Felix Mutisya, a former night guard, and his wife Susan, a teacher, embarked on an ambitious journey 12 years ago to start a primary school. Together, they have successfully pioneered two schools in Mukuru kwa Njenga slums in Nairobi where they are educating over 600 students. Felix sat down with us to share his story.
What led you to setting up Merry Cliff School?
I started the school in 2006 with my wife Susan. We realised that there were no public schools around the Mukuru kwa Njenga slums where we lived. There was only one school which was about 3-4 kilometres away. Young children had a real challenge going there especially during the rainy season when the path to the school would flood and be almost impassable.
The vision for the school was Susan’s. I used to work as a guard and when she shared her dream with me, it seemed impossible. The idea was daunting and I felt it was too ambitious. Susan however was determined to see it through.
We decided to start small and opened a day-care with one child, our son. Susan decided to rent a single room to run the day-care. She would take our mattress every morning and go with it to the day-care and bring it back in the evenings. At the time I was earning Kshs. 6,000- 7,000 which I would use to take care of my family as well as pay the rent for the single room where the day-care was. We started from absolutely nothing. Things were really tough.
Seeing how she persisted and how determined she was, I wanted her to succeed. I began to own the vision. I gave it my all from then on. I used to leave work early in the morning everyday – at about 6:30am and would go straight to join Susan at the day-care. Imagine a man at a day-care! People were fascinated. I would take care of the children with Susan till about noon then go home to rest for a few hours before going to work in the evening and repeat the same cycle the next day. People from around the area gradually started bringing their children to us.
The following year, we introduced a baby class for three-year olds. It picked up very well. We hired someone to help us with our son as well as with the baby class.
In the third year, we began a nursery class. We hired a teacher and by then, we were able to pay rent and the teacher. Every year after that, we added a class.
It’s only in the last year or two that we started earning a profit from the school. Before that we were barely breaking even.
It’s our passion that has kept us going all these years. We aren’t doing this for the money. We are doing it to see the children succeed and to create a future for them.
What’s it like managing the school today?
Managing the school isn’t that difficult because my wife and I support each other. We have always stood together. We now have 625 students and two schools. We opened a second branch of the school in 2015 when we realised that there were some children who wouldn’t come to school during the rainy season. These children came from across the river. There’s a river that divides us, and when it rains, it swells and makes it difficult for them to cross over. When we learned this, we decided to open a branch on the other side of the river. There are 190 pupils there.
Where do you see the school in the next five years?
We want to build a permanent structure on our own land. We are currently shopping for a plot of land in Kitengela. We want to get about an acre. We need Kshs. 2 million and have managed to raise Kshs. 1 million so far. We hope to have bought the land by May/ June next year and then embark on building the school.
What about in 10 years?
We want to have a fully fledged high school by then.
Our vision is also to have parents paying regularly so that we’re able to build better facilities, sponsor needy bright students from the slums and give better education and a better future to all children in the area.
What are some of the challenges you face in the Kenyan context running your school?
Funding is the biggest challenge because of the area we are in. We serve people from the slums. These are people who are very poor. We have some children who come to school having not eaten any meals. We cannot turn them away. We end up feeding them from our own pockets and educate them even though their parents don’t pay fees.
Our fee is very little but still unaffordable to some. We close some terms with some students having not paid. Our hands are tied. We cannot always afford the best teachers, build the best facilities, and buy enough books because we do not always have enough income.
We get some donors willing to support us but the funding comes to an end.
We sometimes sponsor bright needy students ourselves. We are really burdened in terms of what we have to deal with.
What have you found to work best in keeping the school afloat/ profitable?
We have become very strict with fee payments. We found that some parents can afford to pay but are just not willing to pay because they do not see the value of education. Some of them bring their children to school because they just want the children out of their way at home. Some parents pulled out their children from our school because of this – and it turns out they even went to more expensive schools! This taught us a lesson. We realised that we just need to push parents to pay and show them the value of educating their children. We engage with the parents a lot.
How has the coaching programme made a difference to you and your school? What is the most significant change that you have brought to the school as a result of you going through coaching?
The programme had a lot of impact especially on how we manage the school. We used to hire teachers unsystematically. After going through the coaching, we now hire better and strategically. We have systems in place for how we hire. We interview, shortlist and pick the best.
Additionally, we used to collect funds and not properly account for them. We now make sure that all payments that are made into the school go straight to the bank. This makes it easier for us to track. We also pay our teachers through the bank and have a set date for paying them.
Another change has been that I am now also on the payroll. I never used to earn a salary but now, both Susan and I earn a salary just like the other employees. This has made a significant difference for us.
How have these changes been received by your staff?
They are very happy because now they feel like they are formally employed. They know when to expect their salary. They now focus more on teaching and put all their energy towards serving the students.
What has been your most satisfying moment in running the school?
Seeing the results from the students. They are doing really well. We’ve had some students get over 400 points (out of 500 points) in their KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) exams and be accepted to National Schools for their secondary education. When the students do well, we are motivated to keep doing more.
Encouraging parents to invest in their children’s education and pay fees regularly has enabled us to pay our teachers better and so they are giving us better quality.
We look forward to more of our graduates going to National Schools.
Our goal is to see all these children succeed and our main agenda is to have children pass their exams. If we achieve this, we are happy.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Getting to a place where I have peace of mind. In the past, I used to agonise a lot. It was a constant worry thinking of how I would pay rent, pay teachers and other expenses for the school as well as take care of my family. It was hectic.
At present, we are able to meet all our expenses and sometimes even have some funds left over to reinvest into the school.
We’ve waited over ten years to see what we see now. That, for me, is very rewarding.