YouTube carpenter Elson Illa

Elson Illa, a YouTube carpenter, at his place of work in Tudor, Mombasa County.

| Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

Let down by university bureaucracy, engineering dropout makes it big in woodwork

What you need to know:

Elson Illa was on his way to becoming an electrical and electronic engineer when life showed him another path to success in life.

Elson Illa, like any other young person, was chasing his version of the "American Dream" - study, graduate and get a good job.

He was on his way to becoming an electrical and electronic engineer when life showed him another path to success in life.

"I was in my fourth year at the Technical University of Mombasa in 2015 and was to embark on the final semester when suddenly the department lost my marks," he narrates.

His efforts to track down the grades were frustrating and demoralising.

The head of the department then advised him to retake the exams, which he felt was unfair, and so he decided to go back to his house and give it a thought.

"I lived in a single room without a bed. That is where I would get lost in thoughts, imagining the future, and asking myself hard questions," he says amid laughter.

As he passed time, he logged onto YouTube and bumped on a channel that specialised in woodwork.

In the first video he watched, the carpenter was giving a tutorial on how to make good beds and how to sell them online.

"Then I thought, 'I don't have a bed'. Making it would be cheaper than buying one. I decided to gather materials with the little money I had," he says.

He gathered the materials but then he realised he did not have the necessary tools to start work.

YouTube carpenter Elson Illa

Some of the furniture made by YouTube carpenter Elson Illa and Team as pictured at his workshop in Tudor, Mombasa County.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

Important networks

That is when he struck friendships with some carpenters in his neighbourhood, who lent him tools in the evening when they closed their businesses for the day.

Some even started keeping the tools in his house as a result of insecurity in the area that saw several shops broken into.

Elson said that while other people sat to watch television at night, he was busy on the rooftop of the residential building working on a bed.

"I would work up to 1am, gather my stuff and keep them in the house for another day. Each day, I made sure I made progress to my bed, using YouTube as the guide," he says.

Four days later, he fixed his five-by-six-foot bed and placed a four-by-six-foot mattress on it.

The size of the bed, he says, was his desire and hence it challenged him to find a befitting mattress for it.

He invited the carpenters to evaluate his work, and they were impressed.

He asked them to value the bed and the amount they quoted amazed him.

"I had used about Sh4,300 to make the bed. They were telling me the bed could sell for at least Sh15,000, which I couldn't afford and that motivated me," he says.

Having realised he could make money from woodwork, he decided to follow the YouTube channel he drew inspiration from to make his bed and started learning simple woodwork skills.

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Online platforms

Within a few weeks, he mastered his skills and made beds and posted photos of them on different online platforms. Potential buyers inquired about them, and that motivated him to make more beds and other furniture.

With more orders coming in, he knew he had to expand his skills and make a venture out of the idea.

He sought advice from the skilled friends that he kept tools for. They showed him where to get his tool box at a cheaper price as he spent nights taking tutorials from the YouTube channel and tried to make new items.

"I had saved about Sh80,000 in my four months of exploring the idea. That is when I reached out to my brother-in-law for more money to start up big," he notes.

With Sh200,000, he was confident that his moment to soar had arrived. It was needless for him to regret his missing college marks. He could pursue an idea that had chosen to embrace him.

He bought his tools, rented space in Buxton, Mombasa, and started making unique equipment such as TV stands, wooden wall carvings, exotic beds, chairs and trendy kitchen cabinets.

"Things did not go well at the beginning. The client rejected the first bed I made for them. The first sofa also suffered the same fate, and I had to destroy the seats and redo them once again until I attained what my clients wanted,” he says.

“With more practice, I became good at my work and the clients who came to me referred their friends to me and that is how I built my client base."

YouTube carpenter Elson Illa

Some of the furniture made by YouTube carpenter Elson Illa and Team as pictured at his workshop in Tudor, Mombasa County.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

Many orders

In the first six months since he made his first commercial product, he received more orders for TV stands and beds, his bestselling items. The cheapest item sold for Sh12,000 while the most expensive went for Sh60,000.

"I became overwhelmed with orders and sometimes I would not deliver on time, as I was working alone. Some of my clients understood and became patient with me while others withdrew," he says.

With increasing orders, he decided to hire two casuals to help him with deliveries.

Five years later, Elson is slowly featuring among the big names in the furniture business in Mombasa.

He has expanded his enterprise to Tudor, where he owns a workshop with eight employees and several trainees.

"The first skilled people I hired broke loose. One is making it big in Nairobi while the other is killing it in Nakuru. We still keep in touch," he says.

Elson's enterprise makes Sh250,000 in sales in a bad month and up to Sh400,000.

He now plans to venture into interior design, a course he says he will pursue abroad once Covid-19 loosens its grip on the world.

"We keep soaring. We don't stop here. All that young people need to do is to invest a huge amount of faith in big dreams. You will fail at the beginning but with persistence, you will ultimately make it,” he says.

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