Sixteen years ago, Grace Wahome ventured into a business less travelled – commercial working dog business. Despite the hurdles, the director of Skaga Kennels trod on and over the years has re-invented her business to meet market demands while remaining true to her love for dogs. She took ESTHER KIRAGU through her entrepreneurial journey.
Grace Wahome’s office at Skaga Kennels in Kinoo Kiambu County is adorned with trophies – accolades from the many dogs shows that her dogs have participated in and won. Her love for dogs goes way back to her childhood years. She recalls looking forward to the school holidays so as to care for her dogs.
When she got married in 1999, Grace got herself a dog as a protective measure against intruders because her husband travelled a lot. To her disappointment, the dog, rather than being a protector, would actually run and hide any time a stranger approached. Realising the dog was not going to protect her, she sought to get a better dog breed leading her to the East African Kennel Club.
“To my dismay, I realised during my first visit at the club there were very few young African members especially young African women. And when i expressed interest in purchasing a dog i was shocked to learn from one of the members how much i needed needed to learn before owning a properly bred dog and in addition there was a long waiting list of people who wanted to buy dogs from that particular member,” she explains.
Not one to give up easily, Grace, in the hope of getting a dog to buy, started attending dog shows.
“The dog shows are a popular form of canine competition where Kennel Club registered pure-bred dogs compete by representing the ideal conformation and characteristics for that breed. It was in one of these shows that I met a gentleman who had noticed my interest in his dog. We got talking and he promised to sell me one after breeding. Six months later, i went for the puppy,” she explains.
However as she took the dog home, Grace she realised she needed to train it but lacked the know-how. Through research, she learnt the training she wanted was unavailable locally and was only able to access training materials from a kennel she contacted in the Czech Republic.
Soon after, she purchased other dogs and began breeding them, but she couldn’t get a buyer when the dogs were due for sale.
“The clientele base would not easily trust an inexperienced dog breeder, let alone a woman. Since owning a dog at the time was thought of as a luxury for a few affluent Kenyans, I targeted this market and eventually got someone to buy the dogs,” she explains.
Venturing in the dog business…
She was then working full time in the insurance industry even as she bred and tried to grow her business venture. She recalls one time her boss reprimanded her for habitually reporting late to work.
“At one time during my employment period, I lost track of time while feeding the dogs hence got late to work. My boss was brutally honest with me and outrightly told me I was not cut out for employment and would do well on my own. It was only much later that I realised she was giving me the wings to fly,” she explains.
With time, it became obvious to Grace that she was having difficulties balancing her full time job and the dog venture. In addition, she was discontented with her career. In 2002, she hang up her career boots to go run the dog business fulltime. Grace trudged on despite the fact that at the time the business was deemed to be male-dominated and of foreign culture.
What began as a business to merely breed and train dogs has since evolved to a company for working dogs – dogs bred to execute tasks such as guarding property, performing rescues, explosive and narcotics detection dogs amongst others due to the demand for security measures in the country. Grace says she has had to do a lot of re-orientation over the years to fit the needs of the Kenyan market.
“When I began, a lot of breeders were breeding dogs to sell as pets, which was not common in our culture. But we have helped change the dynamics in the industry and contextualised the business from merely having dogs that are pets to dual purpose dogs – dogs that are both pets and protectors,” she explains.
Her first big client was G4S who contracted her to restructure their dog-section department and gave her a chance to prove herself by buying three dogs from her and another three from a senior member at the Kennel Club and then train them after which they would pick the best for security purposes.
Aware this was her make or break opportunity, she gave it her best shot. And it paid off when a year later G4S partnered with her to set up their dog section and a replacement programme for their old dogs. In addition, she was to train their dog handlers as well as breed dogs for them.
Grace remains indebted to her former boss who not only gave her sound advice but also gave her some financial assistance when she clinched yet another chance to work with another security firm, Securex, to outsource and manage their dog section in line with their ISO-certification standards .
“When I got the chance to work with Securex, it quickly dawned on me that I could have bitten more than I could chew. I was pregnant at the time and had not set up the necessary structures for such a venture. I also did not have a vet so dogs would get sick and treatment was expensive eating into my profit margins. In addition, change of diet affected the dogs. But I forged ahead and eventually set up the necessary structures which included a veterinary clinic, a training department and a finance department. It is these structures that have enabled my company to stand the test of time over the years,” says the mother of two.
She has been married to Simon Kabuga for 17 years and he is her business partner at Skaga Kennels. She fondly says of her husband, “He is my rock who provides a great support system. Not only does he love the dogs, but he is also great at management and he is a damn good marketer. I am grateful that we both bring our strength into the business.”
Their daughters, nine-year-old Melissa and six-year-old Tannia have been part of their business journey. “Mellisa particularly loves the dogs and may possibly take over this business and continue with the legacy we have set once we retire and Tannia may be the one behind the scenes,” she says dotingly.
Today, Skaga Kennels outsources about 168 working dogs daily and has a capacity of 250 dogs. They also work with various clients and companies including embassies, the Kenya Police, Kenya Prisons and universities among others. They also provide consultancy services and outsource their dogs to major events in the country.
Keen on quality, Grace is big on training and from time to time she gets professional international training standards for her dogs and the dog handlers. She has also invested in good dog breeds and attends international dog shows and events worldwide so as to ensure that she is always on top of her game.
Early in 2016, Grace opened up a pet shop in Karen called Pet World, which came about after her frustrations in getting good, affordable toys and training equipment locally for use while training the dogs.
She has also researched and imported dog food that is specially formulated for all types of dogs and especially working dogs, which is now in high demand in Kenya. She hopes to soon start manufacturing her brand of dog food as well as open up more pet shops in the country.
Grace strongly believes it is wise to venture in what one knows best because even in the face of challenges you can withstand it.
Indeed, it has not been smooth sailing. In July 2014, her dogs got a flu attack due to the cold weather and some died. “Challenges are there to stretch us and so I choose to embrace each challenge and learn from it,” she says.
Currently, Grace is the vice-chair of the East African Kennel Club, a senior committee member of the German Shepherd Dog League and an active member of Kenya Society for the Protection and Care for Animals (KSPCA). She is proud that over the years the face of the East African Kennel Club has changed to now accommodate people from all walks of life and age.
“Currently I am part of a team that is planning to take one of the junior dog handlers in Kenya to participate in the biggest dog show fair in the UK known as Crufts, which is a first for Kenya,” Grace explains.
As the vice-chair of the East African Kennel Club and senior committee member of the German Shepherd Dog League, she sees these as opportunities to make a difference in whatever capacity one is given and says that she is undertaking a project to have all dogs registered and microchipped to minimise stray dogs as well as incidences of malnourished and mistreated dogs. She looks forward to the day a dog from Kenya will compete in international shows.
A true lover of animals, Grace says her way of unwinding is travelling to wildlife parks with her family for sightseeing. She also loves to read as well as spend time with her circle of close-knit friends.
So what is the secret to the success she enjoys today? “I think where I got it right was in following my passion first.
In addition, I have had to work hard, understand and contextualise the dog business to meet local needs and strive for excellence at each level. And without doubt, prayer and support from my family has played a crucial role in my success,” she concludes. [email protected]
Published January 2017