Private education is big business in Kenya. We chat with the founder of St. Bakhita School about how she started and grew the business.
Private education in Kenya experienced rapid expansion. Between 2014 and 2020 alone, the number of private schools increased from 7,742 to 16,594. An example of this growth is St. Bakhita School, a private educational institution founded by Felista Muthoki Mutinda in 2003.
She started with a preschool, in a converted residential house in South B, a suburb of Nairobi. Today, in the two kindergartens, two primary schools (grades 1 to 6) and one primary school (grades 7 to 9), the total number of learners amounts to more than 2,700. The staff of Sainte Bakhita numbers 327 people.
Most of the 32 students enrolled at St. Bakhita’s first grade came from a nearby kindergarten that had closed, leaving parents in dire need of an alternative. By the fifth year, enrollment had grown to 172 students, leading to expansion into adjacent properties.
Muthoki attributes the growing popularity of private schools to a crucial policy change that occurred in January 2003. This was when the newly elected National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government inaugurated free primary education throughout Kenya. As expected, this initiative stimulated registration in public schools by more than 30% in one year. Yet an unintended knock-on effect of this educational reform was the pronounced increase in the student/teacher ratio. From a ratio of 42 students per teacher in 1998, it increased to 53 in 2003, and by 2006, the ratio had increased to 60.
Faced with growing class sizes in public schools, parents have started looking for affordable, quality educational alternatives that offer more individualized attention to their children, Muthoki notes. Data suggests that more than half of all primary school students in Nairobi are enrolled in private establishments.
Create a school
Muthoki left a secure position in banking to pursue his passion for education. Initially, she wanted to focus only on the preschool years, believing that children needed a good multidisciplinary and holistic foundation, which would make them more successful later, regardless of the curriculum.
She disliked the excessive emphasis on academic work at the time, basing her approach to kindergarten on developing cognitive and social skills in young children.
For her business idea to work, she had to convince parents that it was the right path for their children. Although the school might have been a practical solution for the parents of those first 32 learners, a year spent experimenting with Saint Bakhita’s approach transformed them into advocates and word of mouth helped the business grow. fast.
Setting up an educational institution comes with a list of administrative and regulatory hurdles, but Muthoki says local government support has made things easier. For example, South B premises had to be rezoned by county authorities, the Department of Education had to approve the site and residents had to be convinced that a school in their midst would not be a noise nuisance and road.
Organic growth and change of direction
In the first five years, South B preschool had a two-year waiting list. Muthoki also noticed that parents were driving their children to Machakos County, 40 km away.
“It was very discouraging for me; the children had to wake up very early,” explains Muthoki. The decision was made to open a franchise, replicating the success of the Sud B preschool. During its first year of operation, in 2011, the Machakos preschool already had 53 children enrolled.
In 2017, a decision by the Kenyan government convinced Muthoki that it was time to expand to primary education. The government launched a new skills-based program to replace the previous 32-year-old curriculum and school system. This fitted perfectly with the culture and approach of Saint Bakhita and two primary schools were opened.
Finance the business
To launch her business, Muthoki drew on her personal savings as well as financial support from her parents and husband. She also dipped into her pension fund. As the school expanded, it began to benefit from internal cash flow, and by its third year the preschool was breaking even.
Over the next few years, growth was financed by operational revenues and a series of bank loans. Using her banking experience, Muthoki approached commercial banks for financing. Leveraging her expertise, she presented herself and the school’s potential as a wise investment. These loans facilitated the acquisition of new sites, such as for primary schools, and financed the significant development of infrastructure necessary for school buildings and sports fields.
Then in 2020, Muthoki sold shares of the company to Fanisi Capitala Kenyan private equity fund, for KSh250 million ($1.7 million).
For Muthoki, the main challenge St. Bakhita has faced over the past two decades is maintaining a competitive edge in a saturated market.
“If you thrive and…do well, a lot of people want to copy you, thinking it’s an easy thing to do,” she says. Over the years, St. Bakhita has focused on unique aspects that cannot be easily replicated, such as the caliber of its educators and the soft skills imparted to students.
In an environment brimming with alternative private education choices, Muthoki stresses the importance of cultivating trust with parents. She believes that trust is built when parents are assured of consistent, high-quality results that justify every shilling spent.
At the heart of Saint Bakhita’s strategy is a constant focus on educator development. Internal and external training keeps teachers up to date with contemporary teaching methods. This approach not only keeps teachers up to date with the latest teaching methods, but also helps establish a clear institutional culture, Muthoki emphasizes.
Adapting to the changing needs of today’s students, schools offer various extracurricular activities, for an additional fee, such as music, chess, swimming, football, fine arts, ballet, as well as coding and robotics.
For the foreseeable future, St. Bakhita intends to consolidate its offerings from Kindergarten through 9th grade. Muthoki currently has no aspirations to pursue higher or higher education.
“If you bite too much, you may not be able to swallow it,” she says. “We are giving ourselves time to lay good foundations and ensure the stability of our offer. »
Contact details of the founder of Saint Bakhita, Felista Muthoki Mutinda
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