54HOMES is an online marketplace for travel accommodation which is on every mouth of Ugandans. We bring you Mr. Stephen Okhutu, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Bookablehood Ltd, the company that owns 54HOMES brand:
Who is Stephen Okhutu? What is your childhood life?
I was born in a rural village of Katovu in Mukono district to a housewife and a roadside cleaner employed with PIDA to slash around highways.
I used to walk 6 km everyday to Kasawo public primary school which was the best school in the sub county at that time. I survived hard times in a very miraculous way during the great famine, the tribal wars and the bush wars.
How far did you go with education?
I am a victim of corruption in Uganda’s education system which rendered me unemployable.
After the death of my father when I was in senior 5, the responsibility of paying my school fees was left on me. I started to work as a mansion during school holidays in order to pay my school dues. As a result I repeated a class due to financial challenges. When the final high school exams results came out, I was admitted on government scholarship to study a diploma in secondary education from Kabale National teachers College.
I thought the college would send my admission letter through my former school (as we used to hear on radio) so I delayed to pick it. It was my brother who advised me to visit the ministry of education offices to check the admission list. I went and found my name shortlisted.
We were to report to school within two weeks failure of which would lead to losing the admission. I visited the college a week before the deadline but I didn’t find my name shortlisted. I realized later that the then principle had sold my admission to a private student.
After a year, I applied for a diploma in law at the Law Development Centre in Kampala. By then all students who did this course became magistrates, prosecutors, state attorneys or law clerks. In our last term however, our lecturer told us about how our course was phased out and that there is a possibility of us not getting jobs anywhere. Unfortunately we were not even allowed to start private jobs with it. I tried joining police as a cadet but still the diploma was not valued because it was a one year course. That’s when I realized that government cheated me.
I hear government still offers this course in its law school!
I could not even apply for a degree with it because I sat for supplementary exams at the Law Development Centre. The fact that I was paying for my tuition, I missed two papers during the final exams. By policy, even a student who fail a paper or who misses a paper was automatically awarded a pass diploma! I didn’t fail any paper at LDC. Infact I was among the best performing students. Making it a total rip off! I didn’t fail any paper at LDC. Infact I was among the best performing students.
The education system rendered me completely unemployable. This however was my greatest opportunity to concentrate on building companies.
How did you end up in business?
In 2006, after losing my first born daughter to malaria, I realized that I was living a life of disguised unemployment. My daughter died because I could not afford 3500/- ( apx 1 USD) for her malaria treatment.
By then I was a radio field reporter but financial challenges were all over me. I remember that month I received 10,000/= (apx 4 USD)as my monthly pay! That was the month my child died. That was the month I promised never to be employed again.
I started a webhosting business that year.
What can’t you forget in your business life?
I failed a family 2 times. It’s the sacrifice I made to be rich.
After my daughter died, things didn’t return back to normal. My then wife started disrespecting me. She at one time told me that she would rather respect a dog with money than a poor husband. A few years later she left me. I continued doing business. After 6 years I married again. This was also the period when I started declining in business because I was doing a lot of projects and in the process lost focus.
By 2017, business had failed leaving me with a lot of debts. My wife gave me two options; to either find a job or loose her. I refused to go back into employment and she left me for another man. That was the sacrifice I had to make.
What is the biggest lesson that you have leant in business?
Business is like a journey on the sea. It gives three options to solving your challenges; you either go back or drop into the deep water or continue moving. If you go back you will face the same old problems, (Like employment and poverty), if you drop into water (give up in life) you will die but if you continue moving you will meet success. I have leant to stay focused to my vision no matter the challenge.
How did you come up with the idea of building 54HOMES?
In 2018, I wanted to restart my life. In the process I had to stop everything that I was doing by then including my popular radio show on Dunamis Radio and went to the village in order to have a special time alone. I was looking for that one thing on which I can concentrate my resources. It was a kind of self discovery.
My friends were not happy with it though; some even offered me high paying jobs, just to help me. But I refused. I wanted to continue with the life of an entrepreneur.
While there, I started receiving calls from people who were looking for cheap lodges. At first I didn’t give it attention but as several people continued to contact me, I decided to give it time. Still that year, a corporate friend asked me for a place where he can hold his company’s sales retreat. I found him a good place in Mukono. Then I started thinking about how I can use the internet to solve the problem. To my surprise, lodge owners were so welcoming and happy with the idea. Then I knew I was in business again!
What is 54HOMES and what does it do?
54HOMES is an online platform where travelers can find cheap lodges allover Africa. Our intention is to create more access to the remote Africa by bringing online all lodges that charge between 20,000/= to 100,000/= ($7- $30) so long as they meet the minimum requirement of safety, hygiene and offering self-contained rooms.
We were among the 6 companies in East Africa admitted into the Travel Tech for Good accelerator program of 2020 carried out by enpact, TUI with support from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.