While in still in campus, he had a lucky break and was employed by KenGen as a procurement officer. But since the business and entrepreneurship bug had bitten him much earlier in life, he always dreamt of running his own business and being his own boss, something that led him to resign from formal employment to venture into business. He started with Shanels Hotel, which soon grew to Shanels Group with affiliates in Kisumu, Eldoret and Nairobi. But challenges would soon come his way, leading to the closure of Shanels Group. He never gave up but picked up the pieces, whatever was left of it, and set up Vacation Kenya, from where the idea for the Dingah mobile app was developed. Here’s the story of Steven Omolo (top), on his transition from employment to building the Dingah brand…
- Who is Steven Omolo?
Steven Omolo: I’m Steven Onyango Omolo. I’m 32 years turning 33 in August. I went to Nyahururu Elite School, got a clean ‘A’ grade then proceeded to Moi University as I’d always had a passion for business-related studies since a young age. Immediately after high school that’s before I could join college, I went into business, designing clothes and did quite good business with hotels, designing their uniforms and other stuff. That’s where my passion for hotels came from. I later joined campus to study Business Management, but before this, I’d also done a Diploma in IT course during the two-year gap before joining university. At university, I did my Bachelors in Business Management course and specialized in Marketing but majored in Purchasing, Supplies and Logistics management because I was also looking at the job market. While in campus, I’d registered for various accounting courses and got certifications and in my last year in campus, I joined Moi University School of Law for my second degree.
- How did you get into formal employment, which was your first job?
SO: While I was still in campus pursuing my second degree, I got employed at Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) as they were looking for someone who’d done Procurement, and had a bit of background in Law and I ended up being a suitable candidate. I therefore joined KenGen in 2010. I’d meanwhile graduated from Moi University in 2009 with my Business Management degree though I was still a student in the same institution studying Law, and later had to drop the studies because I was working in Nairobi while the campus was all the way in Eldoret. Immediately I joined KenGen, I decided to enroll for a Masters’ programme at Kenyatta University to study Strategic Management, later graduating in 2012.
I then managed to rise up the ranks as a Contracts and Tenders Officer, moved to Fuels and General Purchases, then Overseas Purchases. I generally got a feel of all areas related to procurement at KenGen.
But I later resigned in 2015 to pursue my own business interests, but you can remember that my business life had started way earlier before I got into formal employment. In 2007 for example, I’d organized an entertainment event in Eldoret town to launch Chamgei FM, a vernacular radio station within the Royal Media Services (RMS) stable. But I came back strongly into business when I got employed as I used my first salary to get a loan which I used to acquire a piece of land in Kisumu town where I put up a hotel, Shanels Restaurant. While in Kisumu, I got carjacked around 2013, an incident that made me wake up to the issue of insecurity in the town, leading me to set up Shanels Security. From Shanels Restaurant soon came a bakery called Shanels Bread and Distributors which supplied bread and pastries around Kisumu. All the investments were under Shanels Group.
The carjacking had however affected me psychologically, and I later decided to rent out the hotel to a third party, while shutting down the bakery leaving me with the security firm to take care of. But it became very tricky to manage the security firm from Nairobi (where I was still employed).
My passion for the hotel business had not died and I soon set up another hotel in Eldoret called Shanels Restaurant. Then I took up a 1-bedroom apartment, and transformed it into an office for my consultancy business called Shanel Beacon Consultancy. In addition to these, I also registered a construction company Shanels Group.
Omolo in his office during the interview
- When did you set up Vacation Kenya and what was the focus?
SO: When I resigned in 2015 after being transferred from Nairobi to Naivasha, I noticed that the operations of Shanels Group were in bad shape. So I decided to clean up everything at Shanels and set up a portal called Tender Adverts through which I could continue providing consultancy services on tenders and related issues.
At the same time, in 2015 is when I decided to set up Vacation Kenya to focus on the hotel business. Meaning that I was by this time running tow companies, Tender Adverts and Vacation Kenya, though the former was not very well in terms of business and revenues and I had to shut it down. The winding up of Tender Adverts meant that there’s nothing left from Shanels Group which now led me to concentrate on Vacation Kenya which deals with hotel bookings.
At Vacation Kenya, we started getting clients who could request for car hire services while making their hotel bookings, which meant making enquiries from friends and tour firms looking for car hire services. This made me realize that it would be prudent to develop an app through which car owners can subscribe their vehicles then I can later get them business from our hotel clients. That’s how Dingah came about, the first car hire app.
The current business goes by two things I have passion for – I love hotels and that’s why I built them and operated them, so I understand everything to do with hotels and hence Vacation Kenya so I can share that knowledge and provide value to hotels globally and logistics, which I pursued in campus, enables me to use my expertise gained from college to run a Logistics Company. My masters in Strategic Management enables me to apply the strategies to innovate and synchronize all this systems into a business model and my IT background enables me to be tech savvy and build all this apps. Therefore, knowledge is key to any industry one wishes to invest in.
- How has Vacation Kenya’s growth been like since you set it up? And how do the two – that is Vacation Kenya and Dingah – complement each other?
SO: Vacation Kenya is getting bigger and bigger by the day, even though at some point Dingah overtook it. We are in the process of launching a new website-cum-system plus a new stand-alone app for Vacation Kenya. We also have Dingah Vacation cards which will enable users to enjoy discounted rates at partner hotels and outlets.
Omolo during a partner expo at The Hub in Nairobi organised by Dingah
- We currently have a number of ride hailing apps in the market. How does the Dingah app compare to them and what makes it unique?
SO: You need to look at our strategy. Dingah rewards customers, for you to up your car now on the app, you only pay Kshs 1,000 per month and there’s no additional fee or commission charged. Meaning that once you’ve paid the monthly fee, the rest of the revenues generated is yours. It’s important to note that Vacation Kenya will offer free taxi services to clients who book their hotels and free taxi services to clients who book their flights, and all these trips will be channeled to Dingah-registered vehicles. This means that drivers and vehicle owners using the app will always be assured of business.
Another unique feature of Dingah is that it enables vehicle owners to become partners in the business and own a stake under the franchisee model. Already, we have hundreds of vehicles signed up with Dingah, and the next target is hotels then shops. And from Nairobi we’re now expanding to Kisumu then Eldoret in the Rift Valley before we set our sights in Central Kenya.
- What and where will you move to after expanding your services to cover all part so the country?
SO: We plan to go global and begin attracting partners and clients from other parts of the world.
- Since you set up and started focusing on Vacation Kenya and Dingah, what challenges have you encountered along the way and how have you addressed them?
SO: Our biggest weakness is creating awareness because when it comes to the products, we have no issues going by the feedback from clients and partners. I can confidently say that our system and products are the best – there’s no online system that has loyalty cards, there’s no online system that rewards people in points and there’s no loyalty programme that allows the clients to redeem the points in form of cash.
- Was the system developed using local expertise or you got people from outside the country to build it?
SO: The entire team is local and based here in Kenya. All our developers are here. We have a team of 10 permanent staff.
- What motivates you in both your professional and personal life?
SO: I like creating an impact, I like being different. That’s why all the business ventures I get involved in are informed by innovation. And I always like to be ahead of the competition by introducing something totally different from what the others have in the market. That’s what excites and pushes me. In life, I look up to my dad who I can say is a very wise man. In terms of picking lessons from other successful business people, let me just say that I’ve never really taken time to follow anybody because I’m my own person.