Thelela's Principal, Julie Muriuki met Taita Ngetich in Washington DC at the 2016 U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) business plan winners' workshop for YALI Mandela Washington Fellows . Julie was working with USADF to facilitate a session at the workshop, and Taita was a grant winner representing one of 22 African countries and sectors ranging from agriculture and tech to finance and health. A few weeks ago, Taita shared his entrepreneurial journey with Thelela...
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I became interested in entrepreneurship in campus when I started being broke and couldn’t keep calling my mum for pocket money. I was keen to see people get economically empowered using simple available technologies which only needed to be taken to them for adoption.
How did you start your company?
I met my co-founder, Brian Bett a few years ago. He’s smart and hardworking, and loved the idea of creating smart greenhouses for small holder farmers. Together, we started experimenting on the different business models that would allow our technology to be adopted. After prototyping and testing our innovative product, we registered Illuminum Greenhouses.
Illuminum Greenhouses is an Agri-Tech startup that works to provide affordable drip irrigation kits and greenhouses equipped with solar powered sensors to small holder farmers across East Africa.
Securing startup capital is one of the hardest things about starting a business. How did your company get its initial funding?
We struggled to get money to scale our business, so we asked our clients to Pre-Pay eighty percent of the total cost of a greenhouse. This gave us enough capital to pay our suppliers and complete the setup, after which they paid the twenty percent balance. We have kept this approach to make sure we always have a positive cash flow as the business grows.
Over time, we have grown our customer base through referrals. We also entered our innovation into international competitions to get prize money. Our first success was at the GIST Tech-I program (Global Innovation through Science and Technology) which was organized and sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They awarded Illuminum Greenhouses USD 15,000 at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi. This money allowed us to reduce the pre-payment plan and allow customers to take up credit days.
What makes Illuminum Greenhouses so special that farmers should buy its products and not the competitions?
Illuminum Greenhouses offers a flexible payment plan which means a farmer can get a greenhouse after making a deposit of only fifty percent of the total cost. We also offer a buy-back option for our farmers’ produce, allowing them to focus on production of quality produce and we sort out the market end for them.
What has been the greatest business challenge for the company so far and what have you learned from it?
We compromised on quality in the beginning by hiring cheap technicians. One year into the business, we had spent over USD 12,000 on greenhouse repairs because of poor workmanship. Having a skilled and knowledgeable team is crucial. Brian and I have learned never to compromise on quality.
How has Illuminum Greenhouses built a growing customer base?
By constantly seeking feedback from our clients and adopting their recommendations. We change our product and services when clients raise certain concerns about them.
How does the company retain repeat customers and acquire new ones?
Seventy per cent of our sales come through referrals. Approximately twenty percent of our customers are obtained through our social media pages on Facebook and Twitter. The remaining fraction is derived from attending agricultural expos where we meet and talk with farmers.
What motivates you to keep going when the going gets tough?
Seeing how far we have come as a business despite the challenges we have faced – that keeps me going. Illuminum Greenhouses is now succeeding at leveraging technology to empower more and more farmers across East Africa.
Do you believe there is a pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
No. I believe everyone has in them the ability to grow a business. No matter what business one has, it succeeds when you have a happy customer. So do what it takes to please your customer, and make sure you have excellent customer service.
What would you define as success for Illuminum Greenhouses?
Individual growth for our farmers is what we strive to achieve. When we see a farmer take up one greenhouse and then come back later and take up two more that is success for us.
Fun Facts about Taita:
He plays the cello
He loves the culinary arts. He has even contemplated starting a cooking blog called Hobby-for-Wifey. Go for it Taita!
Favorite business book: Start-Up Nation: The story of Israel's Economic Miracle. By Dan Senor and Paul Singer.
Till next month,