By Margaretta wa Gacheru (written June 2012)
If Paul Onditi hadn’t followed his wife Christine and new born son James to Frankfurt, Germany in 2003, the Kenya-born entrepreneur and artist would undoubtedly be the biggest fresh fish supplier in Gaborone, Botswana today.
Familiarity with the fish business had been a ‘given’ for a young man from Kendu Bay on the banks of Lake Victoria. But building a fish business in Botswana was something else altogether.
“It began initially as an adventure,” said Onditi who left a rather tedious job in 2000, working in ‘technical records’ at CMC Aviation to make a tour of Southern Africa and then settle down for a time in Gaborone.
“I found tilapia was available in plenty in the Okavango Delta, so I bought a deep freezer and then I’d either dry, fry or sell the tilapia fresh to Zambians, Zimbabweans, and even Kenyans who were all doing business there,” said Onditi who enjoyed going personally to collect the fish.
But as much as he loved the fish business, Onditi loved his wife and new-born son even more, and since Christine was a medical student in Frankfurt, he felt his family deserved his first-hand support. Getting a visa wasn’t difficult, but renewing it posed a challenge.
“I had just a few days before my visa was to expire when a German friend came to our home and saw my paintings,” recalled Onditi who had been painting since primary school. “He’s the one who suggested I submit my portfolio to the Offenbach Academy of Art, which I did.”
He was admitted to the Academy straight away in 2003 and only left in 2010 after the global economic downturn, when life in Europe got more expensive than a fledgling artist with a family could afford.
It was upon return to Kenya that Onditi quickly got back into business, this time with his brother and cousin.
“We started a vehicle tracking company with my cousin’s financial backing,” he said.
Initially spending time marketing Aviarest Trackers Ltd., Onditi admits that marketing comes naturally to him as he gets along with most people. As such, today, the business is thriving and he says at least three-quarters of his company’s clients are Asians.
Pointing out that his business is not only about tracking cars, buses and lorries that have the potential for getting ‘lost’, Onditi says the business also keeps track of fuel.
“We have equipment that ensures petrol cannot be siphoned out of vehicles,” he adds.
Noting that the name of his company is unusual, Onditi admits there were aspects of his job working in aviation that were enjoyable. “We hope to get into the field of aviation eventually.”
But in the meantime, the public face of Paul Onditi is not so much as the managing director of Aviarest Trackers, but as an illustrious artist who’s been based at Kuona Trust since 2011, after he got his vehicle tracking business off the ground.
“I wanted to keep my art separate from my business,” says Onditi who feels strongly about not wanting to compromise the quality of his art by painting solely with a price tag in mind.
Yet there’s a lot about Onditi the entrepreneur that correlates with Onditi the artist. For both are adventurous, ambitious and innovative. Both are ready and willing to be experimental and try new things. And both have no fear of failure since the man is too busy moving forward to speculate about success.
As it turns out, Onditi’s uncompromising attitude in the arts is one factor that has enabled him to quickly become one of Kenya’s most exciting and original contemporary artists who has won accolades everywhere from the Manjano (Nairobi Provincial) Art Festival and to the annual ISK Art Fair. He’s also exhibited at Alliance Francaise, One Off Gallery, Village Market and even the Kiboko Bay Resort in Kisumu.
His recent commission from the Norwegian power generating firm, Skagerak Energi, to cover an entire wall of their newly constructed headquarters in Oslo cements Onditi’s status as not just an ‘up and coming’ Kenyan artist but as a professional Kenyan painter whose appeal is global.
Working with unconventional media such as caustic acid and salt (not simply acrylic and oil paints), his paintings are rarely to be found on primed canvas. Instead, he prefers painting on plastic sheets that he buys by the rem from almost-obsolete printing firms that he’s found on Nairobi’s back streets.
“When their supply dries up, I’ve found other sources in India,” says Onditi whose quirky, surrealistic style centers around one subject – a character he calls Smokey.
A solitary character who wanders in what Onditi describes as a realm between fantasy and reality, Smokey’s adventures seem to mirror the artist’s own ambitions to be both a pragmatic businessman and an imaginative artist whose mind transcends convention and is capable of creating art that is both quirky and cutting edge.