Inspiring rags to riches story of self-made Makueni businessman Wambua Kinyao

Wambua Kinyao

Wambua Kinyao, the proprietor of Ulilinzi petrol stations serves a client at one of his petrol stations at Kibwezi Township in Makueni County. 

Photo credit: Pius Maundu | Nation Media Group

As the world made merry on Christmas day last year, Wambua Kinyao opened a petrol station at Oloitoktok Township in Kajiado County.

“This is our 14th petrol station,” he told Powering SMEs a day after Christmas. With 14 outlets to his name, most of them located in Makueni County, Kinyao is arguably the biggest fuel dealer in the region, but his inspiring rags to riches story is not widely known beyond his rural home at Ulilinzi Village in Makueni County. Trading as Ulilinzi, the one thing that easily shows while interacting with the businessman is his nose for business opportunities and hands-on approach to the management of his business empire.

“You see all those books? I go through them with a fine-tooth comb to ensure that nothing goes wrong,” he comments, pointing at heaps of accounting books lying on the table at his office located on the first floor of one of his buildings in Kibwezi Township. A block away, a 36,000-litre tanker is offloading petrol at one of his filling stations.

From this office, Kinyao has been nibbling at the fuel market which is dominated by multinationals for a decade now. His business became better known in April last year while the country grappled with fuel shortage as oil marketers protested a move by the government to delay the disbursement of fuel subsidies. Most of his petrol stations remained open, attracting winding queues.

Kinyao’s biggest challenge is competition from established fuel dealers, among them multinational giants. Due to the economies of scale they enjoy, many of the big timers in the fuel industry are able to offer cheaper prices compared to the small timers. The business also bears the brunt of adulterated fuel, which is associated with small fuel dealers.

Small fuel dealers

He feels that the most significant thing the government has done to enhance the competitiveness of small fuel dealers is the crackdown on illegal fuel deports which once dotted the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. In addition to leading to loss of fuel, these illegal depots, which are known as mashamba in industry parlance, served as fuel adulteration points.

 To eliminate fuel adulteration completely, he says, the government should minimise, and even eliminate, the variance in the cost of petroleum products. With a negligible difference in price between petrol and kerosene, tanker drivers will not be tempted to adulterate fuel, argues Kinyao.

 The hands-on approach in management and innovative marketing has helped the businessman to remain afloat a decade after investing in the lucrative oil business. His unique selling point has been last mile delivery of petroleum products. Instead of targeting motorists who ply the Mombasa-Nairobi highway like most established dealers in fuels do, the self-made business magnate has cut his own niche – setting up petrol stations in remote markets.

 “Boda bodas are our primary market. We deliver fuel very close to where they operate after realising that the motorcycle taxis form a significant market which is largely untapped,” he says.

In addition, the business delivers fuel in bulk to other traders in the region. He is among a handful of businessmen in the region licensed by the Energy Regulatory Commission to transport petroleum products.

Starting point

When he started the fuel business in 2013, he only had one tanker. He has since expanded the fleet to match a growing demand.

“We strive to satisfy our customers, as a result, sometimes we contend with making as low as Sh2 per litre of fuel in profit,” he offers.

Kinyao traces his entrepreneurship to a side hustle during his primary school days in the 1970s. He owned a dozen beehives which he harvested himself and sold the honey. After primary school, he didn't proceed to secondary school, instead, he enrolled for a motor vehicle mechanics course at a local polytechnic, later getting a job in a Nairobi butchery.

Kinyao trades

Kinyao trades under Ulilinzi Petrol Station. With 14 outlets, he is the biggest fuel dealer in Makueni
 

Photo credit: Pius Maundu | Nation Media Group

When he returned home for the Christmas festivities later that year after a few months in the city, a restless Kinyao invested the Sh2,800 he had saved into a honey selling business. Armed with a bicycle and determination, he bought honey from other farmers in the region and hawked it to as far as the bicycle could take him.

Outside the honey season, he hawked utensils and watches in the sun baked region from house to house, earning himself the moniker ‘Ulilinzi Mobile’.

Over the years, he opened a kiosk at Ulillinzi Township and expanded his goods to include hide, cereals and clothes. His fortune changed significantly in 1991 when he bought a second hand tractor complete with a disc plough. The 27-year-old became a marvel for owning such a machine in the sleepy region.

Ploughing services

During the rainy season, farmers seeking ploughing services made a beeline at his homestead. With a lot of money at his disposal, Kinyao expanded his business. He acquired two trucks for delivering cereals to the market and opened up two new business lines: a hardware store and a wholesale grocery shop. Unfortunately, the expansion binge dealt the business a blow.

The business collapsed in 2021 under the weight of debts. He closed shop, sold the tractor and the trucks. For five years, he tried in vain to rejuvenate. Eventually, he got a Sh500,000 loan from a bank in 2006 and relocated to Kibwezi Township where he set up a hardware shop. An affordable delivery service enabled him to quickly stand out from the competition. In the coming years, he bought a fleet of trucks and expanded his portfolio to real estate.

The idea of the fuel business emerged while Kinyao was at an investment crossroads. He had invested in businesses and residential houses and was wondering whether to establish a school or a maize mill. A confidant warned him against the idea of a school, arguing that the businessman risked burning his fingers since he didn't match the education status of the teachers he was set to employ.

"I invested in the fuel business instead,” he says.

He has not looked back since.

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