I built my now prestigious school from a rented house in South B

Felista Muthoki Mutinda, 52,  founder and managing director of St Barkita Schools. The institution has a kindergarten, primary school and junior secondary school.  Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

When Felista Muthoki Mutinda, 52, switched from her banking career to start St Bakhita Kindergarten (now school) in 2003.

It was far from the first time that Felista Mutinda had thought of the fundamental flaws in the education system.

“I desired structures that focused on an all-rounded growth of the child, organised workshops for parents, and valued life skills just as it did with grades. I didn’t see regular schools doing what I thought should be done. There was a huge disconnect between the schools and parents,” she offers.

At the time, the now 52-year-old worked in a bank. Her days, as a services executive, were a delicate tightrope walk trying to balance the demands of her managerial role and motherhood duties.

“I vividly remember the day when I felt that the trajectory of my career had shifted, maybe for good. It was a busy day at work and I was late to pick up my two children, aged five and three from school. As I drove towards their school, two young boys, in school uniforms, caught my gaze. They were waiting to board a matatu at a bus stop. A flicker of outrage towards their parents ignited within me and I wondered why they’d let such young children board a matatu without company. When I gave them another glance, I caught their faces and realised that they were my children. The guards hadn’t noticed them leave the school compound and they had no clue of where they were going,” she offers.

A few months later, she was already hunting for a space to start a Kindergarten in South B estate, Nairobi. Her anecdotal research revealed that there was a huge demand in the area as there was only one serving dozens of households.

I built my now prestigious school from a rented house in South B. Photo | Pool

“Everyone around me thought that I was making a big mistake by shelving my banking career of 14 years to go into the murky water of entrepreneurship. I didn’t even have a background in education, but I started to attend workshops and dug deep into research. The location and the niche are some of our success factors,” she offers.

A few months later, she was already hunting for a space to start a Kindergarten in South B estate, Nairobi, an area she was familiar with as she grew up there. Her anecdotal research revealed that there was a huge demand in the area as there was only one serving dozens of households.

In 2003, she convinced her sister to move out from her rented house in South B and the landlord agreed to let her start a kindergarten there. “The centre, which started with four rooms is still there today hosting grade one and two,” beams Felista.  

Over the course of years, the humble nursery school underwent a remarkable transformation, blossoming into a fully-fledged educational institution. Now a school it offers learning through the competency-based curriculum (CBC) and 8-4-4 system.

“I was specific that I wanted to work with foundation years because I believe that the formative years are very important to the well-being of a child. I still recall my first student; from his name, where they lived, and admission number. He must be 25 now. When the mother brought him to us, she just wanted a place for him to play. To us, it meant that we were being seen and somebody was willing to give us a chance,” says the founder and managing director of St Bakhita.

From her office at the institution’s headquarters at Eagle Plains estate on Mombasa Road, the mother of two explains how the school grew from one learner in South B, Nairobi kindergarten, to include two primary schools, two kindergartens with a staff of 328 employees and more than 1,200 learners.

“I believe that we are set apart by three critical things. First, the passion that we have for learners, our quality of teaching and passionate teachers. I get very affected when any of my teaching staff leaves. We take our teachers through a series of training sessions, so I know that we have an exceptional team. When any of them is headhunted, it’s to take up a bigger role,” Felista shares.

At the beginning, an experience shared by many entrepreneurs, she had to make many sacrifices. “I put a lot of work in the first 12 years of the business. Thankfully, my background in corporate came in handy in the process of putting up structures, “she offers.

As years have gone by, private schools have soared in popularity in different parts of the country. This, is partly because of the surging numbers in public schools and the fact that most of them are ill-equipped and with limited teaching staff.  

In a 2017 report published by the Oxford Review of Education, many parents believe that the quality of education declined after the introduction of the free primary education program in 2003. A report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics further showed that the number of private primary schools grew by 773 per cent between 2003 and 2017, compared to a growth of only 33 per cent for public primary schools.

“One of our Kindergartens is at full capacity now and there was a time when one had to book two years prior to enrolling their child in our school. Some would come whilst expectant because they didn’t want to miss the opportunity.  Although we started with young families, the target has changed. Now, it’s families within the school radius (15 km). We realised that as these families grew to middle classes, they didn’t want to transfer their children to other schools. Also, their social network is the same,” offers the edupreneur.

In 2020, private equity firm, Fanisi Capital acquired a minority stake in St Bakhita Schools valued at Sh265 million ($2.5 million). According to Felista, the move was in alignment with the school’s growth strategy.

“I knew that I wanted to onboard investors at some point. We cannot have a business with only the visionary person running it. The investors came in for growth purposes, funding and professionalism and technical skills. Further, I wanted to have a board that can hold me accountable and a proper succession plan. The investors, however, needed to be aligned with our vision. I was clear that I wanted to offer international standards but with an affordable tuition fee and within our vision of being an unrivalled leader in the early learning years,” the holder of a Master of Science in Entrepreneurship and Innovation from the University of Nairobi offers.

One of the biggest business lessons she has learned over the last two decades is the need for discipline and working with visionary people. “There is so much potential in every one of us. We shouldn’t look at our businesses just as a form of sustenance but as a source of employment with the ability to transform society. You can take your business from one level to another by creating workable structures,” she advises.

At 52, Felista offers that she is still struggling to balance her job and personal life. “I am frequently thinking about the school, but the last two years have been a little bit easy for me.  The organogram has changed allowing me time to play golf and take part in nature walks at Karura forest.”