Saturday, April 13, 2024

Barber Turned Politician: How Stephen Ndegwa used his affordable barber shop to secure an election victory in Nairobi

Life is often a journey full of uncertainties, but for Stephen Ndegwa, newly elected Parklands/Highridge ward representative, the only certainty is the beginning and the end.

The soft-spoken Ndegwa was born and raised in the informal settlement of Kangemi in Nairobi, where life was a daily battle for survival. His mother sold chang’aa to cater for him and his siblings after his father left to marry someone else and pursue a career in music.

“I struggled to go to school regularly because the chang’aa business could not really sustain the family. My mum would be arrested often, leaving us on our own,” he said during an interview with the Weekly Review.

Although life was hard, he managed to make it through high school, after which his mother enrolled him in a computer college in the city.

However, Ndegwa had different dreams: he wanted to be a bus driver, inspired by the character Mr Kamau in the book Hello Children that was read by primary school children in the 1980s and 1990s. He believed that was the best job in the world because Mr Kamau made a decent living from his work.

The computer course turned out to be too expensive for his mother, and he eventually dropped out. An aunt advised his mother to enroll him for a barber course in the city, which he agreed to despite the fact that his ambition lay elsewhere.

As luck would have it, he got a part-time job as a matatu tout. “After my barbering classes, I would work as a tout; I was confident I would eventually be a driver,” he reasons.

The touting job would come to an abrupt end, however, when then Transport Minister John Michuki introduced raft measures to tame the intractable matatu industry. He decided to concentrate on his grooming career and found a job at a barber shop in Westlands where he could put his training into practice.

“Having left college and gone straight into the matatu industry, I did not have the confidence to shave the prominent people who were streaming into the barber shop. After a while, however, when some of his clients began to feature as models in newspapers, he gained the confidence to jump-start his barbering journey.

He saved up and set up his own shop where he would charge Sh30 per cut. Twelve years later, Ndegwa admits that running a business has not been easy. He is grateful to his customers who guided him on that journey.

“I had knowledge of doing the barbering business, but I did not know how to run a business. Doing the business is coming in and shaving people every day, but running a business is moving to your own beat and creating a path of your own,” he offers.

Ndegwa’s desire to become a politician grew from interactions with prominent leaders such as former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who were among his customers. In 2013, he expressed interest in vying for a seat on the county assembly, but his dream was cut short due to lack of funds. Since his business was doing well, he postponed his ambitions to 2017, hoping to have saved enough by then to finance his campaign.

He decided to expand his business by starting a beauty college, for which he would need a loan. He stopped paying rent for his main barber shop to increase his savings in order to qualify for bank credit.

The plan was to use the profits from the beauty college to fund his campaign, but things did not go as planned. The college failed to take off due to a lack of students, and Ndegwa was forced to rethink his strategy. He decided to use his grassroots connections and shaving skills to win over the residents of Parklands/Highridge ward.

Ndegwa campaigned tirelessly, going door to door to speak to residents and listening to their concerns. He also used his barber shop as a campaign hub, where he would meet with residents to discuss issues affecting them. His hard work paid off when he won the seat.

Ndegwa’s plan is to transform the community by increasing public participation, ensuring residents have access to quality health care and education bursaries, and creating talent and business development programs for young people. He credits his success in the elections to his clients, who are now his constituents. “I won because my clients voted for me. I am now accountable to them, and I will not disappoint them,” he says.

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