Okwemba: How I founded my growing empire
A keen follower of the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) is no stranger to Charles Okwemba, a gifted midfielder, who shone with different clubs, especially with 12-time champions AFC Leopards.
His self-effacing personality notwithstanding, his longevity in the beautiful game and the impact he made in all the clubs he featured for before retiring in 2018 endeared him to many.
For 21 years, he played football at notable clubs, having attracted Shabana FC’s attention while still in High School in 1998 after stints at Busia’s Maroon and Super Eagles in the early 90s.
He would join Leopards in 2001 where he spent two years, before moving to Tusker FC where he served up to 2005.
Later in the year, he moved to Rwanda’s APR before switching to Rayon Sports. His football sojourn would then take him to Sports Club Villa in Uganda before making a bigger leap to Al Hilal of Oman in 2007, but returned to the local scene in 2008 with Leopards.
He returned to Al Hilal in 2009 but made his way back to KPL the year after, first for Posta Rangers, then to Rangers FC, AFC Leopards (four years), Ushuru, Sofapaka and finally Vihiga United where he retired in 2018.
Noteworthy, he was handed the armband in almost every club he played for, underlining his discipline and leadership in and out of the pitch.
But since calling it a career, Okwemba has been silently building what he calls a small business empire, believing only the sky can be the limit as far as expanding it is concerned.
With the financial challenges associated with the sport locally that have rendered many former stars helpless to a point of depending on well-wishers to survive, it is no mere achievement for a player to make quick strides in business soon after retirement.
In fact, it has been argued choosing a football career in Kenya is akin to embracing a life of struggle, especially if a player retires before attracting elite foreign leagues.
For example, as at the end of May 2020, the most decorated Kenyan football club Gor Mahia said it had not paid players for five consecutive months. The disheartening reality at Gor is justifiably just a tip of the iceberg, of more grave issues players have to go through in other clubs.
This is not new in Kenya’s football landscape but Okwemba, now a businessman in transport, housing and sports apparel says there is still hope to make the best out of the sport.
“It is possible to do something. Of course it is not easy, but it calls for a very high level of discipline. What most players do not tell you, besides the small salaries and inconsistency in payment, extravagance has hindered many from doing anything meaningful with their proceeds from the game,” said Okwemba, revealing how he built his house within the Nairobi Metropolitan while earning Sh 25,000.
He implores players, to see the positive side of their industry and make the best out of it, regardless of the difficulties.
“It is very important to understand your industry, so that you plan without wasting time. Football is a short career, with that in mind, there is no time to waste. That’s how I started saving and investing in other ventures outside football.
“Most clubs pay allowances which if well utilized, can run the day-to-day operations so that salary savings can be maximised,” advised Okwemba.
He recalls how he was ridiculed for buying a ‘small car’, his first when he returned from Oman in 2009. This he says, was something he was accustomed to, as teammates would label him a “fala,” (timid) whenever they would go for international matches, for choosing to remain indoors while the rest went out shopping using their allowances.
Still, if he had to shop, he says he always set aside some goodies to sell back home.
“The allure of living large to the expectation of the society has punished many players, who come to know the truth when it’s too late. Many people laughed at me when I bought a Peugeot 504 after my Oman stint, saying it was a shame for a big name of my cadre to ride such a small car. These included my fellow players, who I had to ignore. That is the time I purchased the piece of land where my house sits today, every two-bedroom unit costing Sh 2 million.”
He continued, “If you want an excuse for not doing a different thing in life, you will definitely find it. With little money, then you must plan and avoid extravagance if you are to do anything. I remember I stopped so many times when I was constructing my house, bit by bit it was until I finished.”
Part of his house is segregated for rentals, and is still expanding his estate. Amazingly, throughout his career, the highest he was paid was Sh 80,000 excluding bonuses.
Okwemba did not have to wait until he was off the field of play completely to venture into business.
“I started selling sportswear from the house, while still playing before I opened the first Sports House in Busia in 2016. The Nairobi one I started off this year, using my business associates who import from China, Malaysia, Oman among other countries,” explained Okwemba, who has been supplying clubs, schools, colleges and individuals.
That way, he has been able to expand his shop along Kangundo Road, Feroze in Mowlem where he says clients of all walks come for sporting gear.
Okwemba also has two taxis operating in Nairobi, and a truck for transportation of goods.
Former Mathare United and Gor Mahia forward Innocent Mutiso agrees saving with so little proceeds is not easy, but shows how possible it is.
“If a player thinks of big savings at a go, it may not be realistic in Kenya’s football. It may not be possible even to start a big business at a go. However, saving as low as Sh 1000 in SACCOS, with patience, can be the way to owning something someone can lean on after retirement,” opined Mutiso.
The former Kenya Footballers Welfare Association (KEFWA) chairman also says small businesses are good for low earning players to venture in, as they require low capital.
“You don’t have to own the biggest business in town simply because you are a renowned personality. If you can supply eggs somewhere after training and get something, why not? Out of the proceeds something bigger will follow. Don’t be too special for what brings you clean money. I have sometimes done Ubber transport job and it makes difference,” offered Mutiso, a TV football pundit too.
Geoffrey Kataka, who featured for Posta Rangers, AFC Leopards, Wazito FC among others, says side jobs are the secret to a decent life after football in Kenya.
“If a player is lucky to advance to developed countries’ leagues, they can concentrate on football alone. In Kenya, you must do something extra. I pity friends who come from the village, and with first salaries they want to move to big houses. That is the money to save,” he said, further advising footballers who can further their studies using proceeds from the game to invest in the direction.
Like Kataka and Mutiso, Okwemba underlines players who have admirable goodwill with the society for who they are on the pitch, which they should exploit when investing outside the sport.
His heart bleeds for the yesteryears stars who have nothing to show for the years they spent on the pitch, and wants the young generation in the sport to change the trend.
“Different scenarios have faced different generations. In every generation there are players who standout in both extremes. We however have enough lessons by now, so the young players in the game right now must do their best to avoid difficult times ahead. They must plan for life after football, save and invest wisely to create income away from football,” concluded Okwemba.
In his own words, football players in Kenyan leagues are not doomed for a gloomy life of lack in their retirement, but have a choice of changing the narrative that has persisted for long.
He draws from the wisdom of African literature doyen Chinua Achebe in his novel Things Fall Apart, “when Eneke the bird learnt man was shooting without missing, he learnt to fly without perching,” telling local players to overcome all the setbacks and invest for dignified lives.