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 Beautician takes on building industry

 

 The first order of roof tiles that Jane Kaburu imported into Kenya was too small to justify renting a truck, so it came in on top of a bus from Tanzania. Little did she know then that in a few years’ time she would be shipping container loads of roofing material from China.

Even more remarkable about the start of her roofing supply business is that she didn’t know anything about the construction industry when she landed that first order in the early 2000s. As a trained beautician, she didn’t even know what the “pitch” of a roof was, she laughs. Not only that, but the stone coated steel roof tiles that she was trying to get onto the market were totally unknown in Kenya. Up until that time, the dominant roofing material was ordinary clay tiles.

What Jane clearly did know was how to sell, how to learn all about a new industry fast, and how persistence eventually leads to success. “I do not give up easily,” says Jane when she describes her main entrepreneurial trait.

Jane probably got some of her entrepreneurial spirit from her father who was a businessman in the trucking and retail sector in Kenya’s Central Province, where she grew up about 200km from the Kenyan capital Nairobi. But her entrepreneurial awakening did not come before tragedy struck her at the age of 21. Her husband, a Nairobi-based architect and structural engineer, died in a car accident and she was left to raise their infant son alone.

Jane believes her strength of character was forged in those dark years when she had to learn how to stand on her own two feet. At the time, she was doing a secretarial course and for a few years she worked as an administrator at a private company.

Her passion, however, was hair and beauty care, and she started studying towards becoming a beautician. As soon as she finished the course, she started her own upmarket salon in Nairobi, financed by the sale of a property that her husband had left her. The salon did well for a number of years with as many as fifteen workers at one stage, but due to the ups and downs of the Kenyan economy, mainly linked to political turmoil, she decided to sell the salon.

Her next venture was to manufacture and sell self-raising flour, which at that stage was not readily available on the supermarket shelves in Kenya. Always curious and exploring, Jane read up about it as much as she could, and started by buying flour and yeast and mixing it in large quantities. The product, which proved particularly popular in the poor communities around Nairobi, sold well, but it was a cash business, and Jane found it difficult to manage the flow of cash from her clients via her distributors and agents. She left the flour trade and spent a couple of years trading in all sorts of goods, mainly food and clothes.

It was during this time that she first came across the roof tiles while visiting a friend in Tanzania. She met the Tanzanian distributing agent of the South African manufactured roof tiles, who persuaded her to give it a try. She was sceptical mainly because of her lack of knowledge of the construction industry, and also because she would have to pioneer an unknown product onto the market.

But by now she was an experienced and increasingly resourceful entrepreneur, and she duly put it onto her list of products to sell. The advantage of stone coated steel roof tiles is that they are much lighter than traditional clay tiles, and therefore bring substantial savings because the roof structure and even the foundation of the building can be built with lighter materials.

This economic argument in the hands of a persistent salesperson like Jane worked its magic, and she found herself bringing bigger and bigger orders into the country. Competition soon sprung up, with traders bringing tiles in from as far afield as New Zealand, and today the tiles are known and used throughout Kenya.

Not concerned with competitors, Jane’s main challenge for the past ten years was how to scale up and move the business to the next level. Today she works with an office of six employees, including her son, and a further half a dozen freelance sales people in the field.

Soon after she formally registered her tiling company, she considered setting up her own tile factory, and she approached Business Partners Kenya for the first time for funding to buy the equipment. But it was too early in the lifespan of the product and her business for the plan to be viable, and Jane continued growing her business through imports, changing the source of her tiles to China.

She approached Business Partners Kenya again for working capital to fund her purchase of stocks, and this time her application was successful.

Jane is wary of the most recent political ructions around the elections in Kenya. She is expecting a new container load of tiles to arrive three days after the election is scheduled to take place, and she worries that strikes and unrest might make it difficult to clear the container in time.

But given her track record of persistence, she won’t be giving up any time soon.

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