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September 24, 2018

University concept paper gave birth to a thriving business

self made: Keep It Kleen MD Esther Ndegwa and some of her staff cleaning a client’s building in Embakasi, Nairobi
self made: Keep It Kleen MD Esther Ndegwa and some of her staff cleaning a client’s building in Embakasi, Nairobi

Calm, collected and confident are words that best describe 27-year-old entrepreneur and managing director of Keep it Kleen Ltd, Esther Ndegwa.

A commerce graduate from KCA University, she conceptualised the company as part of her project while still a student but upon graduation and a string of unfruitful job interviews she decided to actualise her concept.

Two years down the line, she has gained ground in the competitive industry with a growing portfolio of new and loyal clients. Through determination, hard work and aggressive marketing, the business has grown from a simple laundry service to a commercial cleaning outfit covering a wide array of cleaning jobs.

Keep it Kleen Ltd handles laundry, house and office cleaning to post-construction cleaning. The company also specialises in surface stain removal. Esther says that you “just name the stain and we take care of it”.

So what drove this business greenhorn from KCA University into starting her own company?

After graduating in 2011, she was bubbling with excitement and energy as a fresh graduate and embarked on seeking an office job but several applications and job interviews down the line she was still jobless.

At one of the job interviews, she was shortlisted as a finalist but the panel settled on someone else who had work experience. Though disappointed, what amazed her about the company was that young people ran it and her interviewers were just about her age.

Esther went home with a nagging thought about the interview panel and the company’s owners and decided they were not any different from her in age and qualification. She concluded that the only thing that set them apart was that she did not own a company.

She resolved not seek any other office job but instead start her own outfit. Being a new mother she was further motivated by the fact that self-employment would give her with the flexibility of splitting time between work and her son.

Once convinced that self-employment was the way to go, Esther fine-tuned her university project proposal to fit the needs of her envisaged company and in 2012 Keep It Kleen was born.

But what appeared rosy on paper proved to be an uphill task since she did not have the start up capital. After a lot of convincing she managed to sell the idea to two friends, one of whom became an equal but silent partner and together with her savings managed to raise Sh200, 000. However, all this went to capital costs.

Esther used the money to buy laundry equipment and rent a business premise. “My plan was to start doing laundry because of the quick returns and later expand to other cleaning services, and especially get into commercial cleaning,” she says.

Left with no capita - not even petty cash after setting up her business but determined not to attend another job interview she went flat out to source for clients using online platforms such as Facebook and Capital Classifieds.

“I even went door-to-door to source for clients, which was the hardest part of marketing my business. Sometimes, I was turned away but when I look back but it was all worth it,” she says. Esther also used posters at the Sarit Centre notice board in Westlands to advertise her company’s services and this won her the firm’s first contract client. She still uses online platforms and Sarit posters to advertise.

She says the firm has mastered its clients’ needs and finds unique solutions to individual customers cleaning needs a factor she attributes to 90 per cent of their work being repeat jobs.

She says the company is not ignorant on the impact of detergents on the environment and Keep It Kleen is going green by incorporating organic detergents that remove natural stains and brighten surfaces while preserving them such that there is less wear and tear compared to when one uses industrial chemicals and detergents. The company also uses 90 per cent less water and detergent than that used in traditional methods of cleaning.

Although Keep it Kleen still does laundry, it has expanded its services to spring cleaning, pre and post tenancy cleaning, domestic cleaning, seat, upholstery and carpet cleaning and after party cleaning. Post-construction cleaning is however now their current core business.

Post-construction cleaning, according to Esther, involves cleaning all stains from paint, glue and grease, clearing out all garbage in the house and ensuring the house is habitable after contractors leave the site.

“Post-construction cleaning is more like being in a mjengo and doing the final finishing. It is hard work and not for the faint hearted,” Esther says. She says the main clients targeted for post-construction cleaning are developers, homeowners and those refurbishing their houses.

The Keep It Kleen MD says getting post-construction cleaning clients was the most challenging part of the business but after the company broke even it became easier to market and even get referrals and loyal clients for domestic and commercial buildings cleaning services.

“However, when I began post-construction cleaning, potential clients would question my ability mainly because I am a woman. And when I delivered, they would all be surprised. Many people feel all work in the construction industry is a preserve for men and women will not be as capable,” Esther says.

Right now, the main challenge she faces is juggling between motherhood and the long hours of work as she sometimes works till late and on weekends.

Esther’s success has led to her appointment as a business mentor at KCA University and an entrepreneurship lecturer. She also occasionally writes articles on entrepreneurship for a local magazine.

“I have to plan ahead and arrange my schedule so that I can achieve all the set goals every day, I have time for my son, supervise my work, teach and allocate time to write on entrepreneurship. Sometimes it takes a toll on me as I am always up and down but I have learnt to juggle all my responsibilities,” she says.

During her free time, Esther spends maximum time with her son. He favourite readings include motivational books by Robin Sharma, Stephen Covey and Napoleon Hill and magazines like Home and Living, Entrepreneurship and Management.

Would she like to be employed in future? “Absolutely not. It is not pride; it is just a decision I made. I doubt I can find satisfaction in employment as much as I find in owning my own company, ” she says.

So far she is happy with her achievement but says she has not achieved her life goals. “I’m still in the first step towards success and I have a lot more to do and accomplish before I realise success,” she says.

Esther advocates for positivity in everything she does and believes she has instilled this in her staff. She believes that nothing is impossible and she would rather try, fail, pick up and move on than not try at all.

Martin Luther King Jr is one of her heroes and she loves one of his quotes that guides her in life: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michel Angelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” This, she says drives her to work hard every day to achieve her goals.

She advices anyone planning to get into the cleaning or any other business to be ready to roll up their sleeves and dedicate a lot of time in planning, setting up and marketing.

“Those planning to start businesses must be ready to walk up to people and pitch for their goods or services, be ready to be turned down several times but still pick up and aggressively move on to potential clients,” says Esther.

Her advice to the youth: “Man up! Many youth are not accepting work. They have this ‘big job mentality’ that they should only be employed in big jobs in big companies. They complain there are no jobs and they don’t take the jobs they have seriously. I’d like to tell them to man up. The youth should not complain about lack of jobs, there are very many positions open. Otherwise, what jobs are they looking for if they say there aren’t any? To the youth: do not be choosy. If you are, you are really going to wait for that perfect job you want and probably not get it. You have to start somewhere, accept what is there and work towards your dream. Where you start is not your destination, it is a route to your destination. Besides, you can always decide to create jobs by starting your own business and employing others. Life is not easy; you have to work hard.”

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