Charles Gakuu tells his tale of small beginnings, resilience and focus that have seen what he founded single handedly, on a one room space, and no other employee but himself, evolve into a highly competitive centre of skills with unmatched standards
By Caroline Mwendwa
What we now see is a castle of an institute in the leafy suburbs of Karen, teaming with enthusiastic students from all over the continent. But what is the story behind this sleek institution that is the dream of every youth with an interest in the hospitality industry? This question can only be settled by Mr. Charles Gakuu the founder and director of Air Travel and Related Studies Centre. His account of growth from four students in a room to the current towering institute with alumnae serving in reputable global organisations the world over,is a tale of passion and relentless effort in delivering quality education.
“I spent so many years by the side of my grandfather, who worked in the tourism industry. He gave me opportunities to visit game reserves and parks and this sparked in me a deep interest in this industry,” explains Mr.Gakuu. This budding desire to be part of the hospitality industry had him secure an opportunity at Utalii College and later landed a job as a consultant at Express Travel, at the Coast. Mr.Gakuu taught at a nearby school while he consulted with Express Travel and while teaching, his interest in the tourism and hospitality industry could no longer be withheld. He quit his job to start a school to teach youths the intricates of this trade that had stolen his heart. It was then that he realised what he haboured was more than just fascination. He longed to mould thebest students in this industry. For him, it was more than business, it was a desire to make the best. Only such compulsion would drive someone to go beyond themselves giving selflessly to a goal they believe in. “I started with four students in one room, in Trishul Towers alongMurang’a Road (Nairobi) and near the noisy Globe Roundabout. I could arrive early enough to clean the room, prepare tea for thestudents,” he recounts. “I doubledup as the messenger, lecturer, accountant, name them,” he adds. At the time, the school only offered a course in travel operations. Mr Gakuu’s desire to see his students excel would move him to secure them employment with international airlines and this became a selling point for the institution.
Three years later, the school garnered 34 students and from there, more and more wereenrolling as the value of the education offered at the institution was undeniable. As more students came in, the need to introduce a course in languages was apparent and more lecturers were employed. Thesupport staff also increased and there was need to relocate to a more accommodative space. Today the school offers courses in: international airline cabin crew duties , airport operations, food production, hotel and catering management, languages,tour guiding and administration as well as travel and tourism.
They say once a seed has sprout it can only grow, and so did Air Travel and Related Studies Centre. By 1998, there was a total of 280 students. The institution was moved to Bazaar Plaza where it operated for seven years. Looking at the rate at which the population of the school was increasing, the management made a decision to build an establishment that would best serve its needs. “I had purchased a 6 acre piece of land in Karen on which I was planning to set up the college,” explains MrGakuu.Supplementing the savings he had made with a loan of Kshs.72 million and later Kshs. 200 million from Equity Bank, he managed to construct a complex at the land in Karen. “The first phase constituted of the administration block, classrooms, dispensary, staffrooms, lecture halls and restaurant. The second phase which is ongoing is hostels and teachers quarters,” explains Mr Gakuu. The establishment stands out in its location, and is one of the flagships of the institution as among other things, it serves the comfort and convenience of the students who are not shy to acknowledge its serenity. They moved there in the year 2015 and currently, the college has a population of 521 students.
Why it stands out
“There is something about having students come from all manner of residences, every morning to school that compromises the quality of education they get. Having to contend with traffic and public raucous makes them vulnerable especially to the situations they cannot control,” says Mr Gakuu elaborating why Air Travel and Related Studies Centre offers accommodation to students.
Another reason why the management believes that boarding is the right option is the social skills students acquire by living communally. “We try as much as possible to inculcate in the students social skills, so that they are not only academically equipped but also socially skilled.” The hostels are designed in such a way that one room hosts two students.
The institution has students from all over Africa: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi and the East African region. “50% of the students are Kenyan and the other 50% are foreign.” This is another aspect that makes it unique. This is because students have the opportunity to interact with other cultures and even learn more about countries different from their own.
Air Travel and Related Studies Centre is IATA certified. “Our examinations are international and that is what guarantees high standards of performance as opposed to institutions who offer in-house examinations.” He further explains that there is a policy that forbids private colleges to make examinations for their students but there are no measures put in place to ensure that it is followed, leaving loop holes for defiance. “For us, we are always certain that when our students sit an examination, all other students from the rest of the world pursuing similar courses are sitting the same examination. This body of examination sets the syllabus and reviews it for the institution to ensure that the courses offered are of high standards. It is the same body that marks and awards results to students, and therefore objectivity is maintained.
Unemployment is a challenge faced by most graduates in Kenya on account of lack of experience. At Air Travel and Related Studies Centre, students are assured of internship at reputable international airlines and five star hotels. “We have established partnerships with different airlines, where we send our students for internship. This not only gives them experience but also connections with potential employers immediately after school.” The students of this institutionare advantaged in terms of skill and experience due to the method of learning applied at the school. “Our training is usually hands on, where students are not limited to class room learning, we have a kitchen where they engage in practicals regularly for those studying food production and other students pursuing courses in other areas are taken to trips in reputable hotels, game parks and other sites, where they stay for a determined period of time to learn, interact and experience in a work setting.” Students learning travel and tourism related courses have a chance to interact with tourists, and game in their reserves, which makes it easier for them to secure such jobs after graduating. The college has vans that drop and pick them to these sites regularly.
Strategy to acquire the best
The stellar growth of the college’s population is partly due to its good qualities and the effort of the marketing team. Most students lack exposure of careers and are therefore misguided when it comes to choosing the career to pursue. The marketing staff of Air Travel and Related Studies Centre approaches students while they are still young. “We send representatives to schools where they do presentations of various courses and their prospects and talk about the institution informing students why choosing to enroll with us would be the best choice,” explains Mr Gakuu. Students from various schools also visit the college after which they take them for tours to the airport, five star hotels and game reserves, to open their minds to various career opportunities.
Air Travel and Related Studies Centre also offers partial scholarships to needy students to help them achieve their goals.
Students at Air Travel and Related Sudies Centre have numerous opportunities at their disposal. This year the college launched an exchange programme with its peers abroad where its students are having an opportunity to study beyond our borders for a specific period of time. This culture helps expose students to different approaches of study, environment and therefore they are able to learn new things and come to share them with students back in school. Lecturers are also given the same opportunity.
What does it take?
With over twenty years of training, AT&RSC has built sufficient structures and systems. However, as Mr Gakuu explains, it takes more than just structures and systems. For example, despite being the director, passion for training professionals in this field takes him to the classroom to teach. “Apart from passion, dedication, consistency and integrity are key,” he says.
Another aspect that has seen this institution thrive is working with the industry. “Without close ties with players in the industry, attaching students would be difficult,” he explains. AT&SC has partnerships with five star hotels such as: The Sarova Stanely, Sarova Mara, White Sands Beach Hotel and Sankara Hotel. With such partnerships, it is easy to take students to trips and even help them secure employment.
Also, linkage with different airlines helps the institution secure employment opportunities immediately after graduation. “A half of our students get jobs with Middle East airlines, where the salary is standardised, and the package comes with house allowance, meals and paid for trips.”
For an institution that is completely unaided and whose capital comes from the school fees, finances can be quite a difficult math to solve, but as the director assures, it is definitely worthwhile. He also observes that parents are in most cases not well guided when choosing institutions for their children. “Parents need to know that the most important thing is the quality of education the child acquires. Most parents compare schools in terms of the amount of fees to be paid, and never the value gotten from the school, which should be the first factor to consider,” laments Mr Gakuu.
Another hurdle which affects the institution is the marred reputation of other institutions in the industry. “Once an institution has triggered doubts of the quality of education offered, people will naturally approach institutions of that category with prejudice and we are not immune to such.” He however adds that the quality of skill the alumnae of AT&RSC exhibit, makes it easier to rate the institutionfavorurably.
Air Travel and Related Studies Centre has set its standards high enough to compete with the international institutions. “We aspire to be on a level ground with our peers in the rest of the world.”
Secondly, the college intends to collaborate fully with airlines, hotels and all other players in the industry to ensure that no one has a challenge in securing employment after graduation.
His word on entrepreneurship
As a successful entrepreneur, Mr Gakuuchallenges aspiring entrepreneurs to carry through their dream no matter the startup hurdles. “Most people give up easily, then the dream is shattered. Every entrepreneur goes through challenges, the only way to success is believing in the vision,” he advises further stating that there is no better time to start a business, it’s the effort put to actualise an idea that matters.
Apart from Air Travel and Related Studies Centre, Mr Gakuu has other ventures such as agribusiness and a tour firm. “I have a 53 acre piece of land in Laikipia and from it, we get most of the produce used to prepare meals at the institution.”
The dean of students, Alex Omuka who has been with the institution for 10 years attests to the uniqueness of the institution. “Air Travel and Related Studies Centre gives value beyond the classroom education in very many ways. Our students are guaranteed hands on mode of study through the different facilities we offer. We also have extracurricular activities such as sports and beauty pageant competitions,” says Mr Omuka. The school is also embarking on a plan to revamp the alumnae club to enhance networking.
Most students at ATRSC are driven into their choice careers by passion. Lewis Mutwiri Kirima, a 21 years old lad is a student at this institution pursuing Food Production. Having grown in a family where cooking is not just a duty, but a pleasurable art, Mutwiri fell in love with cooking, “I wanted to study a course that would enable me pursue a career in something I love doing and that is how I landed at ATRSC,” he says. Mutwiri learnt about this institution he has come to be so proud of through the school website. “I love our school because of the exposure it gives us. We have opportunities to visit sites such as Mt Kilimanjaro, and get attached in high-end hotels.
Josephine Githumbi a student pursuing International Cabin Crew at ATRSC, extols the school’s provisions and opportunities to students. “We have the privilege of learning several foreign languages including Spanish, German, Arabic and French.”
Umutoni Djena, a Rwandese is a student of Travel and Tourism and would like to start her own company on completing her course. “Here at Air Travel and Related Studies Centre, we have students from all over the continent and this makes learning interesting as diverse cultures come together,” she says.
The staff at the school is as friendly as the students. Patrick Bada, one of the lecturers teaching Languages at the school says that foreign languages are slowly becoming a basic component of skill acquisition and very soon, they will be as relevant as computer skills.