Robert Okubo switches on his vacuum cleaner and blows a cloud of dust from the boot of a grey BMW outside his office in Hurlingham, a suburb west of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. This is his third car to clean on this hot January afternoon and he has four orders to steam-clean floor carpets in the bustling city.
Many Kenyans may dread the choking dust that comes with this drought season, but Okubo is clearly making money out of removing it from cars, carpets, offices and houses.
Besides cars and furniture, Okubo, through his company aptly named 200Degrees, cleans the grout between floor tiles, kitchen and bathroom tiles, concrete (terrazzo), roofing tiles, pavements, mattresses, pillows and car interiors. It is a business he has run on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Okubo, who runs an identical steam cleaning business in New York, returned to Kenya in 2011 to open a subsidiary of 200Degrees. He is among an army of Africans who have made the Western world their second homes, but who are now returning home to invest their earnings. For many like Okubo, it’s a matter of survival—running away from the US, which was worst hit by the financial crisis that began in 2008.
He read in many reports that the business environment in Kenya had improved markedly and decided to try it out.
“Things have improved,” says Okubo, 43. “I registered the company in a day and getting licenses wasn’t much of a hassle.”
According to the 2011 Doing Business report by the World Bank, which tracks the ease of operating business globally, Kenya’s rank has been falling over the past three years, although it was among the top 10 reformers worldwide in 2008.
In last year’s report, East Africa’s biggest economy with 40 million people came in at 98, dropping four places since 2010, out of the 183 countries studied. It is this kind of optimism that is attracting hordes of entrepreneurs.
The report says Kenya made only two reforms: reducing the time it takes to get the memorandum and articles of association stamped and harmonizing tax. Registration procedures were cut and records at the registrar digitized. It also implemented an electronic cargo tracking system and linked it to the Kenya Revenue Authority’s electronic data interchange.
These, among other reforms, are luring Kenyans in the diaspora with money to spare to invest back home.
Okubo left Kenya 16 years ago to chase the American Dream after his tour and travel business was snuffed out by travel advisories issued by Washington in the wake of the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. In the US, he landed a job with Stanley Steamer, a carpet cleaning conglomerate, where he was paid on commission.
“What caught my eye was that my truck was giving this company about $400,000 a year and we were six trucks in my station, and I was getting only $4,000,” he says.
So after three years he started 200Degrees, named after the high cleaning temperature used, which earned $6,000 in the first year. In the second year, turnover jumped to $100,000 and doubled last year. He quit his full-time job to focus on his new business. “I realized I was living the American Dream,” he adds.
But when the economic recession struck, revenues dropped 15%. Paying staff on commission saved 200Degrees from the pain of a hefty payroll, but that wasn’t good enough to keep the business profitable. So to grow revenues, he cut his prices.
In 2009, when Okubo visited Kenya to see his relatives and friends, he was impressed at the way the economy was being run. But he discovered something else: there were no professional cleaning companies. “I decided to give it a shot,” he says. “Kenya is warm all year round, as opposed to US where most of our work is in seven months of summer.”
In just over a year, the Kenyan subsidiary of 200Degrees, is turning over $40,000, and retains more than 15 workers.
Professional cleaning is a new concept in Kenya, making Okubo’s business a little hard because he has to do more in terms of marketing and creating awareness about his service and why it comes at a higher price. “The biggest mistake that people make is using too much soap and failing to rinse it out completely,” he says. “What many people don’t realize is that if you don’t completely rinse out the soap, it keeps cleaning and suds a lot. Worse still, many vigorously brush out stains from a carpet, pushing the dirt even deeper.”
The marketing response has been improving, growing from a handful of clients to over 100. “It’s not easy,” Okubo said recently, as he waited in the lunch-hour traffic jam on Uhuru Highway, the main artery road to Westlands, a Nairobi suburb where some of Kenya’s richest reside.
After 20 minutes, the car has barely moved 10 metres. Then the phone rings. He twists his nose and grins. “Oh, no!” he exclaims, banging the steering, which unleashes a horn that rattles other motorists in the gridlock. “The client just postponed the job, man.”
Traffic jams are a major issue here, burning fuel worth $50 million every year. This has forced the government to intervene, and it is investing about $1.5 billion on infrastructure to revamp roads and establish a modern commuter train in the capital. Upgrade of the key 40km road connecting Thika, an industrial hub east of Nairobi, into the first regional superhighway is almost complete.
When I first interviewed Okubo in August 2011, he was serving clients in just few sections of Nairobi. Six months later, he has spread his business to major towns, including the coastal city of Mombasa, where he opened a branch in early January. “Business is not bad,” he says. “We are getting inquiries from neighboring countries and we are really thinking about going regional.”
The rains are expected in Kenya from March and Okubo will have nothing to lose. It will be business as usual, he says, or even more because of the mud. “Cleaning is a basic need. No one wants to stay in a dirty environment. Those who do so pay the price through higher medical bills.”
The job has turned into a passion and as Okubo sees me off, he remembers something. “Chief,” he signals as I turn the car ignition keys. “I forgot to tell you our slogan. ‘We don’t cut corners, we clean them!’”