Kenyan Graduate earns half a million doing art after quitting his office job


By Njeri Mbugua


When he was recruited to the Kenya Medical Research Institute after completing studies at Masinde Muliro University, McDonald Orangi, 25, felt cheated.

The self-taught artist and biotechnology graduate worked at the institute just a month before deciding to quit and follow his passion.

“When you are recruited, they keep saying they are giving you experience so you have more on your CV, but you find yourself doing donkey work for peanuts,” he said.

His father, who had helped him get the job at the institute, was not happy with the decision.

“He was against it at first but eventually, he began to accept that this is what I do,” he said.

He was offered a salary of Sh20,000 a month. He was juggling work in the daytime and his artwork at night, but he decided to leave after his first payday.

“I asked myself why wait a month to earn what I can make within eight hours. I saw that was a loss because I had to pay rent, groom well, send my mum some money and still be comfortable,” he said.

McDonald has always wanted to be an artist, a passion that has been with him since his younger days.

“I would see something and make a portrait or mural of it,” he said. “I kept nurturing the talent because I am passionate and believe in what I am doing.”

The artist sold his first portrait when he was in form two, after which an opportunity to study art in Italy arose.

The buyer, who was from Italy, also offered to take him abroad for further studies.

“After I sold my first portrait for Sh17,000, the guy handed me an iPhone 4 as a present,” he said.

His father turned down the offer, insisting he concentrate on school.

Disappointed, when he completed his final secondary examination, he took the results home and asked his father to choose a profession for him.

“He said alright, biotechnology is good and I should go for it, and I did just that,” he said. “When I meet people in the streets, I tell them I am a biotechnologist by profession and an artist by passion.”

A portrait on xenophobia
A portrait on xenophobia Image: COURTESY

McDonald draws hyperrealistic, pen and ordinary portraits, paintings and graffiti.

He uses his art to communicate issues that affect society, such as corruption, domestic violence and xenophobia.

“I get my inspiration from my surroundings, the less fortunate in society and my mother Agnes, who bought me my first commercial art materials,” he said.

Taking an average of eight hours on each portrait, he has done over 400 so far.

Weekly, he does three portraits for an average of Sh7,500, and he has a gross income of about Sh80,000 monthly.

“What takes time is framing because I custom-make them after purchasing the parts,” he said.

He charges Sh5,000 for an A4 portrait, Sh7,500 for A3 and Sh12,000 for A2.

In his second year of campus, he did a portrait that touched on poverty and child labour in Africa.

“It was a child raggedly dressed, carrying a baby on her back with her head facing down and the baby dozing off,” he said.

The post had an overwhelming response on social media, receiving over 5,000 likes and 200 shares within the first half-hour.

“I received a call from a non-profit organisation that deals with child safety and they wanted the portrait,” he said.

They organised a meeting at Kakamega Golf Hotel and negotiated on the price.

“I told the man I met that I had received an offer for the same portrait of Sh380,000 and the buyer was willing to take it immediately,” he said.

The organisation offered to pay him Sh420,000 for it.

“I had never touched such an amount of money in my life before,” he said.

In light of the recent xenophobia attacks in South Africa, he did a portrait of a woman shedding a tear and her braids forming the shape of the African map.

“When I posted it on social media, I received a call that someone wanted it,” he said. “It took me two hours to draw that portrait and I sold it for Sh25,000.”

Social media, in particular Facebook, has become his greatest market because of how cheap and accessible it is.

“The cost of buying a newspaper is Sh60, which is higher than buying bundles of Sh20,” he said.

He also uses celebrity pages to sell his work.

“I make portraits of celebrities and tag them on social media. When they repost the image, I gain followers and if they want to purchase, they reach out to me and I get paid,” he said.

A portrait on domestic violence and violence against women.
A portrait on domestic violence and violence against women. Image: COURTESY

In 2017, McDonald participated in an art competition and won the best artist award, coupled with a Sh30,000 cash prize.

“This August, I took part in Blaze under the creative arts category and won best artist in Western, winning Sh50,000,” he said.

However, despite having made significant strides, McDonald faces challenges, such as the cost of materials.

“A pencil pack goes for about Sh18,000 and a standard canvas will go for Sh1,800,” he said. “That means that each portrait you do needs to measure up so that your investment pays off.”

McDonald has been ripped off by clients who refuse to pay after receiving their works.

“I did a portrait of a top governor in Western. It took me about 16 hours and had a value of Sh50,000. I took my chances and he liked it and I was promised payment,” he said.

However, he claims efforts to reach the governor were unsuccessful, eventually being blocked from his line.

The artist also interacts with street children occasionally and trains prisoners at Kakamega prisons on how to make frames.

“I mentor them and coach them on art because I believe in giving back,” he said.

It was during his interactions with street children that he met his now five-year-old adopted son.

“As we speak, I decided to adopt a boy in 2016 when he was two years old. He is now five years old and learning,” he said.

In his third year, he also got a child with his then girlfriend. After numerous abortion threats, she delivered a baby girl and left it at his doorstep. He was preparing for a lecture when his dog came into the house barking.

“When I went out to check, I found a package with a very strong note in capital letters,” he said.

In part, the note said, “You want to be a father but I am not ready for this…”

Despite being frustrated, he decided to juggle school with fatherhood, raising his two children.

“I had to miss my lectures sometimes. Unfortunately, she [the daughter] passed on last year, at the age of three,” he said.

He had adopted the boy to grow up with his daughter and was satisfied and felt he had a complete family.

A hyperrealistic portrait of an elderly man
A hyperrealistic portrait of an elderly man Image: COURTESY

The artist plans to open an art gallery in Kakamega next month to expand his business and showcase more of his art.

“I have received numerous offers from art galleries but I want to do my own thing and exploit the gap in the market,” he said.

“I don’t want a manager, I want a partner who understands what I do. Some of them are simply after money and will use you to enrich themselves.”

He hopes to help solve the problem of unemployment by absorbing people to work for him and with him when his gallery is open.

“I am looking for people who are passionate and disciplined. As a youth, it is important to draw a line between business and pleasure,” he said.

A portrait on homosexuality Image: COURTESY

Reasons for ditching tie for informal employment

Personal satisfaction, uncertainty about the future, avoiding registration and taxation are some of the reasons people shift from the formal to the informal sector.

Radio Africa Group HR business partner Linda Saina said some people choose to move because they are unsure of their future at their workplace.

“If a person is not really sure about the longevity of their job, they may choose to go off into the informal sector, instead of staying unsure,” she said.

According to the World Bank, however, many people work in the informal sector out of necessity, not choice.

Monami Dasgupta, a research analyst at IFMR Finance Foundation, said there are two features of the informal sector that are well-recognised today.

“First, much of the informal economy contributes greatly to the formal economy,” she said.

“Secondly, women constitute the majority of precarious, underpaid, informal workers.”

A report by the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa showed Kenya had the highest informal sector employment among nine countries in 2015.

“Employment in the sector stands at 77.9 per cent of the total, ahead of Rwanda’s 73.4 per cent and Uganda’s 59.2 per cent,” read the report.

“In Kenya and Rwanda, three out of four workers are employed in the informal sector, a proportion that increases to over 80 per cent among women.”


The study attributes the high level of informal sector workers to the inability of the formal sector to absorb the high number of job seekers.

A paper on ‘Transitions between informal and formal employment’ states private wage workers exhibit the shortest employment durations, of about four years.

On the other hand, government workers exhibit the longest employment duration of about 15 years.

“The self-employed also have much longer job durations than private wage workers, ranging from eight years (for those who do not have employees, or who only hire family members) to 10 years (for those who hire non-family members),” read the paper.

Further, transitions from private wage employment to casual work are more common among those with lower levels of education.

However, transitions to self-employment are more common among those who have been in their jobs for longer.

Saina warns that instability and market appeal for the product may be some of the challenges faced during the transition.

“The business will be unstable for a while before it picks up the pace, and sometimes, the product being sold fails to appeal to that specific market,” she said.

However, if one is successful, they enjoy benefits such as dictating terms of their businesses, more money and personal branding.

“This also gives them the opportunity to be future employers and do what they enjoy,” she said.

Read the original article on The Star.

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