• Wednesday, 24 July 2024
Lilian Atho: How I Became CEO After Quitting Teaching For Groceries

Lilian Atho: How I Became CEO After Quitting Teaching For Groceries

 “I am a mother, wife, grandmother and a businesswoman. This is how Lilian Atho introduces herself.”

When this writer caught up with her, a story of a go-getter and a risk-taker unfolded.

Think of this, you quit your full-time and pensionable job to embark on a journey of selling groceries, Would you? This is how Atho got into the world of business in 2006.

The idea of getting into business was born out of a challenge they faced in acquiring food at the estate where she lived in Nairobi. It was a journey of miles for her and the neighbors to get groceries.

In that challenge, Atho saw an opportunity to start selling groceries on the side as she continued with her teaching job.

“You do not need a billion to start. Just start with whatever you have. I started with Sh5,000,” She explained.

After doing this for a year and seeing prospects of earning more, she called it quits on her teaching job and ventured full-time into her grocery business.

At that level, she had become a reliable supplier of groceries and other essentials to her estate. 

She had no idea what the end would be like but her inner determination kept her going.

Her family was shocked by her decision to quit her job. They could not understand why she would quit her job to venture into something they deemed unfit.

But Atho ignored the voices of naysayers and passionately pursued her business. She notes that her husband later understood her vision and eventually they became business partners.

After years of hard work and surmounting the odds that came with the grocery business, she made a major milestone in 2013 after transitioning from a company that was not registered in 2006 to three documented companies. 

Real Time Group Company Limited was her first registered company. She was doing catering, selling detergents and groceries.

Then came a breakthrough. She won a government tender to run a restaurant at the Medical Practitioners and Dentist Board. She then registered Real Time Restaurants and Outside Caterers.

The business was able to grow in leaps and bounds employing tens of people.

It was while running her business at the Medical Practitioners and Dentist Board that another company, Real Time Pharmaceuticals was born.

“This came to life when I was asked if I knew where the board could be getting medical supplies. I thought that was a business opportunity for me,” she said.

“I went through the process, registered a pharmaceutical company and got licenses from the Pharmacy and Poisons Board. I started importing the supplies from China among other countries. It’s through this that my two other companies Real Time Logistics and Real Time Consultancy came to life.”

One time in the course of her duties, while engaging a CEO of a government agency, another opportunity presented itself. “This CEO asked me if I knew how they could be getting air tickets quickly because the supplier they were dealing with was a bit slow” she said, and just like that she registered a travel company dubbed Real Time Tours and Travel.

But the journey has not been a bed of roses as one may imagine. In 2020, just like many other businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Because of lockdowns and restrictions, they lost businesses especially in the tourism sector and catering because restaurants and catering businesses were affected big time.

But the pandemic came as a blessing in disguise since her Real Time Pharmaceuticals business was booming and this kept the other companies afloat for close to two years.

Real Time Global has now opened several offices outside Kenya. They now operate in Juba South Sudan, South Africa, Dubai, and China. Kenya remains the head office.

They are based in all these countries for consultancies that cut across all of their business. 

“Everywhere I go people want to invest in Kenya. Our company is big in Texas in the United States because of logistics. People want good things from Kenya delivered to them and they also want to send things to their kin back in Kenya and Real Time Global Limited gets that covered,” she said.

She describes 2023 as a big year for her and her company. She scooped several awards.

Female Founders Initiative Middle East and Africa invited Atho who is now the organization’s East African Ambassador, to be one of the competitors for the 50 top over 50. This was among 50 women who were founders and leaders in businesses in Middle Eastern Africa. This was the first award she got.

 A couple of months later, she was named CEO of the year.

“It’s not been easy, people come to me consulting on things I am not so familiar with and I cannot tell them I don’t know because they want to emulate what I am doing. I have people to consult in such scenarios,” Lilian observes.

As the world gears towards International Women’s Day, Atho is focused on empowering and supporting women.

She is set to meet women from Tanzania, Rwanda, and Cairo among others countries.

Her biggest event in the coming months is to give a speech in Paris, France during this year’s International Women’s Day slated for March 8.

“I am honored to be a speaker and I’m so excited to do that.”

Lilian has a bigger percentage of her employees as female because she’s all about empowering women.

“I know women who have left employment to start their businesses because they have learned from me that you don’t need a billion to start something you can just start small,” she said.

Atho is married to Dr Tom Ogila who heads Real Time Pharmaceuticals and is the Chairman of the Real Time Group. Together they are blessed with three sons and a grandson. 

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