Covid opened my eyes to lucrative ‘mama mboga’ business, says high school teacher - Beaking Kenya News

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Monday, 15 February 2021

Covid opened my eyes to lucrative ‘mama mboga’ business, says high school teacher


Growing up in Ngong, Kajiado County, Mary Wanjiru learnt the art of survival from her father. She would watch as he grew crops on leased parcels of land and sold the produce to cater for his family’s needs.

From time to time, Mary and her siblings would help, either by delivering foodstuffs to buyers or selling at the local market. Little did she know that this would be the genesis of her entrepreneurial spirit.

Many years later, she became a high school teacher.

Teaching is considered one of the most stable careers, especially for those employed by the Teachers Service Commission. But when schools closed for an unprecedented nine months last year, it took only the first month for Mary to realise that a stable income and job security are not enough.

“I had so much time on my hands and very few tasks to complete. I got bored and would sleep more than I needed to,” she says.

While sleep helps one relax, too much of it can be uncomfortable. In fact, studies show that too much sleep increases the risk of serious health issues such as cardiovascular diseases, depression and diabetes.

Covid-19 opened teacher's eyes to ‘mama mboga’ business

Selling groceries

Boredom was not the only problem Wanjiru was dealing with. Her children were also on a break and the household budget increased tremendously. Essentials such as food, water and electricity were obviously in higher demand for households. One month into the ‘holiday’, she saw the need to get busy. It’s at this point that her entrepreneurial spirit came alive. The times were, however, too uncertain for her to jump into establishing a big business.

At first, she thought schools would reopen in May, so she didn’t want to commit to a big venture. Besides, in the past she had tried selling second-hand clothes as a side hustle, which left her with dead stock. She still had the clothes but at the time, few people were willing to spend on non-essential commodities. Everyone was holding onto their money, given the mass job losses.

Ms Wanjiru settled on selling groceries, which are a fast-moving commodity. From her past side hustles, she had learnt the importance of starting small, no matter how much money one can afford to inject into a business.

Over-estimating returns

Her biggest mistake in the previous venture was over-estimating the returns. For instance, one time she bought too many clothes which took long to sell. In addition, she was juggling the business with her day job as a teacher and sometimes it would be too hectic. Luckily, clothes are not perishable and can also be worn if the stock does not clear. 

Her starting capital this time round would be Sh800.

She decided to buy four items only — oranges, bananas, carrots and tomatoes. She used these to test the market before injecting more capital. She approached her father and requested him to make room for her few commodities. Her father, still a businessman, now owns a retail shop. Wanjiru wanted to test the market with her father’s customers.

Even though she had low expectations, this first investment of Sh800 earned her a similar amount in profits. She was surprised at how fast and profitably the groceries were moving. This experience was an eye opener for Ms Wanjiru.

Car boot sales

The profitability of groceries was so encouraging to Ms Wanjiru that she tripled the amount for her second stock. On her second trip to the market, she bought stocks worth Sh2,000 and the amount kept on rising, as the demand increased.

Two months down the line, the business had outgrown her expectations. Her supplies would move faster than anticipated and she would have to go back to the market sooner than planned. She also needed more space to display the groceries and fruits.

Mid last year, it was reported that car boot sales were becoming popular among people who had lost their primary sources of income. What many might not know is that car boot sales were not a creation of the pandemic.

In fact, they are quite popular in the UK, where they are also referred to as boot fairs. They are a convenient way to establish a side hustle without dipping your feet too deep into business.

Ms Wanjiru hopped onto the wagon of boot sales in June. She put her groceries in her car’s boot and drove to the nearby market, where she joined other sellers. Being out in the market exposed her business to more buyers.

Besides, socialising with other sellers served as a stress-relieving platform after her social life in the staffroom and the classroom had been disrupted for months.

She, nevertheless, missed interactions with her colleagues and the boot fairs were the perfect social platform at this time. Driving back home, after a profitable market day, she would feel lighter and hopeful.

What’s interesting is how different each seller was. While they all had one common interest at the market, they represented diverse stories and identities. Not all were teachers, a deviation from Wanjiru’s usual social circle. In the past, she had grown accustomed to socialising with fellow teachers in the staffroom, but at the market, this changed. She interacted with other professionals and they exchanged knowledge and ideas on various issues. This opened her up to other worlds that were previously unknown to her.

She also learned more about entrepreneurship. Unlike employment, business is unpredictable.

“One day I would have customers buying in bulk and that would excite me or compel me to increase my stock, only to attract a smaller number of customers thereafter,” she says.

At one point, she bought lots of onions, hoping to sell to bulk buyers, only to end up stuck with a highly perishable commodity. She later found out that the groceries business has a calendar. The bulk buyers would take longer before making another purchase because they shopped once or twice a month to avoid repetitive trips to the market.

Meanwhile, her car was her shop and if at all it broke down, her business would come to a standstill. She developed a productive habit of saving a percentage of her profits, in case of emergencies. In her previous business, she never thought of saving. But now, she could not imagine being stuck at home waiting for her salary so she could fix the car.

Change of Attitude

Ms Wanjiru notes that venturing into business during the pandemic was the best decision she made. It led to self-improvement. The business world contrasts greatly with her classroom world. In class, for instance, she plays the role of a teacher, and her students perceive her as a symbol of authority. They may not question her decisions or knowledge. But out at the market, the customer is always right. 

“You have to be light-hearted and focus on your sales goals to succeed in business. You can’t afford to be hot-tempered,” says Ms Wanjiru.

This contrast from her classroom life, she says, inspired humility and focus.

Her interpersonal and communication skills also improved immensely.

In a boot fair, especially one stationed at a market, there is stiff competition from other sellers. One has to be friendly and communicate appropriately to attract repeat customers.

Lastly, Ms Wanjiru learned how mistaken many are to look down upon the groceries business.

“A big ego can make you go to bed hungry,” she notes. “A lot of people would rather suffer financially than sell groceries, yet it’s such a profitable business that requires very little starting capital.”

The negative attitude many harbour towards the groceries business dates back to their school days. Back then, some teachers would say, “If you don’t work hard, you’ll to end up selling mboga.”

It is quite ironic that in the same schools, they were taught about the importance of vegetables and fruits in their diets. They were asked to eat sukuma wiki, spinach and oranges, which are rich in vitamins, and yet discouraged from considering groceries’ good business. 

Venturing into the groceries business has inspired other people around Ms Wanjiru to change their attitudes.

Her sister, for instance, who is also a trained teacher, ventured into the same business after witnessing Ms Wanjiru’s positive outcome. After schools reopened, her story motivated colleagues at school to re-think their attitudes toward the business and side hustles in general.

Looking back at her experience, Ms Wanjiru says, “The pandemic year was what one made it.”

And she is happy to have utilised her nine-month break well. She is motivated to grow her car boot venture into something bigger.

Back home, she rented a small shop in June, next to her father’s retail shop. This is where she stores her supplies at the end of the day. She hopes that her small shop and the car boot business will evolve into a large grocery store that will create jobs for many. This experience also prompted her to think about life outside the classroom. It piqued her mind on matters retirement and what she would do if she wasn’t teaching. Mostly importantly, it opened her to a world of possibilities.


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