When we introspect on Kenyan football, seldom do we encounter a story of a man so audacious and visionary as the journey of Mr Solomon Alubala and the formation of Wazito Football Club.
Solo, as he is famously known, is the last-born son in a family of 11 children, and played football for Musingu High School in the late 1990s. Upon completion of his O-Levels, Utalii FC, who had won the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) in the year 1997, arrived to sign him.
His father, however, turned down the deal and instead had him pursue his academic studies at the University of Nairobi. According to the dad, and rightly so if you ask me, football was an uncertain future and he was later proved right. Utalii FC was folded due to financial constraints and poor management of Utalii College, which was the parent institution that was running the football club, joining an endless list of Kenyan soccer clubs like Rivatex FC, Oserian FC, Mumias Sugar FC and Feisal FC that folded due to lack of professional management in their administration.
At Musingu High School, Solo featured as a striker under the tutelage of Mr Stanley Avudiku and Coach Khaweli Shivachi. He participated in the famous Coca Cola under 17 national championships that were hosted in Western Province in 1998. In the tournament, a host of later would be Kenyan internationals like Evans Amwoka, Bernard Mwalala and Jamal Mohamed featured.
In the year 2002, Solo graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of Nairobi. Later in 2004, he joined the banking sector. Here, he would work at some of the country’s top financial institutions like the NIC Bank, Middle East Bank, Chase and Co-op Banks. Alubala rose in his banking career to be appointed head of treasury at National Bank of Kenya, a position he held until 2016.
In 2018, the regulator, Capital Markets Authority (CMA) fined him Sh108m for allegations that he amongst others conspired to defraud the institution of some Sh1b. In the same year, he was reprieved as the High Court of Kenya through Judge Pauline Nyamweya suspended the sentence.
“There is need to preserve the status quo until the legality of [CMA’s] proceedings and the decision is established,” Nyamweya’s ruling read in part.
Yet, this former Musingu High School alumnus would always find time to go back to his alma mater, UON, to play football. Buoyed by the fact that in the year 2000, he led his university side to winning the Kenya University Sports Association, (KUSA), football trophy.
When he went back to study for his Masters in Economics at the same institution, the love to play football kept growing amongst him and his peers. At this point, the UON team was content with playing in the lower Nairobi leagues with no ambition to advance to the higher tier leagues. At some point, the University Administration even withdrew financial support to the team in the league.
The desire to play in the higher leagues and have a professionally run team drove him to the formation of Wazito FC. This was around 2009/2010. Wazito continued training and having friendly games with respected KPL teams like AFC Leopards, Mathare, Thika United, Posta and KRA. The team had a mixture of students and alumni, and they posted good results as a number of its previous players would admit; and from this it was clear that they had a very good team.
The name Wazito, slang for heavyweight, was coined from the fact that students used to refer to those who were working amongst the teammates as Wazito. This is because they would give financial tokens to the college students for sustenance. Thus, they were viewed as ‘saviors’ or ‘wazito’. The team combined the graduates still seeking employment, the employed and UON students then.
Solo would later patent and register the name Wazito FC. In 2011, they registered for the GoTV Cup and travelled to play Nationwide FC in Kakamega. A game they would narrowly lose by a last-minute solitary goal. These little steps would be the continuation of a visionary journey of a club that continues to make all the right noises with regards to football administration and ambition in Kenya according to some observers of the local game.
His frequent global trips courtesy of his professional banking career opened his eyes to how other nations were developing their football. For instance, while on such a trip in South Africa, he was inspired by how Kaizer Chiefs Football Club conducted their football business. He went to a kit manufacturer, KAPA shop in South Africa to seek a jersey partnership but would be turned away by their terms of business. KAPA wanted him to make a minimum order of 5,000 jerseys with a single jersey being sold for Sh2, 500.
Looking at the local market, he knew that if he was to factor in his operational costs and sell the KAPA branded jerseys to Wazito FC fans in Kenya then the price would be around Sh4, 000 and quite prohibitive in the local market infiltrated with many counterfeits that retail as cheap as Sh1 000.
Yet, another trip to a Puma shop in Italy would open his eyes big time. Germany had won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, beating Argentina by a solitary goal courtesy of Mario Goetze. Two player jerseys were the top sales in the sports shops he visited in Italy. The first was Andrea Pirlo’s and the other was Mario Balotelli’s jersey. It baffled him that the Italians were scrambling for the Balotelli jersey and that the Puma shop was effectively capitalizing on this.
Compared to Kenya, local clubs however successful they had been on the pitch or however massive their following was amongst communities, never maximized on merchandise sales. None had or even has a merchandise shop for fans to make purchases. This would inspire him and Wazito FC to view football from a business model perspective and not just a leisure game that could not earn returns.
In his quest to professionalize the club, Solo sought help from fellow professionals. In 2016, he formed a non-executive board. This consisted of a lawyer, Marketer, PR consultant, banker and Accountants. “This is the team that helped me put my vision on paper,” he offers.
Mr. Alubala roped in Francis Ouna in 2016 as Wazito FC coach, a man he describes as visionary and with brains that energized his strategic plans for the club. Solo would write the Wazito FC Blueprint at around that time. Local soccer giants like Tusker FC, AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia seemed to be engaged in rocking chair football activities, just to participate in the league, win it but not grow as clubs from a commercial perspective or even seek to conquer football in either the region or continent.
The club had meanwhile established a social media presence back in 2014 and they became vigorous about it. Solo opened a shop along Ngong Road to sell club merchandise in 2018. Sadly, this did not do well, an admission he makes and points to the fact that he lacked operational expertise and that led to its natural death. But Wazito FC replicas continued to be sold through his network of friends; and both players and fans donned them to create more visibility nationwide.
To attract sponsorship, Wazito FC sent out close to 50 proposals, including several corporates in the country. Yet, the dark history of Kenyan football; one of violence by fans during games kept these corporates away. In his proposal was both a valuation and (5-10) year plan on how Wazito FC would win the local league and move on to even conquer continental football. It was ambitious and also included the club’s valuation whose estimates this writer was not able to come by.
He agrees that a number of corporates loved the proposal, but the reputational risk of Kenyan football put them off. In 2017, Wazito FC came close to tying up 2 deals. One was with a senior Sportpesa director who was sold to the idea of buying the club but it never materialized. The other was with a Japanese Company that also owns a Belgian top flight side Saint Etienne. Former Kenyan international, Pascal Ochieng had introduced him to them. Sadly, the latter went to sponsor a club in Morocco.
At some point, a German investor approached a top ranking FKF official to liaise on the prospect to invest in the club but again the interest quickly faded away. Then, Solo would receive a call from a Dubai based consultant named Fred Kuria. This would start a conversation with Ricardo Badoer in Feb 2018 that would let the club fall in the hands of the cigar smoking, controversial and football-loving Dubai based investor.
Solomon Alubala is an illustration of what vision in our local football can achieve. Wazito FC has grown from a club that traces its roots to the UON and where players kicked the ball with no income to become a soccer club that is one of the best managed clubs in the country in terms of player welfare. They even have plans to build their own stadium.
Wazito FC was promoted to the Kenyan Premier League in the 2017/2018 season but was relegated in the same season. Down in the National Super League, it posted impressive results winning the second-tier league season in 2018/2019. That earned her promotion back to the 2019/20 KPL season. The club is in the 13th position currently, although the league was ended by FKF a move that was objected to by KPL, the league owners, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Off field, the club owns an ultra-modern team bus and a merchandise shop at NexGen Mall, 1st floor, along Mombasa Road.
Currently owned by Ricardo Badoer under his Badoer Investment Limited as the majority shareholder; Wazito FC players are amongst some of the best paid in the country with impressive bonuses and employment terms that have medical insurance, a positive step in a country where football management and player welfare have often had little to write home about.
One thing though, the club has recorded one of the highest coaches and player turnover in the last two seasons. They may have conquered the NSL, but the KPL is proving a tougher challenge and it will be interesting to see how they navigate through in their second season.
Whatever will ever come out of Wazito FC, one thing is certain; the vision, determination and pursuit to make it a professional club under Mr Alubala will always be a case study for others to look into with regards to our local game.