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#NairobiNiMimi Series: James Apiya Ogutu

James Apiya Ogutu is a man that came to the city of Nairobi with a plan and his hard work has paid off. Today, at 46, he is a successful entrepreneur with an inspirational story.



“In business, patience pays.”


“Okay. So, here’s my story. My name is James Apiya Ogutu. I’m from Vihiga, Western Kenya and I came to Nairobi in 1991 looking for business.”

Ogutu is a man that came to the city with a plan. And his hard work has paid off. Today, at forty-six, he is a successful salesman. His product, non-other than the ubiquitous commercial-use bags. He has been an entrepreneur in Nairobi for most of his life, even though he actually lives in Mwemuto, a town on the fringe of the Kenya’s capital city. James has built himself a reputation as one of the finest bag dealers, and through his earnings has raised a family of eight, built an apartment complex and can now leisurely work just three days a week.


“When I began my work, I started with 800 Kenya Shillings ($8). After selling my bags for three days I made a profit of about 120 Shillings ($1.20). It wasn’t much but I knew that losing hope wasn’t an option. And I knew that if I got more stock, I’d be able to sell it off in those same three days. I knew that my profits would start to grow over time. Three months later I was making a daily turnover of 4,000 KES ($40).”

“Back in Vihiga I was a farmer so all the money I made came slow. Ploughing the land; waiting for the crops to grow; and remember, once they’re grown there are laws that restrict the maximum price you can place on your food-stock. Even if I made enough crops to fill forty bags, the most I could make per harvest was 80’000 KES ($800). How could I educate my kids with that amount? I had to find a better way of making money. I had to move into the capital city.”

“What you need to understand is that with business you have to be patient. A lot of people who go into trading get easily defeated when they realize the money isn’t coming fast enough. It took time before my investments started paying me back substantially enough for me to start making ends meet. Because you can’t forget that if you want to grow, you have to re-invest the money you make when you start. In fact, when I began selling my bags, I was also working as a security guard by night. But I knew that I preferred the leisure that came with having my own business and money so I didn’t give up. It was only when I started making more than my initial salary in half the time that I was able to decide for myself to go into business full time. But what I want to emphasize is that all this took time. I worked security for twenty years! And if I didn’t allow myself to adopt the right mindset I could have easily still been there today. Patience pays. But you have to be willing to exercise it. 


“A business takes time to build. It takes time to build connections with your clients; with your suppliers; with the community around you but once they get used to you, you can be sure you’ll have yourself a steady income for as long as you can sustain the work. Even a simple job like carrying loads for people in a market from one shop to another, even a job like that can pay your way. Provided that you work hard and that you don’t go drinking your money away on Changa which is what I see a lot of people do.”


“I guess I better stay in school” I say offhandedly.

“Yes, there is also great value in working in an occupation you’ve studied for from University and you can’t deny the value that education brings, but you also need to be aware of the times and the job market. As of now most people aren’t taking in new employees, our economy isn’t doing well. You can tell. I’m sure you’ve seen people selling goods by the roadside from the boots of their car. Some of them even got them on loan. This is not an easy time. Another factor is just plain old luck. Because it is possible that you graduate and stay job hunting for years yet somebody who graduates a few years after you finds a job right after. That’s why I’d say knowing a thing or two about business would come in handy. If you found yourself in a similar situation, what would you do?”

“The reality is that the government doesn’t support us as well as we’d like. One of the things I find discouraging as a sole-trader is when the city council fines you your day’s earnings on account of you not carrying a trading license. Something which, mind you, they make very difficult for you to acquire. I myself have been to City Hall on multiple occasions with no appeal. It’s only around Vihiga town where I never get harassed that way. You see most people here know me well from church. I sometimes pay for children’s activities when the church is in a tight spot like when COVID-19 hysteria was at its peak and the church found itself unable to raise enough to host a celebration for the boys who’d been circumcised as per usual.  So, I put together some money to buy them some soda. It’s important for children to feel like the church hasn’t abandoned them, and it’s a great thing to be a church-goer because then people tend to see you as someone good, and as someone they can trust.”

“My advice is for those geared towards business. Beware of your spending habits and avoid unnecessary debts. Don’t go using half your earnings on rent, and a third on transport and the remainder buying food for yourself. You’ll always feel unsatisfied. You’ve got to be selective about how you spend and to think about what it will do for you in the long run.

Written by Tana Kioko