate studies at Morgan State University—with degrees in accounting and marketing – was that of a dishwasher at a large pancake franchise, which he considered tedious.

Initially, he had set his mind on becoming a lawyer, but gradually, his innate intuition directed him to the sales profession.

 “It was something I just sort of fell into,” says Karangu, who, on exiting the pancake franchise, got employed by the Ford Motor Company where he stayed for eight years, ascending through the ranks.

 “I discovered it was something I really enjoyed,” he says.

Soon after learning the ropes, he started dreaming of owning his own dealership and began building a nest egg for that purpose.

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After saying goodbye to Ford in 1995, he enrolled at the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy – a prerequisite requirement for all car dealers in the U.S., while also working as a sales manager at a Lincoln dealership in Melbourne, Florida.

Ford Motor Company owns Lincoln Motor Company and acquired the company around 1922; it’s a luxury vehicle division of Ford.

“When I started my business, I really knew this was what I wanted to do.” I did my research and was able to show hard numbers. I left a job that was paying me over $ 120,000 a year to start a business.

The first year I made $40,000. This brings me to another point. You better get married to someone committed to the ups and downs of business. Imagine going from $ 120,000 to $40,000! Or moving from a nice four-bedroom house to an apartment. “These are the sacrifices you have to make when you are getting started,” he says.

For a while, after he completed the course, he had nothing to do but wait for the right opportunity to come along.

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But after learning the ropes, he started dreaming of owning his own dealership and started building a nest egg for that purpose.

  The thought of starting his own business didn’t worry him, but the waiting was driving him crazy.

“I had always loved cars since I was a little boy.” “During my stint as an employee, I made up my mind that the automobile industry was going to be part of my future,” he reportedly told the Kenya-based Nation newspaper.

Verifiably his entrepreneurial journey leading to his present-day financial freedom began in  Augusta – Georgia.And it was anything but bliss. For he faced the ubiquitous travails faced by bootstrapper entrepreneurs.

Listen up as Karangu narrates his initial obstacles.

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“ Let me walk you through.” I was working for the Ford Motor Company, and I was comfortable doing what I was doing. Then I decided I wanted to go out and do something else for myself. I couldn’t think of anything at the time. But at night, I’d see all these informational commercials on TV about buying houses and becoming a millionaire. Guess what? I bought into this stuff.

I realized that you could get rich this way. The next thing that I did was to identify the business I wanted to engage in. And I identified that I wanted to buy an automobile dealership. And I went to the people in the industry that I knew, and they turned me down. They asked me, “How old are you anyway?”  I said “ 25 years.” And they said, “Get another 15 years before we can take you seriously.”

Then I went to a bank. I will never forget when I went to SunTrust Bank with a nice package prepared, and the guy in the bank did not even open the package. After this, I started reading biographies of rich people. And the one thing that stuck out was partnerships. I had 150 clients. My clients were mainly car dealers.

I thought to myself, “Out of the 150 people, there must be someone out there whom I can partner with.” As I went through my day job, I would ask those I was close to, “What do you think of you and I starting a business together? “ Eventually I ended up with a list of three people. The last person I talked to said to them, “Look at this, give me the capital to get started.”

“I will own 51 % of the business; you do not have to do anything.” I will do all the work, and you will own 49 % he said, “What are you giving up? I will give up my house. “I will give up my 410 K plan.”

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Admittedly, Karangu got his big break when a friend in Orlando told him of the opportunity at Fairway Ford, a six-acre lot off Washington Road in the booming bedroom community of Evans.

Mr. Karangu saw potential in the dealership. It was modern looking, in a prime traffic location, and had an upper-income customer base.

He quickly purchased it using his savings and a line of credit through Ford Motor Co., which he used to leverage a bank loan.

According to Wealthy Gorilla, there are conceivably seven sacrifices that entrepreneurs need to make for them to succeed in business and verifiably Karangu ticked on all of the boxes.

Should one be interested in pursuing a business, what advice would Karangu give to, say, a putative entrepreneur?

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Says Karangu, “There are so many businesses you can do.” But you have to narrow them down.  And the best thing is always to engage in something that you are familiar with. And a lack of seed capital should not be a hindrance.

“I will normally tell anybody that I started off with no money.” I came to the US just like anybody else. Yes, I was fortunate to have brothers and sisters but none came to me and said ‘ here is a batch of money go and invest in a dealership’. There is no easy career in this world. I started going to business conferences and I started talking to people who were doing what I wanted to do.

And I heard their stories. I was also able to meet people who finance businesses, and I was able to grow that way,” says this alumnus of Nyeri High School who in 2013 was ranked the 41st richest black entrepreneur in the U.S.by BEM.

Then on November 1, 1997, he launched his first dealership – Fairway Ford of Augusta, in Georgia, at age 30, becoming the youngest dealer of the Ford Marquee in the United States, a milestone that led him to bag the  Ebony Magazine 2001 dealer of the year award.

Is there a magic bullet in business?

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 Hear him speak: “ If you want to be a doctor, you have to go to school. You have to read and research. A lot of times people will start a business without doing research and then wonder why they failed. By research, I mean, if you want to open a restaurant, you have to go talk to people who own restaurants.

It is amazing that we Kenyans are so shy about picking up the phone and going to talk to someone with specific questions. People will tell you how they became successful. Talk to people and listen to how they did it. And you will learn different things.”

In 2002, aged 35, his Atlanta-based motor dealership company, the Ivory Chevy Auto Group, was ranked among the largest minority-owned enterprises in the U.S., grossing over $100 million in sales annually – an equivalent amount to what today the world’s largest software and programming company – is spending, over the next five years, to open an Africa technology development center with sites in Kenya and Nigeria.

And his appetite for motor vehicle dealerships, it seems, was headed north with each passing year.

Interestingly, while growing up here in the motherland, he intuitively developed a passionate love for the Mercedes Benz brand, believing that cars bearing the three-pointed stars marquee were the world’s ultimate ride.

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Coincidentally, on July 1, 2005, Karangu, opened a Mercedes Benz dealership, which became the crown jewel of his new empire. From the word go, it was a shoo-in, setting new records for a Mercedes dealership, as the entrepreneur emerged as one of only five African Americans in history to own one.

After a hiatus of 12 years, meanwhile, the old man and his fledgling family relocated back to Kenya in 1972.

It would also be the first time the younger Karangu would be setting foot in the motherland having been born in 1967 in the U.S.

However, Karangu’s visit to his forbearer’s home ended up being a sojourn.

In 1983, the older Karangu, together with his brood, relocated back to the U.S. upon accepting a job at Morgan State University, with the move arguably prompted by the political uncertainty submerging Kenya at the time.

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Tellingly, two unsavory events had taken place in Sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest economy back in 1982, including an attempted coup and the abrogation of plural democracy. With the duo acts, in effect, smothering the working of a functional democracy, precipitating a palpable edginess in the national psyche.

Understandably, the times were fraught with trepidation as Kenya, seemingly appeared to be barreling towards an aberration of what the Roman goddess Libertas symbolized in the iconic Statue of Liberty found in the Big Apple.

Arguably, the lecturer’s perception of uncertainty was sufficient reason for him to return to his beloved home.

The Washington Post nicely captured the mood engulfing Kenya at the time, reporting that “Since he came to power in 1978,( President)  Moi has weathered a reported assassination plot, a bloody Air Force coup attempt, a sharp drop in Kenya’s economy, and, by his own recent account, the recognition of “evil-minded people” in his government who are holdovers from( President) Kenyatta’s days in power.”

In addition, the Paper reported that by calling parliamentary elections a year in advance (1983) “in order to clean the system,” Moi has indicated to Kenya’s 7.2 million registered voters that it would serve their local interests to elect members of Parliament closely identified with him and to reject any incumbents who are likely to be “disloyal.”

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Generally, the world was also witnessing several seminal events happening in 1983, including the unveiling of the first mobile phone, the U.S invading the Caribbean Island nation of Grenada, and the beginning of a civil war in Zimbabwe. The world was in a capricious mode.

It was also a watershed year for this East African state because it was holding national elections.

 “It turns out, the 1983 elections were called by Moi a year early to dissipate a crisis which had emerged following the naming of Charles Njonjo as a traitor and his dismissal from the cabinet and the (ruling Party KANU) party.

Two reasons led to this decision. First, Moi hoped that the elections would serve a legitimizing function and restore confidence in a severely weakened presidency following the abortive coup of August 1, 1982. Second, the elections were utilized to focus public attention away from the serious economic problems which the country faced,” says Dr. Ahluwalia Davinder Pal Singh, a political scientist.

And for a person whose worldview had disproportionately been shaped by the thinking behind a coterie reverently referred to as an Assembly of Demigods, it was arguable that Dr. Karangu’s fidelity to the second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence was sacrosanct.

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 Indeed It so happened, the Kenya of the 80s and 90s was predatory, retaliatory, and uncharitable in character, particularly towards adherents of libertarianism but also generally toward that anonymous man on a Kenyan street who dared to believe in the doctrine of all persons having inalienable rights.

Over the years, the younger Karangu has been involved in philanthropic work both in the US and in Kenya earning him for example the local state award of Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) in 2012.

What does Karangu think of his storied entrepreneurial journey?

“At that time, for the last 10 years, we had made a lot of money before I decided I wanted to do something on my own.” That’s when I went and bought the dealerships. Right now, banks approach me and ask if I want money, and I tell them no, recalling the times when no one would speak to me.

But it is because I did not have a proven record then. But all I will tell you is that a strong idea always prevails, even in situations where money is lacking. In my case, the idea was more powerful. Think about it—even in Kenya, when someone gets started, who gives them money?”

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Maya Angelou would also echo this truism, saying, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.” Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”

Karangu put in the hours, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, meaning, the guy did not have time for a social life which leads one to ask the question of whether hard work alone is the panacea leading to business success.

“A good plan comes first.” The love of what you are doing is secondary; you would do it for fun. “Hard work follows along with a little luck,” he says.

Karangu, without a doubt, is the person who became a Croesus through sheer personal grit and self-belief. As a millionaire, his advice is indeed worth heeding.

His parting shot is, “Read about other successful people and surround yourself with positive people.”

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Morris Mbetsa: The Kenyan Serial Techpreneur Breaking Boundaries With New Innovations

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Morris Mbetsa

Mbetsa, who made headlines in 2018 with a prototype for Africa’s first human-carrying drone, is now on a mission to build the largest IoT service platform in the continent and has set up a factory to mass-produce tech sensors and devices.

By Anne Ndungu/bird story agency

At 32 years, Morris Mbetsa is on a mission to disrupt the tech industry. He is well known for creating Africa’s first human-carrying drone, and through his company Numeral IoT, has helped clients from across Africa in developing prototypes for their product ideas, manufacturing, and bring the product to market.

A Mandela Washington fellow, he was offered a three-month scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, where he received training in aeronautical engineering. After his fellowship, he interned with the technology giant IBM and returned to Kenya, where he was employed by Microsoft but resigned after ‘feeling underutilized’.

In this conversation, he talks about his entrepreneurial journey, his company’s innovations and his soon-to-be-announced merger with a global tech brand.

In 2018, you made history when you created and unveiled Africa’s first passenger drone. How was the innovation received, and how is it faring in the marketplace today?

The development of the drone taxi was met with excitement and concern from regulatory authorities and the public. On the one hand, our drone offered a range of exciting possibilities for enhancing efficiency and improving access to critical services like logistics where traditional infrastructure was lacking. On the other hand, there were concerns about safety, privacy, and potential misuse of this technology.

The project was a labour of love inspired by a desire to better the lives of African people.

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As I started the project, I quickly realised it would require far more funds than anticipated. As a result, I was constrained to fund the project through small grants and well-wishers.

We pitched the project to a couple of investors, but it was deemed too risky and ahead of time. While the investors were impressed with the project’s potential, they did not believe it was a sound investment.

We couldn’t continue with the project without additional investors, prompting me to transition my focus to more practical devices that could be monetised.

What led you on this path of technology innovation?

Since I was a child, I have always had an interest in this field. I’m fascinated by electronics’ inner workings and enjoy tinkering with them. I then realised that most of the hardware we use in Africa is imported from other countries and not always designed with the African market in mind.

This sparked a fire in me to establish a factory where I could manufacture critical electronics and make them available to the African masses. By doing so, we will be able to bridge the digital divide and provide more people with access to modern technology that will help them improve their lives.

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That’s why in 2019, I formed my company Numeral IOT. Numeral, suggests a focus on numbers, which are fundamental to binary computer languages, and reflects the digital nature of our company and IoT, showing our involvement in the Internet of Things.

Our company offers services to clients from Tanzania, Liberia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. We have a global perspective and are not geographically restricted.

By incorporating IoT into standard hardware, we create innovative products that are more intelligent, connected, and better suited to meet the needs of the African market.

Before setting up the company, you travelled to China for specialised training. What did you learn from there that has proved useful in your entrepreneurial career so far?

I observed firsthand how the tech factories operated and the manufacturing process worked. One thing that struck me was that most factory workers were low-skilled labourers whose jobs didn’t require traditional school knowledge. This inspired me to work with my African people, even those with little education and provide employment opportunities for them.

I also made valuable connections with chip and component suppliers, who are crucial for our manufacturing. These connections have been beneficial in securing the necessary supplies and components for our manufacturing operations.

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To date, what products has your company innovated and which one is your signature innovation?

Our company has produced several products, including speed governors, trackers, smart home devices such as smart bulbs and locks, security, and game-changing smart meters for gas, water, and electricity.

The Smart meters are revolutionary and unique in their features and capabilities. They offer solutions that are not available on the market and have opened doors for our company.

Due to our local manufacturing and the unique features of our smart meters, we have received significant interest and partnership opportunities from all over Africa.

What is the process of coming up with a new product at Numeral IOT?

Our research and development process is tailored to the scope, budget, and level of complexity of each project. Our team approaches research and development in a flexible and adaptable manner.

We base our decisions on large-order demands. We prioritise, however, understanding the needs and pain points of industry clients and organisations. Before producing a working prototype, the RND process typically takes at least three months. We take a systematic and thorough approach to R&D, critical for ensuring the final solution’s quality and feasibility.

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What new product are you working on currently?

Our team is working on large-scale projects ranging from the LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) to solar industries. This project is related to developing solutions that combine these two energy sources to create more efficient and sustainable energy solutions for disadvantaged communities.

We are also in advanced talks to partner with a global tech firm. I can’t get into the details because the process is ongoing, but all I can only say is to be on the lookout for the name Spearhead.Inc.

Where do you see your company in the next five years?

Morris Mbetsa

Morris Mbetsa at his factory

To become one of, if not the largest electronics manufacturer in Africa, with a strong focus on IoT technology. We envision having one of the continent’s biggest IoT platforms, enabling Africans to get analytics on their connected devices at meagre costs.

This is an important goal that could significantly impact the development and adoption of IoT technology in Africa. We plan to accelerate the transition by having factories across the continent and investing in infrastructure and resources.

bird story agency

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Jennifer Barassa:Top Kenyan Adman Who Began a Continental Company with Ksh 30

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Jennifer Barasa
Jennifer Barassa

“My personal mantra is to work hard, work hard, work hard,work hard. Hard work never killed anyone. In all things have faith,” says Jennifer Nafula Barassa, Chief Executive 

Officer of Top Image Africa Ltd a 27-year-old advertising boutique with a footprint in 10 African countries.

Incidentally, Jennifer’s exploits in the marketing world have been enviable and the Kenyan society has taken note and somewhat reciprocated accordingly.

In 2011 for example she was appointed Chair of the all-important Board of the Constituency Development Board, clearly affirming her deftness in the sensitive area of corporate governance.

She has also sat on the Boards of several generic organizations amongst them the Kenya National Chambers of Commerce &Industry (KNCC&I) and has been a trustee of the College of Insurance.

In addition, she has sat on the Board of the Business Advocacy Fund for the Danish Embassy and Chandaria School of Business – United States International University ( USIU) Business Advisory Board.

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According to a 2021 Board Diversity and Inclusion Survey report    Kenya’s gender diversity in the boardroom stood at 36 % in 2021 compared to the global average of 3 %.

And this East African nation could achieve gender parity in corporate boardroom representation by 2030, according to the report. 

Across the world, European-based countries lead the pack beginning with Norway at 39%, Finland at 30%, France at 26%, Germany and the United Kingdom at 17%, Australia at 15%, Spain at 13%, United States at 12%, Mexico at 6%, Japan and South Korea at 2%.

In Africa, women occupy only 12 % of corporate board seats according to the African Development Bank with Kenya leading, at 36 %.

Jennifer says for those women wishing to join boards it is very crucial for them to network

“Networking is very important, you must be great or good in what you do because your expertise and experience will be needed in solving both problems and adding value. You also need to be visible in society,” says Jennifer. 

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Without a doubt, Jennifer ought to be applauded for daring to live her life on her terms at a time when patriarchalism held sway in the corporate world. If one were in search of a trailblazer, Jennifer is the true deal.

For a woman who is now 70 years old, time surely does fly fast. 

Embodying a tenacious spirit, Jennifer arguably bootstrapped her present envious life by daring to confront her straitened circumstances that were then ubiquitous in the famously forbidding hood of Eastlands, Nairobi, in Maringo Estate, Block E1.

“I come from a large family. My father was polygamous, but we were happy…. “Oh, those were the days when milk would be dropped at the doorstep by a milkman. The milk was in a classic glass bottle and covered with foil at the top. Those were the days when Elliot was the only brand of bread. We were lucky my father would afford such basics,” she reportedly told  the Standard newspaper

Today hardly anyone can associate her with her proletariat roots now that the so-called leafy suburbs in Nairobi’s caprice ecosystem have since become her stomping grounds.

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But a sneak preview of her formal schooling will attest that Jennifer partially owes her success in the business world to her cerebral inclination.

Initiated formal schooling at public schools found in Nairobi including  Dr. Kraft Primary School (1960 – 1967) then moved to Ngara Girls for her O-Levels (1968 to 1971) where she ended up becoming the Head Girl then relocating to  Asumbi Girls (1972 to 1973) in South Nyanza for her A-Levels where her leadership skills c saw her tapped to become  Deputy Head of School, Jennifer it seemed was destined to be a leader.

 In 1974, she joined Kenyatta University, then a constituent college affiliated with the University of Nairobi for a bachelor’s degree in Education, which she completed in 1977.

Her first stop as a trained teacher was Lenana School where she taught English and Literature becoming the first African woman ever to tutor at the school.

 “Fortunately, I did not face any challenges. Being the first African woman to teach at Lenana School I was very welcomed by both male teachers and students. I had been interviewed by the Director of Education at the time Mr. James Kamunge at the Ministry of Education and I assured him that I was not going to have any problems teaching at Lenana School. I was fresh from the university and the school community felt that I had brought a fresh breath of air into the school being young and a woman,” Jennifer says.

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Her ambitious nature would not allow her to teach for more than two years

 “I wanted to make more money, and I started applying for jobs. This was in 1979 when former President Daniel arap Moi decreed that companies increase their workforce by 10%. I got a job as a sales representative at Kodak and nobody could understand why I would leave a noble and flourishing teaching career to sell films in the street,” she remembers.

But her critics were quieted six months later after she got promoted to a marketing education co-coordinator, subsequently seeing her buy  her first car.

“At Kodak there was a lot of excitement by both colleagues and traders and I was appreciated by both.In fact, my boss then Mr. Neil Grenfel was so happy with my performance. I had been

recruited by Hawkins and Associates,  and they wanted to request them if they could find another Jennifer Barassa to join their Sales and Marketing department. I was a darling of both,” says Jennifer.

Customers and bosses alike seemingly went gaga with her

 Five years into the industry she parachuted upstairs becoming an accounts manager, after which she moved to Boots Pharmaceuticals, currently Beta HealthCare International to become the sales manager.

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“ Networking is very important, you must be great or good in what you do because your expertise and experience will be needed in solving both problems and adding value,” says Jennifer. 

She then went along to work for various other blue-chip companies amongst them Johnson and Johnson (1989), Sterling Health (now GSK), and McCann Erickson (1994), all at the managerial level until she chose the road to entrepreneurship. 

“There was a lot of office politics in the organization (McCann Erickson) so I opted out.

Secondly, for many years, many of my friends encouraged me to get into business as they felt I had the PR  skills and innate acumen of being an entrepreneur,” says Jennifer.

Often in the land of the living, one is inadvertently influenced by a person to discover their earthly purpose and in the case of Jennifer, it was one Pamela Odede back in 1960. 

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“Pamela’s family lived in the neighborhood. In 1960, Pamela arrived in Kenya from the USA. She was this tall beauty from the USA, driving a yellow Volkswagen car. That car is still etched in my mind to date,”  a smitten Jennifer reportedly told the Standard Newspaper.

Jennifer’s inquisitive nature got the better of her and she dared to ask her mother if one day, she would drive a car like that, the local newspaper reported.

“My mother told me; ‘Of course, you can!’ All I had to do was study hard,” the Standard reported her saying.

In hindsight, when parents affirm their children, they act as enablers, triggering a belief-in-my-self-attitude among children with arguably Jennifer being a quintessential by-product of this parental nurturing. 

In 1995, she launched Top Image, beginning as a promotion agency. 

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So what’s the story behind Top Image

“I started it in my living room in Hurlingham. It was a one-woman show, but thanks to my networking, doors started opening,” says Jennifer.

One year later she opened an office around Nairobi’s Wilson Airport neighborhood with a single staff member who doubled up as a receptionist and secretary. For your INFO, Top Image was launched with Ksh 30. That’s right 30 bucks. 

“There were no computers back then. Therefore I wrote a handwritten proposal, which I paid Ksh 10 to be typed, and made two copies for Ksh20,” she recalls.

 Top Image started by merchandising for Kenya Breweries (now East African Breweries) and Total Motor Show before it took up below-the-line advertising. When Top Image first moved to the Wilson Airport offices back in 1996, Jennifer and her secretary waited for one, two, or three weeks before receiving a business call.

 But Jennifer persevered. And as a consequence of her doggedness, the company made its first Ksh One million in its first year of operation. 

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Today, the company has branches in Cote D’Ivoire Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania Uganda, and is currently eyeing Zimbabwe. 

The client portfolio of Top Image reads like who is who in the market for it includes Safaricom, Bidco Africa, Samsung, Google, Visa, MTN, and so on.

Due to Top Image living up to its name, the brand has scooped various awards including being named in the Top 100 Mid-Sized Companies Survey in the 2008/2009 financial year.

As more and more people opt to engage in personal business they find themselves conflicted when faced with the choice of either leaving employment to engage in entrepreneurship or sticking to their jobs with many having the fear of the unknown.

As Candice Carpenter, founder of iVillage.com,  once said, “If you are committed to creating value and if you aren’t afraid of hard times; obstacles become utterly unimportant,” a truism that seemingly defines Jennifers’ entrepreneurial road. 

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“ Entrepreneurship is daunting but one should make sure they have a solid business plan and are prepared to go through the cycle of ups and downs that is associated with the business. The area of mentorship is also of great importance. People need to hear success stories firsthand. Starting a business is not easy but the benefits outweigh those of being employed.

I encourage people who want to start a business to attend entrepreneurship classes in the generic Business Schools that are available in the country now. Finally, I also encourage women who are already in business to join business associations that provide women entrepreneurs mentorship programs such as the Association of Women Business Owners (KAWBO) and the Federation of Woman Entrepreneurs Association(FEWA) among others,” Jennifer advice women wishing to get into entrepreneurship.

Jennifer believes that for one to become a successful entrepreneur they need to be risk takers, optimistic, strong-willed, and passionate about what they are engaged in, and yes be a leader in the ecosystem they are operating in.

Meanwhile, the lowdown qualities of being dishonest, of entertaining procrastination, of being lazy, indecisive, and unfocused often derail a person’s road to success, says Jennifer.

Currently, there is a popular notion that advertising agencies have formed cartels that control the advertising budgets of corporate players, a feeling shared by Jennifer who possesses 38- years of experience in sales, marketing, and advertising.

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“This is true for particularly above-the-line Advertising and not far below Line Advertising.

You find that a big percentage of the major international brands are controlled from the headquarters and there is always an alignment with agencies that are international or Pan African,” says Jennifer.

 She believes very strongly that there is an opportunity and a niche for smaller boutique agencies.

“ My challenge to smaller boutique agencies is to focus on two main things: creativity and client satisfaction. Word of mouth does amazing things! Large agencies have their challenges; so smaller agencies need to capitalize on this.” 

And one must also remember, says Jennifer, that it’s not only corporate players that have large advertising budgets.

“For Below the Line advertising, this is controlled at the national level because they deal with both national and local problems and offer local and national solutions,” says Jennifer.

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So what makes one a great marketer?

“Marketing is a science one must learn or practice. However, you need both marketing and creative skills to become an excellent marketer. And one can easily get both through education, experience, and exposure,” says Jennifer.

She says that “ there has been an increase in a briefcase – fly-by-the night experiential agencies that offer services at a very low cost, are unprofessional, are corrupt and do not add value to the campaign.

“ Sadly, there is very little creativity but lots of copy-paste strategies. Creativity costs money and when there is a slowdown in the economy the first thing most companies chop is their marketing and advertising spend.” 

With a very lucrative career spanning more than 38 years who does she count as her preeminent mentor as she sits in the corner office of the head office located at Fortis Towers, Westlands- Nairobi?

“My mother, because she taught me the virtues of integrity and hard work. Mrs. Mary Okello is the first woman banker in Kenya and the founder of KWFT and Makini Schools.

Mrs. Pamela Mboya, was the first highly educated woman I came across when I was a younger girl. Finally Oprah Winfrey, the richest black woman in the world.”

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The Entrepreneur

Kenya’s Top innovator Creates First USB Cable Disrupting Foreign Domination

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Anthony Muthungu with his team

Anthony Muthungu, 29, has inadvertently and indelibly inked his name to the hallowed corridors of Kenya’s manufacturing terrain after becoming the first Kenyan to manufacture USB cables, disrupting aeon years of a monopolistic chokehold enjoyed by foreign firms in the sector.

This milestone by a vicenarian is understandable when it’s borne that Kenya bears the enviable moniker of being Africa’s “Silicon Savannah,” including being the second-best innovation hub in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Global Innovation Index (2021) report with South Africa heading the pack.

“ India, Kenya, the Republic of Moldova, and Viet Nam hold the record for overperforming on innovation relative to their level of development for the 11th year in a row,” partially reads the report.

Muthungu, a computer engineering degree holder from Zetech University – a local institution whose innate genesis also can be traced to a daring local entrepreneur– has arguably become the first African drawn from within the East and Central Africa region to manufacture USB cables – that from a quality point of view – can stand toe to toe with their imported peers.

To prove his burgeoning outlier pedigree this pathfinder was in 2019 feted as being one of the top 40 entrepreneurs in Kenya aged below 40 by the local Business Daily newspaper brand. 

Two years later he was shortlisted for the Kenya-South Africa Chamber of Business award, a continental jamboree that shines the spotlight on entrepreneurial excellence.

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According to the Association of Countrywide Innovation Hubs- a Kenyan focal point representing 17 counties out of a possible 47 whose objective is to support and build sustainable businesses and startups across Kenyan counties, Kenyan tech

start-ups topped the continent as they raised an impressive Ksh 21.4 Billion (US$ 177,593,359.14) of funding in 2020, underlining the alluring nature for local companies to thrive.

This level of funding is attributable to a socio-professional environment that is conducive to work notwithstanding Kenya’s unregulated start-up ecosystem.

Whereas countries like South Africa, Tunisia, Senegal, and Nigeria have pegged regulatory policies to govern start-ups, Kenya has no government policy that caters to the sector.

Anthony Muthungu at his work station

Anthony Muthungu with his team at TOTOSCI Holdings

But in 2021 the country took baby steps towards reorganizing the sector by sponsoring a start-Up Bill, 2021 which seeks to govern the interactions and relationships between start-ups, the government, investors, incubators, and ultimately consumers.

“Efforts have been made to create an enabling environment for local innovation to thrive. For instance, through the Science, Technology, and Innovation Act, of 2013 the Kenya National Innovation Agency ( KeNIA) was established to coordinate innovation efforts in the country. 

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Some include offering linkages to investors, creating and disseminating guidelines on commercialization, among other roles,” says George Masila, communications manager, KeNIA.

Based in Kirinyaga County, a rural and agricultural-rich enclave found in Central Kenya, 136 km South of Nairobi, Muthungu’s two-year-old TOTOSCI holdings limited, which produces

between 300 to 500 USB cables daily, owes its existence to an unlikely occurrence.

In 2020 after completion of an undergrad degree, he opted to pursue an entrepreneurial career rather than seek formal employment believing fortune favored the brave and registered TotoSci Academy – a mobile school that taught science, technology, engineering, and arts to children aged between 4-17 years.

The name TotoSci is derived from two words -Toto stands for a child in the Kiswahili dialect, the highly spoken language within the East Africa region, while Sci is an abbreviation for Science.

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And as is normal in the capricious world of entrepreneurship the school was shuttered after the global Covid-19 epidemic set foot in Kenya on 12 March 2020.

Housebound and with no work to do, his restless entrepreneurial spirit stirred him to design a ventilator. Then one day while transferring research data from his phone to a laptop he hit a snag.

“ At my house, I had six USB cables and none was working. I thought I was probably jinxed. But coincidentally I discovered my friends too were facing a similar challenge. I then opted to buy their faulty cables at Ksh10 (US $ 0.083) per piece and within a fortnight I had 7,000 cables, which I dismantled hoping to discover what the problem was. What I discovered was the USBs were of low quality,” says Muthungu who initially wanted to become an army officer.

“ If you ask me why I wanted to join the army, I cannot tell you why. Even when I was already engaged in innovation, I tried three times before giving up in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In all of these competitions, running was a problem, because l was always among the last. In 2014, I placed 129 out of 142,” says Muthungu.

Meanwhile, as is routinely taught in business school, opportunities often creep in during crises as Muthungu discovered with the USB fiasco.

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“I documented each of the 7,000 USB cables and I identified the problem and decided to fill the gap and decided to build something that is ten times better than what was already in the market,” says Muthungu.

Unfortunately, even though the USB cables have to date received approval from including the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), a 48-year-old government organization that ascertains local products comply with international standards, and the Kenya Export Promotion and Branding Agency (KEPROBA), the Kenyan market is seemingly oblivious to the quality of the product.

“It’s probably a colonial mentality hangover where the locals think anything made in Kenya is inferior to imports while others think I should sell the item cheaply because it’s locally made,” says Muthungu who invested an estimated Ksh 3 million ($ 24,916.94), monies he had been loaned by a friend to begin the company that relies heavily on social media to market itself.

A TotoSci-manufactured USB cable retails for between Ksh 135 ($1.12) to Ksh 200 ($1.66), prices that compete favorably with imported contraptions found on the Kenyan street.

Currently, the company has employed five people directly – all engineers -with an additional 20 indirectly on the supply chain, says Muthungu who complains of a need to tame the high tax regime that defines the local market that disadvantages upstarts.

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The machines he uses in the factory are imported from India and China.

Admitting that doing business is not for the faint-hearted, Muthungu says he’s into entrepreneurship for the long haul.

“I am a dyed-in-the-wool industrialist and even if I was making Ksh1($ 0.0083) profit per USB cable and I sold say to one million people, I would make a tidy profit of Ksh 1 million ( $8,305.65 ) and despite the inimical environment that is Compounded by high taxation I know no situation is permanent.

This calling is not for everyone. When I sought to find if anyone in Africa was involved in manufacturing USB cables so that we could compare notes I pulled a blank,” says Muthungu.

In  2023 TOTOSCI holdings limited hopes to begin producing mobile phone accessories with the end goal of eventually assembling mobile phones by 2025.

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