Linda Alisa had always dreamed that she would one day become a news anchor. She wanted to be a prime time news presenter and could picture herself pursuing communication in college or university.
This is why it seemed like the end of the road for her when her parents declared that they would not be able to take her to college after she completed High School in 2009.
“I had attained the minimum mass communication college entry grade of C Plain. But my father couldn’t afford the fees. He worked as a small scale farmer in Lugari, Kakamega County while my mother was a stay at home wife,” says Linda. She was heartbroken.
“It was painful seeing my high school friends proceed to university and college to advance their education. I knew my father was heartbroken for failing to take me to college. But there was nothing we could,” says Linda, who is the fifth born in a family of six children.
But Linda was determined to make something out of her life. In 2010, she started working as an untrained teacher at Mugumu Primary School near their home in Lugari with a monthly salary of Sh. 2,000 shillings.
She taught for a year and moved to Nairobi in mid-2011 after landing another teaching job at Annabel School in Embakasi, Nairobi. Her new job in Nairobi did not last long. She lost it after the school shut down twelve months later in mid-2012. Linda tried to look for jobs in vain.
“In most places, positions for casual workers were taken. In others, I was told I was unqualified because I had not gone to college.” Linda, who is neither married nor a mother, says that it got to a point where she needed to survive.
“I decided that I would drop my pride and take on any job I would find.” From 2013, she started working as a househelp in Nairobi. This transition was not easy. Linda had gotten accustomed to being called Mwalimu.
Her new nickname, Auntie, which is synonymous with househelps, cast her spirits down. “I longed to step into a class and teach. But there were no private schools looking to hire untrained teachers. I had to embrace my new reality,” she says.
Between 2013 and 2015 she changed employers multiple times. “Sometimes I would be so jobless that I would end up sleeping with an empty stomach for days,” she says.
But in 2016, lady luck smiled at her. She got a job opportunity in Dubai. The icing on the cake was the employer she would work for.
“I had heard stories about Kenyan girls who were abused and sexually assaulted while working in Gulf. I was afraid I could suffer the same fate. My fear subsided when I learned that I would be working for a Kenyan employer,” she says. Linda was told that she would be earning Sh. 15,000 per month.
This seemed like a big amount, especially when she compared it to the Sh. 2,000 to Sh. 5,000 she had been earning. Her employer processed a visa for her and she moved to Dubai. A few weeks in Dubai, Linda began to realize that her employer had lied about the pay and the job.
“I found out that the salary was too small. I also realized that I was holding a visit visa instead of a work visa. To keep this job, I would need to return home after every 3 months for visa renewal,” she says.
She asked her employer for a salary increment and a proper work visa. “My employer changed her attitude when I asked for better pay and a more convenient visa,” she says.
Linda would later learn that her employer had become insecure after realizing that she had discovered the rates househelps were being paid in Dubai.
Yet there was little she could do. She was desperate and so she stayed put. She needed the job and the money. “I needed the money, but it was as if I had holes in my pockets where all the money I earned disappeared through,” she says.
She hardly saved anything because every three months, she would buy a plane ticket, return to Kenya, renew her visa and go back. By mid-2017 Linda could no longer take the low pay and the mistreatment anymore. She left for Kenya and never returned.
“I got another job as a househelp in Nairobi. Although pay was small at Sh. 7,000, the expenses were not as high as they had been in Dubai. I could save a little for a rainy day,” she says.
At one point towards 2018, Linda started offering cooking services in her employer’s estate through house calls.
“I started with one client. I was very careful about expanding my client base because I did not want to jeopardize my job or the relationship I had with my employer,” she says. But in May 2018, she lost her househelp job.
“My employer paid me Sh. 7,000 salary plus Sh. 1,500 bonus. Since I had been living with her, I had to start my life afresh from scratch. I ate and depleted my little savings within two months,” she says.
Between May and December 2018, Linda advertised her cooking skills through friends and on social media. She also sold deras to survive. In January 2019, she decided to fully concentrate on cooking and launched her food business.
“I named my business Linda’s Kitchen,” she says. “Selling deras wasn’t working and I had to think of an easy way to start earning again. Since I was passionate about cooking, I decided to turn my passion into a business.”
Linda ploughed all the profits she got into the business. “I did not have a physical location when I started. I offered cooking services through house calls. This kept my operating costs low,” she says.
She had planned to buy business equipment once she built up a gigantic amount of cash in her savings account. But the more she saved, the more she withdrew.
“I used to save money in the bank hoping that I would save enough to buy everything at once. But this never came to be. I would withdraw the little money I got for personal issues,” she says. By the time she realized that this approach was flawed, Linda had cumulatively spent money that could have afforded some equipment.
“Since, then I have been buying my catering equipment one by one. I feel contended when I buy 5 spoons. I’m yet to buy all the equipment I need, but this method is getting me there gradually,” she says.
Saving was not the only thing she got wrong. Linda did not know how to charge her clients appropriately. “I got my charges all wrong when I started. I mostly undercharged clients. This went on for almost 2 years,” she says.
It is now almost three years since Linda started her business. She says that getting accepted in the industry has been her toughest challenge so far.
“It has taken me nearly 3 years to be accepted in the industry. This is because food is sensitive. Customers will always take their time before they can fully trust a caterer,” says Linda who runs her business from her home in Nairobi.
She adds that in her early startup days, she struggled to find someone who could mentor her.
“Lack of mentorship was a major challenge when I started. I learned that in Kenya’s business world, not everyone is willing to play the role of a mentor.” Like most businesses in the hospitality sector, Linda was grievously affected by the pandemic in 2020.
“The pandemic has been a very big blow. I certainly could have broken even sooner in the absence of the pandemic,” she says, adding that up until now, hospitality businesses are yet to resume fully to normal.
“If I have made it through the pandemic shut down and lock downs, I can survive anything. I am confident that my business will only grow as the economy recovers and people seek catering services more,” she says with a smile.
My business lessons
- If you’re starting a business, take some classes on costing. This will help you know the range within which you will charge your customers.
- Never work without a contract or legal document to back you up. Working without a contract in business is like walking in darkness, and that’s what I did in my first two years.
- Entrepreneurship isn’t easy. But passion, hard work and determination will carry you through. Also pray for your business and deliver the best you can.
- Grow at your own pace. Every entrepreneur has their own story.
- Have a good record of your finances. This will make you accountable for every coin you get. Spend wisely on your business and separate your business money from your personal money.
- Don’t hire an employee if you don’t need one.
This profile feature on Linda Alisa was first published in the Saturday Magazine. The Saturday Magazine is a publication of the Nation Media Group.