Frida Owinga was always an entrepreneur. Her start in business was at the age of 18, selling exported handcrafts to the US, Japan and Australia. After that she opened a tour business, and at some point she owned a salon and even a fast-food restaurant. Being in business seemed to be part of her DNA. In fact, her mother was her first role model and at a time when women entrepreneurs were extremely rare.
“From an early age I saw my mom do her own business when women just sat at home and waited for their husbands to fend for them,” said Owinga. “Today, you’d call her an entrepreneur but we just knew her as a businesswoman.”
Her mother was in petty trade and sold tie-dye clothing to an American for distribution in foreign markets. While her father worked at a job, her mother did this on the side.
“What I learnt from my mom was what was modeled for me. It wasn’t like we sat down and she told me stories. It was what I observed her do,” said Owinga.
Even after her father retired and her parents moved back to upcountry, her mother still worked — this time making fried cakes and selling them to the local market.
“That made me come to the conclusion,” she said, “here’s Mom who never went to school, learnt to read her Bible by herself and she’s making all this income on the side. If a business can compliment an employment income, why don’t I just start a business and have all I want?
“That’s where I got that notion from.” Owinga added, “Of course, I didn’t know how hard it would be to balance my books and all that, but here I am.”
In 2010, Owinga started a company called PassionProfit School of Entrepreneurship. After a decade in the US, studying leadership and small business management at Regent University and the University of Georgia, she decided to return to her home in Nairobi, Kenya.
“I did a lot of professional development there that strengthened my skills around coaching, mentoring, small business management and nurturing people,” said Owinga. “Then in 2009, I started feeling that all this is great, but I think it’s needed more at home than here. I started thinking of how to come home and give back to my country.”
When she returned to Nairobi, people asked her for work in her community, assuming that she had plans to open another business. She soon realized though that people were asking for more than a job.
“People who I talked to looking for work had an education, a good education. Some even had a master’s degree. They also already had jobs,” Owinga explained. “But I noticed that they didn’t like the jobs they had, and even though they had education, they were not sure how to convert this education into a revenue-generating activity.
“That’s when the light bulb came on for me: it’s not really work they’re looking for; these people are looking for fulfillment.”
In order to meet this need, Owinga set out to inspire others to create jobs for themselves that not only gave them a fulfilling life but also stimulated the economy of Kenya.
“I wanted to help people create life and work that they absolutely loved and enjoyed,” said Owinga, “because if you’re doing what you love, then you’ll have the income to hire more people. It really is my way of helping create gainful employment in my country with the skills and tools people have.”
PassionProfit started with workshops and seminars, but Owinga soon discovered that entrepreneurs were yearning for a community and needed more hand-holding or support at the beginning.
“Because Kenya is an entrepreneurial nation, there is a lot of technical academic stuff available,” she said. “But there really isn’t somebody doing mentoring and coaching, which I found as a great enabler for capacity development beyond the technical help.”
In light of this, Owinga created a peer-to-peer mentorship model which proved invaluable to her clients. The idea was to have entrepreneurs encourage each other to aim higher in business with the support of someone who “got it.”
“It’s like having a mastermind peer,” said Owinga, “or an accountability partner who asks, ‘What are you trying to achieve and which areas do you want to be held accountable?’”
This notion came from her colleague and long-time friend Bramuel Mwalo, who is currently the Kenyan country director of Kountable, a global trade marketplace that supports SMEs in trade deals. In 2017, PassionProfit partnered with Kountable to launch a pilot program for women entrepreneurs who had government tenders to supply goods in ICT and healthcare. The aim was to help women who had a vision to build a bigger business.
“We took them through our services and taught them how they could grow their business through Kountable,” said Mwalo. “We taught them how to bid for bigger projects with help with sourcing, pricing and timing.”
“In Kenya we call them ‘tenderpreneurs,’” said Owinga. “You have to pre-qualify for what we call a tender. It is almost a way of life. So it’s a very different dynamic. When you’re working with the government, you don’t get orders all the time. It’s a cycle. So my goal was to help them complete tenders but also think beyond the tenders, think beyond that process and think of what other things you can do to grow a business and have a legacy.
“I do three things: mentoring, networking and access to capital,” said Owinga, “and access to capital I do through partners.”
Kountable was the perfect partner because of this aligned vision for entrepreneurial growth. Since the for-profit company began, it has funded hundreds of projects for SMEs in East Africa.
“Kountable wants to support female entrepreneurs,” said Mwalo, “because they are an underserved entrepreneurs with huge potential. One of the biggest opportunities women have is the 30% access to public procurement opportunities and we thought we could try and see how we could build their capacity. The idea was for them to actually go for bigger deals and opportunities because bigger deals and opportunities mean more margin and that means growth.”
Owinga said, “I wanted them to understand that with Kountable there is also funding to get bigger projects. One of the biggest hurdles, though, was trying to explain that Kountable is totally different.
“Human beings are creatures of habit, so there is a way they’re used to doing things,” explained Owinga. “‘I get a deal, I go to the bank, I get an LC (letter of credit) or I need to do this or the other and then I’ll get the money. Because of habits that they have had before Kountable, it’s kind of like they need a paradigm shift before they can wholly buy Kountable.
“What I say all the time is, ‘Are you looking for financing for deals without collateral?’ I know the pain of the ‘tenderpreneur.’ The pain of the ‘tenderpreneur’ is funding and lack of collateral. So I tell them Kountable will help fund your project and you don’t need collateral.”
Kountable’s business model is to partner with entrepreneurs to buy the goods required to fulfill big projects on their behalf so they don’t need to carry that cost on their own balance sheet or borrow to cover it. The company also offers the benefit of connecting the entrepreneur with top of the line suppliers and products, even managing trade logistics to get the job done.
“There are so many other people reselling and not going that route,” said Owinga. “I say, ‘Why don’t you try with the skills and strengths you have to do something that will be more honorable. You don’t have to go down this path.’”
Of the 10 women who went through the 6-month training, three women had their deals in healthcare funded by Kountable. Owinga described that one the reasons these women were selected was the willingness to get away from the norm. All three already had stable businesses but these were willing to take a risk and do something different.
While Owinga refers her ‘tenderpreneurs’ — both men and women — to Kountable, she finds that women entrepreneurs have the largest return because they are not just transactionally driven but also relationally.
“This life is about people. It’s not just about money, but it’s about money for a bigger goal, which women care about,” she said. “A woman in business is not just putting money in her pocket. A woman in business is taking care of her family, sometimes taking care of her extended family — her sisters, her sisters’ children, her uncles’ children. Because women are relational, they always care about other people, so a woman’s dollar goes longer.”
“I won’t create jobs for everyone,” said Owinga, “but I’ll help create organizations that will be sustainable for this generation and the next generation. I will also create jobs that strengthen our economy.”
In her lifetime, Owinga believes that PassionProfit can get 1000 businesses to a million dollar profit margin. She also plans to be a role model for her granddaughter.
“Our lives are modeling something to somebody every minute,” said Owinga. “I want to model for her the possibility of life as an African girl. Because I notice that as little people we dreamt a lot and what stopped us from dreaming is when we were told, ‘Don’t. Don’t,’ and that just hampers our potential. So in as much discipline, I want to allow her to dream. Because I’ve been around women and I’ve seen what an unlimited worldview can do to them at an older age.”
The current global pandemic is mobilizing the resources and collective will to tackle some of the world's biggest challenges. We have the opportunity now to build and innovate solutions that will serve humanity far beyond the timelines of the current crisis, if we choose to. That choice starts with a mindset on bidding. Kountable founder Chris Hale issues a challenge to other innovators to step up and "price the problem".