Joseph Thiong'o’s 20-year journey to becoming a millionaire started when he refused to be condemned to low pay for his civil engineering job in 2000.
Armed with nothing but self-determination, blessed by his peasant parents and cheered on by his wife Triza, whom he describes as a critical influence, his tearful journey illustrates that resilience, discipline and working smart pays off.
It all started when he got his first job a month after graduating from the University of Nairobi in 2000 as a civil engineer. He was a site research assistant, earning Sh10,000 per month.
Though his fellow graduates who were still jobless envied him for having a morsel on his hand, he didn’t think his salary was enough to allow him to meet his needs.
His parents had struggled to educate him and even financed 58 villagers to travel from Mukurwe-ini in Nyeri County to Nairobi to witness his graduation.
With his salary, the dream of going back home to rescue his parents from poverty suddenly felt like a horror dream.
“My parents had borrowed their way to near bankruptcy so as to educate me. They never tired of telling me that as their first-born child, the future leadership of our family of five siblings was in my hands.”
To work for Sh10,000 in Nairobi when the market rate was a minimum of Sh80,000 for interns was heart-crushing.
“I was faced with a choice of refusing to work for the peanuts or taking it as I fished deeper into the job market. I opted for the latter. But deep down my heart, I resolved that I would refuse to be exploited in the name of poverty. My employer, who was a private company, appeared set to mine my expertise for peanuts.”
Six months later, he found a different employer, who offered Sh2,000 more.
“It was a better deal and I took it. So hard was life that I had to keep on reverting to my peasant parents in the villages to help me buy food in Nairobi,” he said.
“My salary would get exhausted on fare to work and house rent. In a job that had no transport facilitation, I had to finance my travels to project sites that my employer was undertaking.”
This life went on for two years. Then one day, his father called him with some news: he had been paid Sh20,000 as dividends for shares he had bought from a financial institution.
“When I got home, my father handed me the whole cash and said he had entrusted it to me to grow it on behalf of his family. I was shocked beyond words. I left home feeling the whole weight of the responsibility that had been bestowed on my shoulders.”
He remembered how his mother, who, almost on her knees, acted as a witness to the prosperity covenant between father and son. She cried and prayed, urging him on. It was a tear-jerking experience.
Alone, Mr Chege said, he knew he was inadequate to find a way of avoiding betraying his father’s trust. He felt as though the responsibility his father had placed on him would be a curse if he failed.
“I banked the cash. The next move was to seek divine intervention and that is how I visited a pastor in Westlands to have him pray for me,” he said.
“I also dropped the habit of imbibing alcohol that was creeping into me. A heavily burdened 27–year-old young man rolled up his sleeves to live his father’s grand dream.”
He remembered the words of his pastor: “[To] live a purposeful life you must first take up responsibilities. Get yourself a wife and the looming pressure of children to come will light a fire on your heels and you will always be on the move. As you work hard to feed your wife, that is how you will build more wealth to make your father’s dream become a reality.”
That is how he ended up seeking the girl he had known at university. In May 2002, he convinced her it was urgent that they start living together as man and wife even when he was struggling financially. And she agreed.
“I also gave myself a four-month notice to quit my job and found my own engineering company,” he said.
“Within the period, I resolved to convince some of my employer’s clients to offload some of their tenders to me. I had become familiar with profit margins and I knew if I floated a 20 percent cut on costing, I would win some to my side.”
He added that his wife turned out to be the best personal assistant in his venture.
“When I broke the news of my plans to her, she was fully supportive, saying she was ready to sleep on the streets with me if that would save us some money,” he said of his professional counsellor wife, who teaches at Dedan Kimathi University and Kenyatta University.
“She also postponed becoming pregnant until we were stable. But there was a rider – I should not keep her waiting long.”
In October 2002, Jotis East Africa Ltd was incorporated, with Mr Chege as manager and his wife as an aide, in a business story that shows how family goodwill, support and faith work wonders.
“My new company specialised in offering technical advice, providing project drawings and supplying construction materials. By the close of 2004, I was making on average Sh300,000 profit per month.”
Mr Chege invested in the property sector and bought several parcels of land, company shares and treasury bills.
“By 2012, my valuer indicated I had hit the millionaire bracket with a projected annual growth of 61 percent. My father back home started referring to me as the head of his family, while my mother kept reminding me that other siblings were my responsibility. In turn, I ensured their quality of life improved.”
In 2019, Mr Chege decided to put up a landmark investment to celebrate his journey that far.
“I bought a piece of land along the Kenol-Murang’a highway for Sh30 million and started putting up a business centre valued at Sh150 million. I had grown my creditworthiness to a point all financial institutions that I approached to partner with endorsed my plan.”
The complex – with office suites, supermarkets, a carwash, a banking lobby, a garden, a swimming pool, a spa and eateries once optimised – will earn him a monthly rental income of Sh3 million and is projected to break even in 2024.
“This has been possible because I refused to accept that I was destined to be in employment. I refused my skill to be mined for a song. I broke free the yokes of self-pity and associated myself with progressive counsel and trusting in God.”
Mr Chege, a father of four children aged between seven and 18, cites financing, quality of materials, cost of skilled labour, taxation and lack of spatial planning as major challenges in the property sector.
“Since we are out of poverty now, my main concern is how to consolidate wealth and ensure my family will never know financial misery.”