From Soldier to Successful Cameraman


Joining the armed forces is a very competitive exercise in Kenya , with many aspirants turning up for recruitment, yet finally, only a few are recruited countrywide.

Those who have tried to join the armed forces at one time or another without success, can bear witness for the agony they underwent  through, simply to be told to try the next time, if they would not have exceeded the mandatory age of 26 years.

However, this was not the case in early 1960s and 70s when the nation was young and employment opportunities were in abundance.

Currently, very few would imagine quitting the job at hand due to the uncertainty of succeeding in other ventures and more so photography that has become extremely competitive due to digital technology.

However, entrepreneurs are born and will always detect a gap in the market. In 1969, a youth from Karuri in Kiambu county quit the Kenya Navy to venture into photography a time when not many people were interested in taking pictures, unless during occasions such as weddings and perhaps family get-together parties.

The black and white pictures we often see nailed on the walls of our grandparents’ houses could perhaps have inspired 70-year-old Mugo Gikonyo popularly known as Pioneer and who has been in this business since 1970.

His passion for photography started while at Karuri intermediate school in Kiambu County. He recalls how he was on several occasions left to man a photo studio started by his elder brothers at Banana shopping centre.

“They taught me on how to operate the box camera that used film and also how to print pictures using a developing machine,” Pioneer told KNA Thursday.

While serving in the Kenya Navy, Pioneer would take pictures of fellow soldiers especially during tours outside countries such as Madagascar at a fee.

After resigning from the Navy, his brothers opened a photo studio in Chuka town known as Banana Hill Photographers adjacent to Mutegi Murango building on the Chuka-Kaanwa road and tasked him with running of the business.

“I employed five others among them Njeru Nkune Njurio and Kaguti who helped me at the studio,” said the entrepreneur.

At that time, he says couples from as far as Ciakariga ward in Tharaka sub county, would travel to his studio to take pictures shortly after exchanging vows and would have the same printed in black/white and placed on wooden frames depending on client’s preference.

He charged about Sh15 for 4 by 7 size picture and when on a wooden frame such as the A4 size, the cost was around Sh250. In case a client wanted colour pictures, the negative would be sent overseas for printing and took at least two months before they would be sent back as parcel.

Seven years later, with a starting capital of Sh15, 000 he started Chuka Pioneer Studios next to his brother’s with a small plastic chair where children sat, a high table where adults would place their hands while posing for pictures, a small developing machine and four plain background materials. He also had the wooden frames and a Kodak camera.

However, he closed his studio in 2003 after a local society that owned the premises hiked the monthly rent from Sh2, 500 to Sh5, 000.

“Business was not good at that time and I had no option than closing my studio and I immediately started mobile photography which I do to date,” Pioneer disclosed.

He has been approaching clients while holding sample pictures of his work and because he does not have a fixed operating place, he usually shares his contacts with the clients and they call him to pick their pictures within the agreed areas.

Amid few changes in technology among them digital cameras and android phones, the man rejoices that he still has solid and loyal clients he has served for more than 10 years.

Pioneer cited one Jenesio Mugambi, a 80-year-old who hails from Marima in Maara constituency and who has been his client since 2008.

“I recently took photos during his family get-together and got some Sh40, 000 from the work inclusive of the photos and framing,”

Pioneer earns at least Sh25, 000 per month from the business and notes that his priority is on the customer and that must ensure that he or she is satisfied even if it means incurring losses.

He has so far purchased two acres of land at Itugururu area valued at Sh2 million from the proceeds of his business and has rented out part of the land.

“The name Pioneer still enables me get clients amid stiff competition from upcoming photographers. Things have changed not like 20 years ago when people used to wait for us,” he said amid laughter.

On where he learns the posing styles from, Pioneer not only attends weddings, when tasked to do photography, besides being a keen observer of new things, while internet has also been a resourceful tool.

As an advice to seeking to venture into photography, he says, one must have a good camera for quality pictures, deliver them to clients promptly and avoid working on debts.

Gikonyo challenges school leavers to be aggressive and not only consider formal jobs, but also start their own businesses to create opportunities for others.

By David Mutwiri



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