Architect John Kithaka is the CEO of Fountain Enterprise Programme (FEP), a multibillion-investment group that has investments in various sectors including finance, media, education and tourism. He talks to ESTHER KIRAGU about his journey to wealth creation and why he believes in the power of many and pooling resources together by investing in the most innovative and sustainable way.
Forty year-old John Kithaka comes from a distinct school of thought. He believes that rather than urging children to work hard and become teachers, pilots, bankers or doctors, society should implore them to work hard and own schools, aircrafts, banks or hospitals. It is this school of thought that has brought Kithaka this far in life.
Kithaka didn’t always carry this view of life. As a young boy brought up by parents who were both farmers in Kirinyaga County, he recalls being very playful. Although he enjoyed mathematics, he wasn’t too serious about his academics. And when he sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 1987, he was convinced that he hadn’t given it his best.
He purposed to repeat the class even before the results were out. And although his results showed he had done exceptionally well in mathematics, scoring 99 percent and even qualified to enroll in a provincial secondary school, he still stuck by his decision to repeat the class.
A focused mind…
“ I knew I had lost a year by repeating the class and had to recover it. My resolve was to perform very well in order to gain admission to a national school, specifically Moi High School, Kabarak. I was successful,” he says.
Kithaka topped his class throughout high school. Initially he wanted to be an electrical engineer but felt he had the potential to be more. He determined early that he would be wealthy and since he had no godfather to help him, he knew his future was dependent on him. At the time architecture was a top career and was considered for the rich. And so he purposed that was his career of choice.
Unlike many high school leavers who spend time relaxing and doing nothing as they await their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results, Kithaka was very active during this period. He had saved some of his pocket money in high school, which he used to venture into farming on his father’s farm, and even went further to rent part of his neighbour’s farm to grow vegetables on a large scale for sale.
After harvesting his first crop, he sold the produce and made a huge profit. Additionally, he tutored students who were on holiday for a fee and also managed to get a teaching job in Nanyuki, where he relocated to live with his elder brother. Kithaka also supplied rice from Mwea in Kirinyaga County to wholesalers in Nanyuki. These early business ventures helped to develop his entrepreneurial spirit.
In 1995, Kithaka was admitted to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) to pursue Architecture. He continued with his business activities to enable him voluntarily pay his school fees and had to juggle between that and books. “I knew I didn’t want to be employed and this determination led me to sharpen my entrepreneurial skills by the day. I didn’t neglect my studies either, I just found a way to balance both,” he explains.
Although he ran a shop in Nairobi’s South B estate that was doing well, he admits his biggest break in business as a student happened when he was a second year student. Public universities were on holiday when an increment in food prices within all universities catering facilities was announced on media. When Kithaka heard the news, he immediately saw an opportunity. He travelled to Nairobi and came up with a business strategy.
“Food is a necessity and students like affordable prices of commodities. I set up a food kiosk right next to the University of Nairobi on Mamlaka Road. When sessions resumed at the university I began supplying food to students at an affordable price. My profit margin was great. In addition, I ran a food kiosk at JKUAT, a mini-bakery and a motorcycle business in Juja and Dandora, and with time I owned about five restaurants in Kirinyaga County. I had a chain of employees who helped me run the businesses,” Kithaka narrates.
On a mission to grow wealth…
On completing university in 1999, he set up an architectural firm-Arch-Link International, though he was clear from the onset that architecture would only serve as a means to an end. “My aim was to use architecture as a bridge to make quick money and pursue my business purpose,” he says.
Using the networks he had established, he spent four years tracking down ten billionaires in Kenya to mentor him. His mission was to understand how they became wealthy, their values, and their journey to prosperity since he too wanted to be wealthy. He managed to get hold of nine of the ten who mentored him. From them, he learnt many lessons, key among them was the need to pool resources in order to create wealth. He also pursued his Masters degree in Entrepreneurship to improve his business professional prowess.
Determined to bring change and create a generation of wealthy Kenyans, Kithaka brought in seven friends to form FEP, a private company, in 2002. For four years they met regularly to brainstorm and share ideas, save and invest. When Kithaka started calling people in 2007 to invest in FEP and gave them an idea of what the group would achieve by 2016, it was only those who could see nine years ahead who invested. His biggest obstacle was getting people to change their mindset in order to do extraordinary things.
All the same, by 2009 the company had grown and it registered a Sacco to enable members own shares. Eventually, the company incorporated FEP Holdings and was later converted into a public company. Today it has over 30,000 investors from more than 40 Counties across Kenya and another 5,000 in Diaspora mainly from the USA, UK, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Canada, South Africa, Australia as well as the larger East Africa. It has continued to grow significantly and has 16 registered trading and non-trading companies in real estate, IT and security services, education, media, hospitality and tourism, insurance, supermarkets and mobile money transfer services, micro credit services, health care among others.
Kithaka says his dream for Kenya is for people to learn to identify their purpose and utilise their talents and gifts to exploit that purpose. “People strain to make money and work in jobs they don’t enjoy, yet it would be much easier and enjoyable to do so in their area of calling,” he advises.
Giving back to society…
Kithaka says he draws many of his principles in life from the Bible. “My spiritual life and social accountability is key in how I carry out business and how I live my life,” he says. He recalls his university days when he was involved in evangelistic missions. He disliked how these missions always relied on donations for their work. Kithaka had a vision of Christians preaching in riches and he wanted to be involved in making that a reality.
As a result FEP has an evangelical movement composed of about 7,000 pastors. This movement helps the pastors to further evangelical work and empower religious leaders. The organisation sponsors a Levitical yearly conference for these men of the cloth, who act as accountability partners for the FEP administrators.
The company understands that the joy of wealth is in giving and sharing. It is this belief that led them to establish an Eagles Club International made up of at least 100 members in each of the 40 counties of Kenya, who donate money towards the FEP Foundation. The money caters for the educational needs of bright and needy students, special medical cases, the neglected and also greening the environment in a sustainable and innovative manner.
“My joy is to impact on as many people as possible. I hope to be remembered as a change agent in my generation because that is what signifies a life well lived. I believe you don’t need to give much to make an impact. Rather do the best you can at your level,” he says profoundly.
The family font…
Kithaka is married to Catherine Kithaka, an IT consultant and an entrepreneur. They have been married for 13 years and have three children – Karen, nine, Calyx six and six-months-old Kalyn. “ I shared my vision with Catherine when we were dating and she could identify with it. I am grateful for her support and great belief in me. Nothing comes easy and I have faced many storms in my journey, but having an understanding and supportive partner has made it easier,” he says.
Despite his busy schedule, Kithaka is very deliberate about spending time with his family. “No matter how much money you make, how popular you become, or how many friends you gain, if your family unit is not working, then you have lost the game of life. You need to prioritise and be disciplined so as to achieve a healthy balance between work and family. My wife and I are jointly and individually accountable for the upbringing of our children,” he says.
Catherine is zealous about families and she does marriage counseling for couples when requested. During his free time, Kithaka enjoys reading, swimming and playing golf with his wife.
Kithaka draws a lot of inspiration from his profession as an architect, insisting that he never invests in anything until he has laid a solid and unshakeable foundation. He also must have a mental picture of what the end project will look like and whether it will be sustainable several generations down the line.
“In life, you must have a vision of where you want to go and what you want to achieve. Don’t venture into that which you are unsure how it will look like in old age. True financial freedom is establishing structures that work for you even when you are no longer there,” he concludes.
Published in June 2014