I picked coffee to supplement family income - Founder of Mt Kenya University

Dr Simon Nyutu Gicharu
Dr Simon Nyutu Gicharu  Photo: Collins Kweyu/Standard

Dr Simon Nyutu Gicharu is a teacher by profession and has tasted the best and worst side of life. He started a college operating from a small room, which grew to become a top private university. His quest for education has seen him receive a honourary doctorate of science from Gulu University in Uganda last year. MWAURA SAMORA sat down with the Founder and Chairman of Mount Kenya University to get his story

You came from a very humble background. Tell us more...

I was born in a small village called Gathiruini in Kiambu County. I am the first born in a family of six. While in primary and secondary school, I walked many kilometers to school, which I believe made me work hard to achieve my goals. My parents had a small farm that provided barely enough to feed us. Together with my siblings, we would pick coffee in neighbouring farms to supplement our family’s income.

You are a teacher by profession. Why did you settle for this career?

I bet it is fate. You see, I loved mathematics and playing around with numbers.  After finishing my ‘O’ levels at Murang’a High School, I joined Kenyatta University where I majored in mathematics and chemistry. I taught mathematics in various secondary schools in Kenya before becoming a lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and Thika Technical Training Institute.

How did you transform from being a teacher to an entrepreneur?

My turning point came when I landed a scholarship and had to travel to Britain in 1995. Before I left, I was a lecturer at Thika Technical, but when I returned, I was fired under the excuse that I didn’t seek government clearance before travelling. After graduating, I started a Kenya entrepreneurship promotion programmeto train Kenyans on entrepreneurship.

What transpired later?

I founded a small college, which I operated in a small room and offered computer lessons. Things were so tough at the beginning because I couldn’t afford rent. I struck a deal with a local church to be using their premises on Sundays. Since they didn’t have electricity, I had to look for a generator because I was teaching using a single computer. The capital I needed was Sh20,000 which I didn’t have and had to borrow from a friend.

Did the business pick up?

Yes. It  gradually grew and I started offering management courses. I later renamed the college Thika School of Management Studies. The courses we were offering were tailor-made for market demand for experts in the information and technology sector. The growth was phenomenal and we later changed name to Thika Institute of Technology in 2003. In 2005, we became the first private institution to be accredited by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board to offer diploma courses in pharmacy.

You once wrote books and distributed milk in a truck to earn a living. How did you manage?

My life’s mission has always been to improve the quality of education in the country, especially in applied sciences and technology, which is why I authored the first post-secondary mathematics book by a Kenyan called Applied Mathematics for Crafts Engineering. I remember walking into newsrooms asking for my books to be reviewed as a way of marketing them. But while I am an educationist by nature, I am also a businessman, which means I understand the basics of running any business. As a young man, I operated my father’s timber business in Eastleigh, which taught me basic business skills.

How did Thika Institute of Technology eventually become Mt Kenya University?

The vision of setting up a university was birthed in 1996 when it started as Thika Institute of Technology. We took a giant step towards this dream 10 years later when the Commission for Higher Education allowed us to collaborate with JKUAT to offer diplomas and degrees in business administration and information technology. In 2009, our quest of becoming a university became a reality after the Commission for Higher Learning granted the institute an interim letter of authority. A full charter was granted two years later and Mt. Kenya University was born.

What word of advice would you give to businesspeople and aspiring entrepreneurs?

One of the most important lessons I have learnt is the fact that money can never start an idea, it is the idea that yields the money. Sometimes I don’t chase the race, I just set the pace. As a businessman, seek to provide a solution to society, not to make money. After all is said and done, success will be measured not by the amount of money you make, but the number of people whose lives you have touched.

Mt Kenya University has the highest number accredited science programmes among private universities in Kenya. What was the drive behind this?

We saw the need for science programmes, given the difficulty people were experiencing in joining existing government institutions at the time. Therefore, we have been concentrating on building on this over the years and that is why we have the highest number of accredited science courses among private universities.