How Brexit is affecting Kenya’s role in the global flower market, with Chris Kulei from Sian Roses


This week we’re speaking with a big player in one of Kenya’s largest industries: flower farming.

Horticulture is one of the biggest sectors in the country’s economy, and 60% of all the world’s roses are grown in Kenya.

This is for a number of reasons, which I discuss with Director of Sian Roses, Chris Kulei.

Kenya has a number of natural features such as high altitude, and access to water which, along with low labour costs means they can produce roses for a tenth of the price of elsewhere such as Holland and Israel.

Before our interview, Chris took me on a tour of their 45 hectare farm just out of Nairobi going from the initial grafting of new roses, through the various stages before being picked, packed and put on a pallet for export.

You can see some pictures of this by heading to the show notes on

The overarching concept with growing flowers is that it’s a volume game.

The global market, which is centered in Holland, is incredibly efficient and means margins for flowers are very thin, and millions of stems are traded every day.

As such, companies like Sian Roses need big capex and efficiency savings to stay competitive. Indeed, they currently focus just on roses in order to maintain a high quality.

We discuss the many players in the global supply chain, how very often they’ll get to name a new rose, trends in the industry towards sustainability, and how Brexit is causing all kinds of confusion at the auction house.

There’s so much interesting stuff here I really hope you enjoy.


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Pictures from the farm

Man grafting a rose
Grafting a new rose
The hard grafters
Seedlings being grown
In the greenhouse 1
In the greenhouse 2
Roses being bunched up
Roses getting gathered up
Packing in the background

Demonstration of the flower auction (video)


BBC article about the Kenyan flower industry featuring Sian Roses: The World’s Biggest Flower Market

Flora Holland:






Sam:                                      00:00:07               Intro.

Sam:                                      00:02:47               Cool. So we’re here today with Chris from Sian roses. Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris:                                     00:02:51               Thank you.

Sam:                                      00:02:52               So to get us started, can you tell us a bit about you and a bit about Sian roses?

Chris:                                     00:02:56               Okay. My name is Chris Kulei. I’m the director of a Sian roses, a group, a group of flower farms. So we’re three farms at the moment. We’re currently building our fourth totaling 120 hectares of greenhouses in Kenya. So the oldest farm is in Nakuru, which was started in 94. It’s called Agri-flora and is at an altitude of 2,150 meters. Then the next farm is Equator flowers in Eldoret, which is 2200 meters and was started in 97. And we are currently in our newest well our newest farm for now, which is Maasai flowers in kitengela, just outside Nairobi at 1,650 meters and is only 10 years old.

Sam:                                      00:03:52               Alright.

Chris:                                     00:03:53               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:03:53               And you just do roses.

Chris:                                     00:03:55               We just do roses at the moment. We’re in the final stages of getting the licenses to start our fourth farm, which will also be in Eldoret, which will initially be non roses. So summer flowers, carnations just products that work that a lot of our customers buy at the moment, but we’ll also appreciate to buy from us directly.

Sam:                                      00:04:19               Fantastic. Cool. We’ll sort of get into sort of the, the mechanics of how the, how the business works and things, but I was wondering could you just sort of paint a bit of a picture of flower farming in Kenya? I’ve sort of, it’s, it seems to be quite big industry here, could you help to sort of give an idea of the scope or the size of sort of…

Chris:                                     00:04:37               Sure. So flower farming in Kenya really boomed, has been booming from since the 90s. There were some early farmers before that, like the Assyrians of the world in Naivasha and so on. But since the 90s, the flower, the flower industry, especially Rose growing industry in Kenya is really boomed. I think we’re close to 3000 hectares in total. Don’t quote me on that, but I think we’re close to that if not slightly above. And we are the world’s biggest exporters of roses.

Sam:                                      00:05:11               How many, how many hectares of roses are done?

Chris:                                     00:05:16               I couldn’t say off the top of my head, but the Kenya it’s got the point that in Europe, if you’re buying a Rose thenbut 60% I think are now Kenyan roses,

Sam:                                      00:05:28               Wow.

Chris:                                     00:05:28               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:05:31               Where would they, where would they have been grown before? Or is this, it is all new supply?

Chris:                                     00:05:35               So it was, a lot of it was grown in Europe and in Columbia as well. And Ecuador. And still there’s a lot of Colombian and Ecuadorian product. And Israel of course. But,since the Kenyan, because of the mechanics and the costs of growing in Kenya, we are, we have perfect conditions, altitude, lots of sunshine, good amounts of water. We can grow roses and cheap labor. We can grow roses at about a 10th of the cost per square foot of Europe.

Sam:                                      00:06:09               Alright. So there are like optimal conditions to grow a rose and places like Holland, Israel, they’re having to artificially create those conditions or like have to, you know, having to pay to create those conditions to grow them. And that’s adding to the cost.

Chris:                                     00:06:26               Exactly. Yeah. So in a, if you go to a glass house, so we grow under plastic with steel frame greenhouses. In Europe they grow in glass houses, especially in Northern Europe, like in the Netherlands. They, they developed mass, mass production of roses and flowers, but they have to pump carbon dioxide into the greenhouse, into the glass houses. Now they have to heat them and they have to add light and light them for to add extra hours. They do produce a very high quality product. And it’s priced that way, but fortunately in Kenya, we don’t have to do more. We don’t have to do any of that.

Sam:                                      00:07:08               Okay. So Kenya has some conditions which make it conducive to, to growing roses? Was there any particular thing that happened in the 90s, which meant suddenly this is going to happen?

Chris:                                     00:07:21               If it was a lot of the, well so Sian itself, the story started because my father was on a state visit to Israel and was on a countryside tour and saw the greenhouses in the, in the desert.

Sam:                                      00:07:36               Israel historically has been.

Chris:                                     00:07:37               A very big grower.

Sam:                                      00:07:38               Okay.

Chris:                                     00:07:39               And when he saw that they were able to grow in the desert, that was his and a few of his old friends, their inspiration. And what happened was back in the early nineties and late eighties the regulations around the industry were nonexistent because the industry was in its infancy. Just kind of like how M-Pesa has become a runaway success. It grew, you know, under the radar and to what it has become without regulation, without too much. And it was the private sector that developed it. So it was the same for the flower industry. There were very, very little to no taxes on most of the inputs and most of the most of the inputs and mostly,equipment and,things you needed to import to build the greenhouses, the pump systems and everything. And that, you know, in that, in that space, everyone was able to grow quite quickly. And also there was a lot of funding,from Europe itself. Our farm in a cruise had a French development funding,to start it at the beginning.

Sam:                                      00:08:48               I see. This is sort of development funding as opposed to further down the supply chain?

Chris:                                     00:08:55               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:08:56               So it’s not like the buyers were financing the, the Dutch government, the French government were saying this is a good industry to develop in Kenya.

Chris:                                     00:09:05               Yeah,

Sam:                                      00:09:06               Therefore, we’ll fund it.

Chris:                                     00:09:07               It was quite attractive because it brings massive acute employment. We’re now, we direct, we employ about 2000 people as Sian. And across the industry. It’s a couple hundred thousand are directly employed in the flower business. And then obviously beyond that, the, there are employed by suppliers. It, I think it has to, It’s close to half a million people.

Sam:                                      00:09:30               Yep.

Chris:                                     00:09:30               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:09:31               Got it. Okay. Of course that sort of really set, set it off. And then how does the market look? Are there sort of several big players?

Chris:                                     00:09:40               Yeah, so we had Sian at 120 hectors are in the top 10, but we’re about, we’re no where the biggest are a couple of hundred hectares, I think two to 300 hectares.

Sam:                                      00:09:51               Is that how you grade the size of a flower farm, a flower company is by the number of factors?

Chris:                                     00:09:57               It’s usually that hectors and a greenhouse.

Sam:                                      00:09:59               Okay. So there are, cause it seems like there might be quite high barriers to entry.

Sam:                                      00:10:07               The barriers to entry. Obviously it’s a very capital intensive business. I mean there are a lot of summer flowers are not, are not, a lot of non roses are still grown outside and are still very profitable. But for the rose business, which we many have concentrated, it is quite a barrier to entry because of the expense of putting up these greenhouses, you could be charged quite a bit per square meter to have a turnkey, which is the plastic frame and the irrigation system. Fortunately there are quite a few companies in Kenya that do supply them and give very good credit terms. But to be reached the level to be able to get those credit terms is not always that easy.

Chris:                                     00:10:46               I see. Okay. So if you were a new, let’s say I wanted to go and start a flower farm and that’s your, what would you say is the minimum number of hectares I’d need in order for it to be worthwhile?

Chris:                                     00:11:01               For roses, if you, if you, it depends obviously on new business model as well. If you are going to be an auction farm, I mean there are very successful farms as small as five to 10 hectares. We Have just been growing gradually throughout the years. That’s why we reached 120 hectares. And fortunately we also had land that was available with water. Cause you know, first the first question is do you have land? Second question is, do you have a water? Third question is, do you have power? There’s one or two farms that do work with solar and, and generators and on hydro. But it’s still a very important key factor when you see how much you have to invest in cool chain and pumping.

Sam:                                      00:11:47               Okay. Yeah. So what would, I know this is almost a, could be a random number, but are talking sort of like tens of thousands dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions of dollars?

Chris:                                     00:11:58               So hundreds of thousands dollars to start, to start a small farm, millions of dollars for anything above like 10 to, earning above about 10 to 15 hectors of greenhouses, you’re talking millions of dollars.

Sam:                                      00:12:11               Okay. And basically roses, it, it needs to be in greenhouses

Chris:                                     00:12:14               Generally. There are some varieties. The interesting thing about roses is it, there’s no one size fits all, even in greenhouses. There still roses that prefer to be in soil rather than hydroponics. They’re roses that can grow and do very well outside. And a lot of the European market, especially in the summer is outdoor grown, outdoors roses from places like Germany, England that will only come in in the summer.

Sam:                                      00:12:43               I see. Okay. Got it. Cool. Okay. So that’s kind of like a good, I feel like I’ve got quite a good grasp now of sort of the, the industry should be saying sort of how it’s all been set up. So we’ve, before doing this interview, we’ve gone on a, on a sort of tour through through the farm and started off from the very first when we’ve got the starting growing new roses and you know, all the way through them being, I’m gonna forget all the words now, propagated, gosh is like school test isn’t it, propagated and then the being began to be to be grown. And then there was bending just sort of in part to give a quick overview summary of like what, what it takes and sort of some of the times that it takes in terms of like growing a rose.

Chris:                                     00:13:31               Okay. So we, at Maasai and in Sian, we have our own propagation unit. So not all farms do this. So what happens is, we try varieties, we receive, we go to the breeders. So the way the rose, the rose industry works there are very quite a, quite a few of these companies are quite old, over a hundred years old. And they have been developing and breeding roses, which means they have been, when you see a red Rose, it’s, there are hundreds of red roses as you mentioned. And when we’re walking around just like wine, there’s hundreds of great different varieties. And so what you’ll do is we go to the breeder and we see a rose that we kind of like the look of. So we’ll say it’s a nice yellow when we’re in our farms and in our product line we need a strong yellow. So take book can I make an agreement to trial them? We’ll bring plants to our farm, they send us them in potter plants, we’ll plant we’ll grow them in in our farm under different conditions for about six months to a year. And then at that point we’ll make an agreement with the breeder who has the IP rights, intellectual property rights for that product to grow a larger area. And we’d work in square meters. So usually minimum of a quarter, a quarter, Hector. So 2,500 square meters to, if we really love it, then we could technically go even 10. And what we will then do is we cut out a big part of the cost of starting to grow a variety by propagating ourselves, which means we take the, the roses that we have in the ground and from each and we harvest the stems and from each stem, we’ll get four cuttings and those four cuttings we graft to indigenous to wild grown roses, which are also cleaned and disease free. And we’ll produce our own, as you said, as you said, an apartment propagation unit. We’ll produce our own plants.

Sam:                                      00:15:30               So this is basically like your fusing the two,

Chris:                                     00:15:34               We’re fusing the two.

Sam:                                      00:15:35               And so, and so you’ll get like a small sample from these breeders. So the first thing which I knew to get my head around was there’s not just one type of rose. There are like hundreds of types of roses and there’s always new roses being, being developed from new colors and new times, et cetera. So you’ll get these samples, let’s call them from the breeders and you’ll say, okay, this is a good sample. In order for us to do this at scale, we need to dedicate this, you know, the space in the greenhouse to grow it. But we need to find a reliable way to grow those roses ourself. And this value is like, it’s not that you just take the sample and you put it in the ground and you grow up, you actually fuse it with best wild rose saying, which is basically gives it, it’s kind of like giving good . Is that right? Yeah,

Chris:                                     00:16:25               It’s stuck. Yeah. It’s basically putting, you know, it’s taking the head of, of a genius and putting it on the body of an athlete to find yourself the perfect person kind of thing. So we are the, the, the head of the row, the, we produce, we want to produce as many positive or many stems from the flower at the best possible cost because this industry is very tight margins. The reason why we’re 120 hectors and other players are much bigger is because it’s, it’s a matter of scale. And so if you can manage your costs from the beginning by propagating yourself, which we actually originally started because this farm was built very quickly. Maasai was, went from from zero to 20 hectors in two years and then from 20 hectors to 42, almost 40 after the fourth year. So we realized we’d have to spend so much on plants and we do, we do an average of about eight plants per square meter. And on 400,000 square meters, you’re talking about a huge number of plants and each plant is costing about 30 30 cents or so 30 Euro cents or so. So it saved us a lot of money by actually building this unit ourself. And then as a result, and once we finished, we are consistent. We’re continuously replanting throughout the group, an average of 5% to 10% each year will be replanting. So we have a constant need for plants, whether we’re planting the same variety. Again, we still need new fresh plants or for planting new varieties. We still need fresh plants. So our propagation unit is generally has a flow. And as you saw, we also doing other products like macadamia paw paw papaya avocado. We’re doing tree seedlings for our farms. It’s, it’s basically a unit that can and can also do vegetables. So I’ve, I’ve taken an old greenhouse and old test greenhouse, put it in my garden I’m hoping to grow my own vegetables and not embarrass myself as a farmer by being not able to grow

Chris:                                     00:18:40               Green fingers. Okay, cool. So this, this propagation unit, It makes it sound quite sort of like a, I don’t know, the CIA or something. Propagation unit. Right? So they, you’ve got this infrastructure now where you can take, you know, take, take the samples, graft it to the to the wild. Where’d you get the root-stock? So the root-stock, there are a few suppliers here in Kenya who also supply because they have to give your whole, they supply clean root-stock. Cause obviously that’s key to avoid having disease in the plant because the worst that you can have is a plant that’s producing 10 to 15% less throughout the life of it, throughout its life because it was the, it was dirty root-stock in the first place. So there’s a few guys in Naivasha that we can go to, to get supplies. They develop it themselves.

Sam:                                      00:19:30               Okay. So they developed this clean,

Chris:                                     00:19:33               Rich stock.

Sam:                                      00:19:33               You said? Yeah. Okay. Got it. Okay. So you’ve got that in, then you do the, the fuse thing. So you fuse the two together and then, then they’re basically on the road to grow.

Chris:                                     00:19:45               Yeah. So they keep them in the perfect conditions with different levels of humidity. They grow them in a, in a very nutritious growth media. That’s sterile. That’s, sorry. That’s clean.

Sam:                                      00:19:59               And media we said is like the, the environment. It’s like the soil, the catch all term for like the soil.

Chris:                                     00:20:05               Yeah. The, what they, what they planted in and the media, the growth media with a bit of fertilizer and coconut.

Sam:                                      00:20:15               Any, any reason why it’s coconut?

Chris:                                     00:20:17               They said well the, what the team says, I’m not a technical expert, but what the team say is it’s that it’s, it’s clean, they’ve cleaned it themselves, but also it doesn’t it’s inert so it won’t carry any disease. And then on top of that, it drains well cause it was thing for the rich, the root structure when they’re trying to establish is just stagnant water.

Sam:                                      00:20:43               Yeah. Yeah. And how do they, how does the team know that? Do they…

Chris:                                     00:20:49               A lot of knowledge. A lot of knowledge for the industry and for these kinds of techniques has come from Israel, from developed, from techniques developed in Israel, in the Netherlands. And they’ve come and we have a, we had, we’ve always had a consultant, independent consultant that works with the farm. So we had a guy who worked with us for a very long time as we built this farm. And we recently changed to a French, the gentleman who is very, very good. And that’s where we get all this knowledge. And one of the great things about the industry is that I’m able to visit quite a lot of farms and quite a lot of people able to visit us. So you learn quite a lot. So other people have propagation units, other people who are growing the same varieties, other people who are in the same market. It’s, it’s generally an, it’s generally quite a transparent thing cause we can go visit each other.

Sam:                                      00:21:43               Why’d you think that is? What I mean, what, why are people quite open?

Chris:                                     00:21:49               Maybe cause we’re all in this together. There’s Kenyan farmers, Kenyan growers that, there’s also as the flower industry is dominated by the auction and the auction houses in the Netherlands for Holland. And that’s a very it’s a very open and transparent system. So we pack our flowers, send them to the auction, especially when we first started, everything went there. And we had and we as members of the auction and sellers were able to access and watch the prices every day and that everybody in the industry who sells in the auction has that same access. So as we were, as this morning as you saw, we could see our product, we could see our neighboring farms product, we can see the Ethiopian product and also the local grown product. And through that you can find that, you can find out number one, who else is growing the same as you. And number two are prices you’re getting. And unless they are, there are obviously some people that it’s not always easy to go to their farms, but generally it’s a phone call to say, can I come see you? We’re doing the, say we’re doing the same product half the time, they’ll be open to it.

Sam:                                      00:23:04               Okay.

Chris:                                     00:23:04               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:23:04               Nice. So we’ve got the, the propagation. So they are then in the small form, they’re in the little pot. Next what happens?

Chris:                                     00:23:17               Next they go to hardening. So after they’ve been in these high humidity conditions for about 30 days to 40 days, they’ll go into hardening, which is now it’s almost like a normal greenhouse conditions. So there’s good airflow, it’s cooler, it, the area’s not heated and there’s no, and we’re not fogging to keep humidity high. So from that point you, we assess the plants and then the ones which are the strongest are sent out to be planted.

Sam:                                      00:23:48               How do you determine how strong the plant is?

Chris:                                     00:23:50               So they look at the conditions of the plant, the, the shoot that’s come up from the, from the grafting, they look at the leaves. And from that they can, the team on the ground are able to say that with good confidence that this will, has a highhigh potential of success. What do you practice?

Sam:                                      00:24:12               What’s your call rates? Normally.

Chris:                                     00:24:13               90% is the 90% plus needs to get through, I mean, ideally we would want 99%, but these are living things we have to have. You know, if a guy comes in and hasn’t really cleaned his hands properly, then…

Sam:                                      00:24:28               There’s a chance that something got in and can, yeah. So they get it, I mean once they, once they’re, once they’re through this sort of probation period. So I confused and say propagation and probation. Once they’re through this sort of like hardening phase then they go to…

Chris:                                     00:24:45               They go out to the field to get planted. So the…

Sam:                                      00:24:48               We say the field, this is still under a green…

Chris:                                     00:24:50               Still greenhouse and to the greenhouses, they’ll plant them either in soil, which we have about 60% on this farm, but most of the farm is most our other farms are hydroponics. So hydroponics is a closed water system where the plants are, the roses are planted in it’s called pump in pumice, knowing volcanic stone, which is, again which is cleaned, it’s steamed and then it’s cleaned before starting…

Sam:                                      00:25:23               The steam is sort of. The ash is steamed.

Chris:                                     00:25:26               Yeah. We have to steam. We have here, we have big machines in our other farms which can steam and make sure the, cause, so we can recycle it as well. So then we’ll put, they’re put in beds, raised beds with a, and the beds are filled with the stones, the very tiny like stones and volcanic stones. And then the plants are planted and they are completely fed and they can totally depend on hydroponics to grow. So the fertilizers, everything that they need comes through the water and the irrigation system and it’s a closed system. So whatever excess water is piped through to reservoirs and then it’s recycled throughout the system.

Sam:                                      00:26:10               Is that the ideal, is that what you kind of want to be getting to where everything’s always used or is that, is there downsides to it?

Chris:                                     00:26:17               It depends on the farm. Some farms like will go to and they have a, like our farm in Nakuru, there are a lot of other farms around them and our neighboring farms don’t have any hydroponics at all. They plant in soil because at the end of the day a rose and a plant is supposed to go in soil and some, and you know, there’s no one size fits all. We went hydroponics to be honest, I’m not 100% sure why but it seems to, it gives you more control, slightly more control over the product, but you are really dependent on having stable supply of water and clean water as well.

Sam:                                      00:26:56               So if, for example, the, there was some event, which means that the water, there’s no water, would that basically just break the, close to break the system?

Chris:                                     00:27:06               It would break the hydroponic system. They need water to be watered every single day. For pants in soil, especially very healthy soils with good biological content and water retention can hold up, a plant can last a few days, a week. Some guys say can last 10 days with very little to no water.

Sam:                                      00:27:26               Okay.

Chris:                                     00:27:27               But you know, there’s a balance of does hydroponics produce more? But do you have a healthier plant? It’s a very big debate between different farms.

Sam:                                      00:27:37               Are there like some quite vocal people in the industry who are like very pro hydroponics.

Chris:                                     00:27:42               Yeah, definitely.

Sam:                                      00:27:44               Are there some heated debates.

Chris:                                     00:27:47               Debates of the industry are a bit more interesting than hydroponics versus soil planting. But there is a debate. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:27:52               All right. What are some of the more interesting debates?

Chris:                                     00:27:55               Traits of varieties chemical uses and things like that? Also to be fair at the moment, the industry has a lot of external issues that are affected, such as, you know, labor pay rates certification certification issues, well, not issues, but the amount of certification that’s needed. Those are the, the real things that worry us.

Sam:                                      00:28:23               Yeah.

Chris:                                     00:28:23               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:28:23               Okay. Well perhaps could come on a little bit later. Okay, so actually one thing on the different types of roses I was going to, you can just name a rose. If you, if you’ve got a new, s new type or you, you’re able to like make a new variety or, or if you get a, you tell me.

Chris:                                     00:28:43               Yes. Yeah. So the way it works with the trials is they are numbers. They, each breeder will give them numbers.

Sam:                                      00:28:50               One, two, three, four, five.

Chris:                                     00:28:51               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:28:51               And the next one, one, two, three, four,

Chris:                                     00:28:52               It’s usually a number. Yeah. And so on. So they can kind of track it, obviously track it themselves. Because to name it there’s a whole trademark process and a registration process that they have to go through. So you don’t really do that until you know, you have a flower that will succeed or will grow. I will be X, we’ll be grown by the growers, which is us. So sometimes with some breeders, if we, and we constantly have trials in each farm, we have about a Hector of about 10,000 square meters worth of trials at any given time. This farm actually has a bit more and through that process we get to identify which flowers we like and what we want to grow. If it’s still a number, some breeders will, you can contact them. Say, we really like this one. Does it have a name? If they say it doesn’t have a name, some breeders will be open to you coming up with a name with them.

Sam:                                      00:29:45               What are some names that you’ve come up with?

Chris:                                     00:29:47               So it’s quite soppy, but we’ve named two varieties recently after the granddaughters of our, the youngest granddaughters of the two chairman of the group and my father and my uncle. Yeah. So Nelani which is named after my brother’s daughter and Olivia, which is named after my cousin’s daughter. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:30:08               We’re gonna say anytime. Does that mean anywhere in the world? People would have an Olivia?

Chris:                                     00:30:14               Eventually if we’re hoping Olivia and Nelani succeed the way the other words do, we hope, number one, that number one, that it will succeed. Are we everywhere? And another good thing about it potentially is that they are semi exclusive to our farms. So it will also be guaranteed that it’s from our farm.

Sam:                                      00:30:32               Wow. Yeah. How does exclusivity work? So do you basically get the rights to?

Chris:                                     00:30:36               We agree with the breeder that we have wrote first writer refusal. So when a flower is, it looks like it’s going to be a successful flower, the breeder will often have a release policy. They don’t just flood the market because then they don’t they number one, they may do well themselves because they’ll get lots of royalty payments cause we pay for the rights to produce their flowers. But it won’t always be great for the grower because if there’s a huge amount of that product the price I will get, I can’t get as good a price as I’d hope because the buyers know there’s 10 other farms that are growing it. So what the breeders often do is they come up with a release policy and they work with the, those that have trials and those that are interested initially to come to agreement on the areas that they will say they’re only going to release 20,000 square meters of this product per year. And the breeders actually do monitor this by visiting farms and counting the number of plants and working out how much each farm is growing. We all have to be honest about that. And so we at Sian group will work with the breeder and say, we really love this flower. We’d like to take half of your total production and with the rights, take half your total production for the next three years.

Sam:                                      00:31:58               Okay.

Chris:                                     00:31:59               And then the rest and whoever else has the plants and has the variety already in soil already in growing, we’ll also say whether or not they agree to it, whether or not they want to do it. And then you make a deal between you as farms and with the breeder.

Sam:                                      00:32:15               Right. And it talking about the royalties. So do you, is there like an upfront cost to say, right, we’re going to buy the rights for this for a few years,

Chris:                                     00:32:26               Few years? I mean, when you do pick a variety, it’s a 7 to 10 year bet. So the breeders worked. So the life of the plant is about 7 to 10 years and not all breeders work exactly the same way. Some ask you to pay per plant and it’s offered, it’s a cost that you pay upon planting.

Sam:                                      00:32:49               Okay.

Chris:                                     00:32:50               Some breeders will ask you to pay per square meter, square meters, per Hector and some breeders will actually tell you to pay per square per Hector on a subscription basis. So it’s it’s again, with, as with varieties, no one size fits all, we have to go and sit down and make the agreements with them because you can’t, you can’t I can’t say enough about how hard it is and how much work these guys put into getting to a stable like red Rose. The amount of time and the amount of the amount of time and effort it takes for them to get to a point where we as growers come in is incredible. And if you ever have the opportunity to visit a breeder, it’s incredible cause like they we, there’s like a variety called Athena, which is a very popular white. It’s grown in large areas pretty much at all farms, but it, the original flower is I think it’s in the Netherlands, no, it might be in Germany, but it’s, the original flower and the original plant is just one or two that looked quite looked like they had the potential to be a strong rose that they, the breeder developed I think 10 or 15 years ago.

Sam:                                      00:34:04               Okay.

Chris:                                     00:34:05               And now there’s, if you go on the auctions, if you go to most places in Europe, a lot of the roses you’ll see, white roses you’ll see are Athena.

Sam:                                      00:34:13               Really? From this Adam and Eve.

Chris:                                     00:34:15               Yeah. From this mother plants. That is, that is, yeah.

Sam:                                      00:34:17               No way, okay. So then you did that and then so the commerciality side of it is you will are you paying up front for that or is it like are you paying each.

Chris:                                     00:34:27               It’s, it depends on the breeder, some, some do ask for up front, some will take it off in stages over the course of a year, so that they also give us the opportunity. The great thing is most breeders or most all breeders work very well with the growers. So they give very good terms, we’ll have time of the course of a year, course, of a eight, six, 18 months to pay the royalty

Sam:                                      00:34:55               And your thought process here is if I’m the first one to have the Olivia Rose, I can then charge a premium or I can then get a high price for it, which will more than pay off.

Chris:                                     00:35:07               Exactly. Exactly. Because from plant, from planting to harvest is can’t remember. I think it’s a couple of, it’s two months, I think two to three months. And if you’re paying your royalties over the course of the next year, you’re at least getting your income from that product. By, getting some income from the product by the time you’re having to pay off, pay for the right to grow.

Sam:                                      00:35:32               Got it. Okay. So roses are in the, they’re in the ground, they’re growing, and you said that they last for about seven years, so each time, say how often are they picked?

Chris:                                     00:35:45               Yeah, so the, it’s called a flush cycle.

Sam:                                      00:35:49               Flush.

Chris:                                     00:35:50               Flush cycle. And basically some flowers at this farm, every 33 days we’ll harvest, we’ll harvest the stem from the, from the plant. But then on other varieties and depending on altitude, it can go up to 60 to 80 days. But we work on an average as a group of about 45, I think 45 to 50 days. A flush cycle. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:36:15               And then more or less the quality is consistent?

Chris:                                     00:36:18               More quality is as consistent as possible because our buyers and the auction, especially, they appreciate and will, you’ll get a premium on the auction for being consistent, for having the same number of stems Monday to Friday for sale. Okay. And the same quality.

Sam:                                      00:36:40               They get picked. And then, then what happens?

Chris:                                     00:36:45               So they get picked and then in the field they’ll do a bit of a grading where they’ll be put into buckets with water, with a feed, with a post-harvest solution that…

Sam:                                      00:36:57               That’s like some water with some chemicals?

Chris:                                     00:37:00               Exactly. Water with A bit of chemicals so that they can make sure the plants, the rows and what it drinks will be clean to extend the life of the flower. So they get put into buckets and, I know we have a system here where we have a CRM where we record the harvest.

Sam:                                      00:37:22               Things like customer relationship management system, like a database system that tracks.

Chris:                                     00:37:28               That tracks as much as possible so that we, and then they get collected by tractors and are brought to our cold store because the cold, the cold chain is vital to the, the life the vast life of the rose. The sooner you get it from the field into the cold room and where the cold rooms, they sit for a minimum of six to eight hours to bring the temperature down. The sooner you bring it to the cold rooms, the better, the, the better for the plant.

Sam:                                      00:37:59               This is like next to these greenhouses?

Chris:                                     00:38:02               There’s, it’s a central location on the farm generally. So this farm was developed because it’s a newer farm, was developed with the pack house and the cold rooms at the center. So not, it’s not too far. But in one of our other farms, I think it’s one and a half kilometers to, it’s, it’s a, it’s a central location. And because this, because there’s so much coming in, it has to get in here as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible.

Sam:                                      00:38:30               Good.

Chris:                                     00:38:30               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:38:31               And then, so it’s in the cold in the cold room and then packed up?

Chris:                                     00:38:36               So in the cold room and then it gets, after it’s down to the right temperature. So below five degrees it goes into theinto the packing, into pack house, which is obviously part of the same building. And what they do there is we have our orders, what’s going to the auction and we know what’s going to our direct customers. So at that point they get graded and sorted they’re put into into sleeves. If they’re going to auction. We have branded sleeves.

Sam:                                      00:39:07               Sleeves are like cellophane?

Chris:                                     00:39:08               Cellophane sleeves. We have branded sleeves in the auction because we need people to see that it’s a Sian product. And then for our direct customers, they often have their own requests, whether it’s their own sleeve whether it’s just a transparent one. We put in it’s called SFK, which is a paper corrugated paper protection around the heads and then they’re packed into boxes, cardboard boxes, which again are branded of course, because we need everyone to know that the flowers are from Kenya and from us. And then they’re pileed in and then they’re taken to the export cold store where they’re kept until they’re ready to be loaded onto refrigerator trucks, which then drive them to Nairobi airport. Cause all, the whole flower industry is almost all roses are air freighted. Okay. Well from Kenya or as air freight.

Sam:                                      00:40:01               Yeah.

Chris:                                     00:40:01               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:40:02               Cool. Okay. So that kind of gets us there. So there’s, so basically, we, what we’ve spoken about there is going from a little bit of a little chopped up bit of rose all the way through to propagation, hardening, growing, et cetera. And then you say that, and that sort of can take 45 days. Is it 45 days from half?

Chris:                                     00:40:21               45 to 50, I think.

Sam:                                      00:40:23               Yeah.

Chris:                                     00:40:23               I think so. Like.

Sam:                                      00:40:25               Okay. It’s that sort of, and then repeat, repeat, repeat. Okay. that’s all a bit about where the flowers go then. So you sort of mentioned the two destinations at the auction or this direct to customers. Can we perhaps talk about the auction first. Okay. Yeah. So yeah, so in Holland,

Chris:                                     00:40:46               Yeah. So the auction is actually really fascinating and I really encourage anybody to try, if they ever in a Schiphole, to try have some time to go check out flora Holland, which is next door. And is the reason why Schiphole is part of the reason why Schiphole is such a huge airport. So flora, Holland the auction in, next to Schiphole was called…

Sam:                                      00:41:11               Flora Holland is a company…

Chris:                                     00:41:12               Flora Holland is a…

Sam:                                      00:41:13               This international flower.

Chris:                                     00:41:15               They are the world’s biggest flower company and they, it’s a corporative. We’re, as Sian roses, are a member, we as sellers and they are the world’s biggest flower company. And also the, their auction, which is one of three big ones they own in, in Holland, their auction next to Schiphol airport is called Aalsmeer and is one of the biggest buildings in the world, I think. But the Boeing factory and maybe one other are only the only two buildings bigger in, in terms of floor space. Yeah. And so our flowers go there. By air for the auction every night and are unpacked, put in buckets with water. And then, traditionally it used to be an auction where people would physically sit in these big halls depending on varieties of flowers. There’s, I think, I can’t remember how many clocks, there’s so many. They’re called auction clocks and those, the rose rooms, they have 2 at Aalsmeer, they have one in Naaldwijk and one in Rijnsburg, which are the three main auctions. And the buyers would sit in these big halls and would they would be put on trolleys and they would see the flowers. They’d go inspect them before buying, before the auction opened, and then they would go and buy them according to the price that they feel that they’re worth.

Sam:                                      00:42:34               Yeah.

Chris:                                     00:42:35               And it’s a, it’s a Dutch auction so it starts high and goes low.

Sam:                                      00:42:39               Yeah. This is to me why, let’s get my head around because we watched it on, so historically it was a room. Everyone goes and sits in a room and they say, right, we’re now bringing on Sian roses, Sian Olivia roses, we’ve got 200 buckets to sell. He wants to buy them. Now that’s all electronic.

Chris:                                     00:42:58               It’s all digital.

Sam:                                      00:42:59               And so we, we were, we were sat in your office and we were just on a web browser watching a live stream event happening. It’s fascinating that we said that. So each one can, and it’s really quick.

Chris:                                     00:43:12               I’ts very very fast

Sam:                                      00:43:14               Now my understanding of an auction is there’s a painting or something or something you want to buy and someone says he will give me a hundred, 150, 140 or 150, 200, 220, going once, going twice sold. This one’s different. So how does this one work?

Chris:                                     00:43:34               So this works the opposite direction. It starts high and goes low and you and the buyers basically have they have a registration number and a button that they get to press at the point where they feel it’s worth. So it usually starts at Euro or something or Euro and will come back down and this price per STEM, and It’ll come down to the point that they, and it’s a very interesting cause they’re making that calculation of what the demand is for this product, for this, for this color, for that specific Rose. If someone’s really asking about specific rose, what they are willing to pay and what they’re willing, what they think they will get from their customer and what they usually do. And at that point they’ll press the button. And if someone presses it very early, then the, then the, everybody starts buying from that point and it can still drop a bit. But if it’s a lot, a lot of product you have to get in to get what you need because you have someone in mind in generally they have someone in mind generally for that rose.

Sam:                                      00:44:34               And so the idea is it’s not one person buying everything. So let’s say there are a hundred buckets, you know, someone might buy 30 buckets at 35 cents, the next person buys 25 buckets.

Chris:                                     00:44:46               Usually the same 35 cents. And then generally if it’s that now it will generally go all at 35 cents.

Sam:                                      00:44:53               Okay.

Chris:                                     00:44:54               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:44:54               But it might be some where it says still have 20 left. They might get bought 28 cents.

Chris:                                     00:44:57               Yeah, it might still drop down a bit more.

Sam:                                      00:45:00               Okay.

Chris:                                     00:45:00               And there’s an auctioneer who’s announcing each product as it comes up on the clock?

Sam:                                      00:45:05               And the, this honesty was taking like five seconds before they’re gone.

Chris:                                     00:45:10               Thousands. I mean hundreds of thousands stems are sold an hour, like per day. It’s millions of stems. In the peak periods they’ll be handling millions and millions of stems, of roses a day.

Sam:                                      00:45:23               And who’s buying?

Chris:                                     00:45:25               So the buyers are generally wholesalers and major wholesalers and anything from a mom and pop operation with, with a small, a couple of shops to, or a truck. Cause the whole industry was based on the flying Dutchman concept where the the buyers would be these traders, and they would buy on the auction, they would fill up their truck and then they’d drive to England, they’d drive to Paris, they’d drive to other parts of Germany. And then they would go and open up their truck and say, this is what I’ve got, sell out the what’s on the truck and then head back and do it all again.

Sam:                                      00:46:07               Yeah.

Chris:                                     00:46:07               And they do that as a constant cycle. But now it’s mainly large buyers, very big wholesalers that will supply supermarket chains, will supply florist chains, will supply everything from will supply everything from someone with just a single store to someone with 50 stores to a hundred stores. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:46:25               And so your, so that buyer at the auction, let’s say he pays 30 cents, 30 Euro cents, what’s their mark up? What are they, what will they then sell it to the florist and then what would the florist sell to the customer? Obviously there are some barriers.

Chris:                                     00:46:42               I wouldn’t want to speculate because in case any are listening, but I mean they always have to make their margin and they do make a good margin because they take a lot of the,as a middleman, they take a lot of the stress and a lot of the strain of getting the supply in. Cause also a lot of them will still take them to their own facilities and add value. So they’ll, they’ll buy roses from Kenya. They’ll buy carnations from Turkey or Spain or co, and then they’ll buy orange ones from another, from Italy. They’ll buy, you know, they’ll buy tons of flowers from all parts of the world that are on these clocks in,on these, in these auctions and in the, around the Netherlands. And they will bring them to their facilities. They’ll put them into bouquets for them. They’ll put them into new buckets for them. They’ll…

Sam:                                      00:47:34               So it’s not, it’s not as simple as buy it, sell it. There is some, there’s a lot of work they do in between. And so that’s why that’s the USP that they can do that they have the buying power and they have the people and they do spend a lot of time coming out to visit farms to establish whether this farm can actually supply the product consistently.

Sam:                                      00:47:59               So auctions are. The one way you also mentioned you sell directly, so what’s the rationale there?

Chris:                                     00:48:05               So about, when we were initially started, everything went to auction. And the auction was a great platform because it gave us huge exposure and market access because our product that wasn’t there, if they weren’t adding value, our product would go in sleeve with the Sian logo from here to wherever in the world. It would end up through the buyers. But after a while more and more buyers were realizing that they could actually mitigate the risk of, cause they’re, the wholesalers for example, would, would have to hope that we as Sian roses and the industry in general, have a variety like Olivia on the auction every day throughout the year. And sometimes the weather can be bad. Sometimes there could be other issues. So buyers, some buyers realize that they can also mitigate that risk by buying a percentage of their product. So even these big traders, they buy, they do buy a percentage of their product by coming to the farms and making direct deals, which means that a rose, that may sell for 30 cents at the auction as a very, obviously a very nice rose that sells for 30 cents at the auction. We have fees to pay as a sellers.

Sam:                                      00:49:24               In order to participate in the auction.

Chris:                                     00:49:27               And also we pay the transport, we pay the the transport costs. So these buyers also realize that they can come to us and come and negotiate a lower price or a different price to have to guarantee continuous supply. And they would take, they would take over that they’re taking the cost of transport, which is a huge, huge part of the cost for us here in Kenya. We can produce very cheaply, but our costs of transport are very, very high. So that’s when we realized and we started building a marketing and sales team led by Yvonne, who’s worked for us for 16 years now. And we’ve built up a customer base of about 50 or 60 customers around the world who get into, who are in contact pretty much every few days, if not daily. And we’ll have we’ll pack flowers according to their specs to be delivered to Nairobi airport where they have their own ship. They have made their own deals with shippers to take it on to wherever they are.

Sam:                                      00:50:32               Got it. So you’ve still got the auction but you increasingly are looking to move towards this?

Chris:                                     00:50:39               Well I think we’ve hit our balance, we are about 70, 30, 70% direct, 30% auction. And I think we’ve reached our balance. We may adjust it depending but the, the, the unfortunate thing for us as growers is, well us as growers who are trying to do both auction and direct, cause there are quite a lot of growers that do 100% direct and there are quite a lot that do 100% auction and there’s quite a few like us who do both. And the unfortunate thing of the ones who do both is that if we do keep product on the auction, we can’t turn around and ask for a premium price for the same product because the buyers who are buying from us direct do also have are, are also members of the auction and also can see the product on the auction.

Sam:                                      00:51:30               I see. You can’t go to your direct customer and say start selling it at 40 cents. If they then, cause then they all taken to the auction that, hold on a second. You were selling it for 30.

Chris:                                     00:51:41               Exactly. They’ll know that for the past six months I’ve been getting 32 cents for this rose. But on the auction it’s been consistently on the auction is considered again 32 cents. I can’t turn around and say, right, if you want to make a deal with us for a year four throughout the year, I want 40 cents. It just won’t work.

Sam:                                      00:51:59               You were saying earlier this, there’s just unbelievably efficient market.

Chris:                                     00:52:02               Very, very efficient.

Sam:                                      00:52:03               Sort of the, the speed at which things are done. The transparency, yeah.

Chris:                                     00:52:10               It’s it’s something that I don’t think enough people realize that behind the rose that is in your local, your local supermarket, just how much has gone into getting it there, but not only that, just how efficient everything is because you also got to consider it’s gotta be kept below four degrees the whole way. Well, we try to keep everything below four degrees and there are companies that would do, we work with, we as growers and also a few of the buyers work with companies like flower watch who put in temperature sensors in a certain number of boxes in sample, sample size boxes throughout the industry. And will send you back the data of temperature at packing temperature at arrival, temperature at transport, temperature at arrival at the destination. And generally if a new generally they keep quite close to that four to six, four to six degrees. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:53:09               Yeah. It seems like there’s, when we were walking around, you’re saying that, you know, adopting QR codes for, for tracking, it seems there’s lots of innovation that seems to be happening around sort of supply chain aspects.

Chris:                                     00:53:24               Yeah. Cause when you reach a certain size, especially like this farm if this, if we only had this farm for example, we are 45 hectors here, we are pretty much at our large as we can grow in under greenhouse without having to invest heavily in more water like a more bore holes. And so when we look at expansion, if we look at future expansion or what to do the next few years of this farm, it’s efficiencies. So if we can be more efficient with using technology. So the QR codes was for our marketing side so that we have product traceability so that if we, if the supervisor’s in the, in the pack house receive some buckets and they see there’s a problem with some buckets or the product or the product and some of the buckets, they can trace which greenhouse it came from and when it was harvested. So they can quickly, even before it enters the, into our cold stores and goes through the chain that those flowers don’t end up, three days later in Australia and our customers furious because he’s just paid all this money for it to get there. We can actually catch it quite early. The next step is things like water and water management, water resource management, which is very vital because it’s a limited resource. And using technology to manage our senses, to manage our product a bit better, to make sure that we aren’t overfeeding, we aren’t over-watering, we aren’t the water that is reentering the system. So that’s draining through our greenhouses and reentering the water table isn’t dirty. That kind of stuff is very important. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:55:13               Are you seeing any other opportunities or things where you’re like, Hmm, there must be something that could make this easier, it must make this better, but you haven’t yet found it?

Chris:                                     00:55:24               I think the systems, the systems to help manage growing, if that is something that we had to, we spend about two years trying to find like our CRM and one other farmer has also done the same one or two other farms have also done the same. There’s just a system to help manage the product from growing to now actual like packing for export and making sure that you, your customers, you can get better customer satisfaction by being able to say when the customers order 10,000 stems of rose a, they are actually going to get 10,000 cause it is a living product. So there can be fluctuations but it’s not acceptable because our direct customers have people they’re also supplying and if you, if our direct customers supplying Sainsburys for example, they don’t want to hear that the farm that their supplier was buying from had rainstorms for two weeks. They want to, they just want their flowers. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:56:24               Okay. We spoke, we spoke a bit as well about sort of accreditation. So fair trade.

Chris:                                     00:56:31               So we sell a lot in Europe and Kenya as a whole, as a, Kenya flower market sells mostly in Europe. And there, and they have very high standards for fair trade standards and certain certifications. They expect the product to be they used to call, there was another, there was another institution called fair flower, fair plants, fair, flowers fair plants, I think, or not. But anyway, what they want, the consumer wants to know and it’s the right thing that this flower has been grown and with minimal use of chemicals, especially carcinogens. The, the people who are harvesting are and handling the flowers are paid well, that we as a farm are not polluting the local environment by just spraying tons of chemicals and releasing that into the, the rivers that are nearby and water into the water table. And so there are a lot of certifications and they are very important and are very good. But the thing is there’s no unifying certification that can cover a lot of this. So we as a farm have to go through a month and a half of inspections and sort of earn the certification processes every year, which can get quite cumbersome and can get quite, can interrupt operations quite a bit. And because there are seasons, so the summer season is the summer in Europe is the low season for the flower industry in Kenya. So everybody tries to do it then. And there’s only a limited number of inspectors. So it, it’s a, as with many things, it’s the right, it’s the right idea and right, right thing to do in principle, but the execution has kind of become muddled because Germany wants German customers may want a certain certification that is not necessarily Netherlands but, and, but, and then Switzerland, something different from Norway. And so you have to have all of them done and it costs and it’s a cost to the farm to do. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:58:43               You mentioned that the, there’s some work by the Kenyan flower council to try and consolidate this.

Chris:                                     00:58:49               Yeah. So the Kenya flower council is trying to help consolidate this by offering and has so members of the Kenya flower council that’s most of the flower industry in Kenya, they do now get to have all their certification done by the Kenya flat and inspections done by Kenya flower council who have made agreements with fair trade with NPS NPS, with a global gap. And I tried to have one, one it’s called KFC silver, KFC gold. And you’re going to have KFC bronze. So when you’re team achieves either of those KFC certificates, it’s usually enough, but it’s still not fully there because the customers don’t fully understand and fully know that what KFC does is, so it’s a process that’s ongoing and it’s a very encouraging. Yeah. Yeah. Okay.

Sam:                                      00:59:51               Nice. We’ll try and sort of wrap up soon-ish. Cause we’ve actually been speaking for nearly an hour.

Chris:                                     00:59:56               Oh wow.

Sam:                                      00:59:58               Doesn’t time fly. One thing I was wanting to ask, which might be yeah, isBrexit.

Chris:                                     01:00:05               Yeah.

Sam:                                      01:00:06               Or like maybe, maybe that’s, but you know, like at the moment that is, so we are recording this sort of towards the end of August, obviously there’s a lot of uncertainty about it. And so there are no definite answers cause I was wondering, what have been some of the conversations you’ve had to be having as a result of the UK potentially leaving the customs union?

Chris:                                     01:00:26               Yeah. So our direct exposure, like our direct customers in the UK, we don’t have a huge amount, but we still have some and we’ve tried to talk to them about paying us in dollars, but obviously they wouldn’t want to do that either.

Sam:                                      01:00:43               And that’s to protect against currency.

Chris:                                     01:00:45               Currency. Yeah. To give us a, reduce the currency risk, to pay us in dollars or euros. But the, that’s a problem for them as well because even in the last 10 days, last few weeks the, the, the exchange rate has dropped. So that has been something that we tried to do but we left it a bit late to be honest. And we should’ve done that two and a half, three years ago. But also the problem for us is a lot of our buyers and a lot of the buyers in the auction are really exposed to, to the UK market. They are, they, a lot of them, a lot of our buyers buy and sell in the UK, buy in the Netherlands or buy from us directly to sell in the UK. And that is a huge risk because something as simple as, I think it was a funny anecdote I got from a customer last year was that if, if there is a hard Brexit and there’s no customs union or customs agreement and they have to do and every, every truck has to go through customs. They said the vegetables and flowers alone coming from Netherlands will form a traffic jam. That’ll be as long as from Kallai to Amsterdam. And this is just, he was curing up the tracks back to back just because of the daily flow and how efficient they have become.

Sam:                                      01:02:04               And a, and lots of flowers, flowers aren’t going to survive that.

Chris:                                     01:02:08               No, Nope. They want to, especially in this, the European summers that we’ve been having this 40 degree summers. Yeah. Yeah. So it’s a, it’s a real worry. We don’t know. And the worst thing is, is just we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if the pound is going to drop even further by this, by this time next year, by October 31st what’s going to happen. So it’s a kind of wait and see. But we directly aren’t as exposed as I said, but a lot of other farms in Kenya are.

Sam:                                      01:02:40               And that’s because they are…

Chris:                                     01:02:42               Supplying directly and our British, and some are even British owned British owned farms. So they are supplying directly to the big supermarket and they are supplying a lot of product.

Sam:                                      01:02:54               And so for them is a big exposure of the currency.

Chris:                                     01:02:59               Maternity risk because your, you’re buying, they’re buying a lot of the inputs in, we buy as an industry a lot of inputs in dollars. Okay. Fertilizers, we buy huge amounts of fertilizer. Yeah. And so fertilizing chemicals and that’s usually purchased in dollars. They may be able to, but still, you know, it’s even if they can try buy in pounds it the risk of holding large amounts of pounds.

Sam:                                      01:03:25               Okay. Got it. So the two main, the two main things to think about are, one is the, the actual physical, the physical aspects of logistics of getting into UK. And the other is the currency. And the currency only exists really with the direct consumers. Direct customers because you would have your own trade routes.

Chris:                                     01:03:46               Also for the customers who are buying, they’d come and still will buy in Euro’s. But for them it also becomes so expensive to get the Euros, you know, to, to buy the euros in the first place to pay their customers in the Netherlands, in Euros.

Sam:                                      01:03:58               Yeah.

Chris:                                     01:03:59               So the, the cost of a rose, if it’s 10, 10 pence obviously if you’re buying in Euro’s used to be nine Euro cents, I get it. Right. And then.

Sam:                                      01:04:13               It’s not something I’m actively around. It might be, it might use to being 30…

Chris:                                     01:04:20               Yeah. So 10 pence used to be one, used to be 12 Euro cents. Yup. Now that same one is going to be, it’s going to be even more.

Sam:                                      01:04:27               Yeah. Yeah. Got it. Okay. Hmm. So I guess I’ll just wait and see. But you’re less exposed than the buyers.

Chris:                                     01:04:36               It’s not, it’s slightly less but, but we don’t always know exactly where our buyers are sending all our flowers to. So for, we know our biggest customer is 90% of the product is ending up in the UK.

Sam:                                      01:04:50               Okay. But it just gets routed through this auction, which is going to make things a lot more difficult.

Chris:                                     01:04:54               Yeah.

Sam:                                      01:04:54               Could it be that those customers rather they’re gonna stop buying at the auction and they, both customers are then going to start searching?

Chris:                                     01:05:02               They couldn’t really, the auction is so huge It is the biggest I mean we are 70% direct, but our biggest single customer technically is still the auction.

Sam:                                      01:05:13               Okay. Yeah. Excellent.

Chris:                                     01:05:16               That’s the say. And the auction is so huge, so it’s not that they will stop buying, it’s just they have to work out the logistics of getting the product through to the UK. How are they going to manage that?

Sam:                                      01:05:27               Hmm. Just quickly, when talking about efficiencies, is it that you mentioned that the farm employs 2000 to 2000 people there’s a lot of talk about automation and things. Is this, is flower picking in the flower industry one way or there’s probably gonna keep human labor or is it something where that might…

Chris:                                     01:05:49               It’s still very labor intensive and it will be because the costs, I mean I’ve seen on YouTube, but I’ve never visited a mechanized like fully mechanized flower farm. There’s some lily farms in the Netherlands where they have they have robots. It’s very expensive. It’s just, it’s just as like, you’re looking at other industries, like the dairy industry, there are milking robots that are very popular and getting popular around Europe. But if you have more than 200 cows, it’s just not cost effective.

Sam:                                      01:06:22               Yeah.

Chris:                                     01:06:23               So in…

Sam:                                      01:06:24               Less than 200 cows.

Chris:                                     01:06:25               If you have, if you have more than 200 cows, it’s not cost. It’s the average milking machine. And from what I’ve read, it’s, the numbers is about 80 to a hundred at a time. Okay. So, and they cost like a hundred and something to $200,000 to buy one. Okay. Robot milking machine. Yeah. We also have a dairy. That’s why I looked at this. Butso it’s the same as in the flower industry when you’re at this scale where unless something crazy happens with the wage increases over the next 10 years to 15 years, really don’t foresee how, how, and if we could go to mechanic to mechanizing most of the farms.

Sam:                                      01:07:04               And that is, is that because I know that one of the big things with the mechanization of wheat farming in America was it’s quite consistent. You can, you know, make big square, big rectangular fields and just sell for, I think this one we’re looking at, it’s, it’s a bit more fiddly is that you can’t just chop it off, that you’ve got to like pick and select.

Chris:                                     01:07:25               Exactly. Got to pick and select just as they showed you with the spring roses, they look at three buds. If there’s three out of the five to seven to eight or 10 buds that are at least open, a certain number of the bugs that are open, they have to find the balance between the openness of those who are that already and those that will and then make that decision in the field. And that’s our harvest, is making that decision in the field to kind of so I mean obviously you can’t, you can never say never, but I just don’t see that kind of a technology in the industry. Yeah.

Sam:                                      01:07:56               One of the thing is the the other big thing which seems to be spoken about a lot is single use plastics. Now the, the, the center, the, the sleeves that they came with, cellophane, will you be caught up to all in any funds to reduce?

Chris:                                     01:08:12               There are measures. So there are one or two company, the, the companies that make the sleeves that havelooked at doing paper sleeves, recycled paper sleeves, and we’ve done trials with them. The only problem is, is when it arrives at the, in Europe after being through transport, it just does not look good. Okay. The, it does it, it doesn’t, it doesn’t travel well. So a few of our customers and quite, quite uneven, more and more every day are actually sleeving themselves in Europe. They’re doing the paper recycle, the recycle papers sleeves when they get to Europe and the cardboard boxes and the all the cardboard and paper we use is obviously recyclable and is recycled.

Sam:                                      01:08:57               Yeah. But basically there’s, there’s room for innovation potentially.

Chris:                                     01:09:03               There’s innovation. Yeah.

Sam:                                      01:09:03               In space of like the actual classically used plastic.

Chris:                                     01:09:07               There’s more and more paper sleeves being produced and they’re being sleeved with by machine in Europe. And then on the sustainability side, a lot of farms and we included are working very hard on that. We are planning a solar, a solar plant here. A lot of farms in Kenya already done it and have been on solar for quite while. The industry is on, on the whole very conscious of, you know, our effects, the environmental impact. Yeah.

Sam:                                      01:09:38               Very good. Okay. So I mean, yeah, just to finish up, I mean, first of all I thought it’s been absolutely fascinating. Like it’s such an amazing, machine process operation to sort of see it, see it all come through. What, what do you sort of what, what’s exciting you about, about the business in the next few years?

Chris:                                     01:09:59               The new farm is very exciting. Doing non roses after all they’ve been doing it.

Sam:                                      01:10:05               Is non-roses your own terminology? It’s not like the flower industry.

Chris:                                     01:10:08               No. That’s our topic we’re using and telling you like, yeah, we’re just doing of, of bunch of a bunch of products but just non-roses. The next is technology. How and how and how we’ll come in and help because there are systems out there and we’re trialing them constantly on how we can maximize our efficiency. So then rather than expanding by actually building greenhouses, we can expand by maximizing our production in the field. Cause if we can increase our production by 5%that by calling the 5% by 5%, that’s adding two greenhouses, you know, and that’s a huge, huge cost saving. The interesting thing is is the industry in Kenya is quite robust. It has had some issues. It has had some external issues, but it, it’s a big employer and a better huge benefactor to Kenya. And it’s now working in the next few years to get the knowledge at, get more people to understand and know that cause I don’t think many people in Kenya know that the flounders is second biggest Forex owner for Kenya. And I, I’m, I’ve met, I’ve met a lot of people when you talk to them about flowers, they just see the greenhouses, but they don’t understand just how much they contribute, how much cash it’s generating, how much cash it’s generating for the country, but also how much it employs the every farm, not only because of the fair trade a good cause, a fair trade certification does work very hard and well with community. We build schools, we build hospitals. There’s amazing farms that have built hospitals that are actually better than the government hospitals and then become community centers. It’s all very exciting and important things that people really should know more about.

Sam:                                      01:11:55               And how can people listening, how can they learn more? How can they learn more about you? About Sian roses?

Chris:                                     01:12:00               Well there’s BBC had a documentary or a talk, had a thing about two years ago where they went and visited some Kenyan farms. They actually visited our farm in a crew. They visited a really amazing grower in Nanyuki called, Tom boozy that does…

Sam:                                      01:12:15               What makes them amazing?

Chris:                                     01:12:16               They are, they do very beautiful scented roses. So scented roses, scented that have a smell and they are very difficult to, they are more difficult to grow and they are much more expensive to buy, but they are really beautiful product and they specialize in that. The, where if they are ever in M and S in, in Holland, go visit flora Holland actually does, can, you can visit flora Holland building the buildings and you can actually add their visitor centers and they’ll show you how they built the industry. They’ve built their whole industry And generally just ask your florists like they, they will know that, who they bought it from. But ask you Florist about, for a bit more information cause now six times out of 10, it’s probably a Kenyan rose.

Sam:                                      01:13:07               Yeah. Very cool. Well, Chris That’s been super exciting. Thanks so much.

Chris:                                     01:13:10               Thank you.


A tech success story. How Africa’s Talking equips African software developers with APIs


In this episode I speak with Bilha Ndirangu who is the CEO of one of Africa’s most successful tech start ups.

Started in Kenya nearly 10 years ago, Africa’s Talking now serves over 5000 customers and has operations in 18 African countries.

Most of this growth has been self-generated, though last year they took on investment of around $10m to fuel the company’s expansion.

For those who have not worked in the tech space, an API (or Application Program Interface) is a way that software developers connect up different bits of technology.

Without APIs things get tricky because if, for example, you want to build an app that sends an SMS to users you need to negotiate directly with the telco to allow them to send messages on your behalf.

This comes with heaps of technical complexity (and sometimes regulation to conform to) which mean it’s incredibly painful to do.

Africa’s Talking takes away all of that complexity by doing the hard work on behalf on developers.

They go across Africa and complete of the headache stuff of integrating with telcos and banks, and then allow developers to seamlessly plug in so their apps/ businesses can easily begin accepting payments and sending SMSes.

It’s a great business model which gets better with the network effects of them expanding to more countries.

In this episode Bilha and I talk about the company’s formation, how it’s changed upon its recent growth spurt, and how the bigger the company gets, the more it becomes defensible against outside competition.

I really hope you enjoy this episode with Bilha.


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Sam:                                      00:00                     Intro

Sam:                                      02:19                     We’re here today with Bilha from Africa’s Talking. Bilha welcome to the show.

Bilha:                                     02:23                     Thank you.

Sam:                                      02:25                     To get us started, can you tell us just a bit about you and a bit about Africa’s Talking?

Bilha:                                     02:28                     Okay. So my name is Bilha, obviously I’m the CEO at Africa’s Talking and been at the role for the last six months. So I’m just taking over from my co founder and former CEO Sam Gikandi. So, a little bit more about Africa’s Talking. So we are a tech company founded in Kenya and headquarters, founded and headquartered in Kenya, so been around for the last seven years. We were founded sorry, nine years cause we were founded in 2010. But the reason I say seven years is because the first couple of years we were sort of doing different things until we finally pivoted into what we’re currently doing in our business in 2012. And so we’re currently doing is we build APIs. Those are application programming interfaces and what, the purpose is to help software developers connect to infrastructure on the continent. What I mean by that is we want to help software developers be able to build the applications, whatever applications they’re building, whether it’s farmer solutions or eCommerce solutions, etc. And be able to, what once they’ve done that be able to connect to tel-cos and payment providers because at the end of the day, they do need to get paid. They need to communicate to their clients. And so we recognize that there’s actually, it’s quite difficult for an individual software developer or a startup or a small company wanting to build something and then have to go to the tel-cos or the big banks and get the integrations done. And so what what the business does or at least the solution we are bringing to the table is how do we democratize access to tel-cos and banking institutions and also make it easier even for the tel-cos themselves to reach software developers because they don’t have to deal with individual developers. They sort of just deal with us and then we would sort of bring all these developers.

Sam:                                      04:25                     Very cool. Okay. So it’s like technically it’s complicated to, I imagine have these relationships with tel-cos and if you’re a small little startup, it’s almost impossible.

Bilha:                                     04:37                     It’s virtually impossible.

Sam:                                      04:38                     Because you’ve basically done the hard work for them and then you set your, the service you sell to these small startups is because we can do this at scale, we can offer a much more affordable.

Bilha:                                     04:49                     So because you can do this at scale one, we can even offer it to you in the first place because as you said, it’s virtually impossible to get it. So, I mean, before we had all these startups or developers would build solutions but couldn’t figure out a way to get paid or couldn’t figure out how to communicate to their clients on SMS, etc. Or you, you know. So firstly really just remove that huddle, but then our second year, as you said, And then there’s also, the other thing that I forgot to mention is it’s also regulated because you’re talking about communications and payments. So in many ways,you still need to get some approval from a government regulator, which again, can be quite a hassle. So because we’ve actually gone ahead and gotten those regulations in place,that’s one thing that the developer doesn’t have to worry about. And the third thing, as you said. Yeah, now it’s this thing around reduced pricing because we’re able to communicate,negotiate better pricing with the aggregate, with the tel-cos,and then they would sell, you know, in smaller quantities to the developers.

Sam:                                      05:47                     Yes. Interesting. The price isn’t actually the top in, one of the top two. It’s simply just the ability to give you the service like, that’s quite interesting, like you’ve really just opened up this market.

Bilha:                                     05:59                     Exactly. Yeah. I mean cause at the end of the day, we think about it anyone building an application and when I say anyone, it could be a business. It could be a software developer that’s trying out something, an enterprise or a small SME. Your biggest thing is you do need to figure out a way to communicate with your clients and then once you finish communicating with them, whether it’s a payment reminder or it’s, say let me tell you about my new product. Once you’ve engaged the client you also need to get paid at the end of the day. So it’s a kind of thing where once that’s available and it’s a lot easier to integrate into different applications and services it was not, it was naturally easy for it to become a top product in the market just because it’s something that people needed and I think ATK, Africa’s Talking came in and was solving a real need and so it’s not difficult to, for people to understand why I need it because they’re actually, they’re constantly figuring out how do we get clients who engage with us or how do we get our, how do we engage with our clients?

Sam:                                      06:57                     Yeah. What sort of scale is Africa’s Talking at now?

Bilha:                                     07:01                     In terms of scale, so there are different ways you measure scale, so we have about 30,000 software developers that have been signed onto our platform and we keep growing that number. I mean, our goal is to hopefully have about a million African developers signed onto the platform. We’re currently in about in 18 markets and growing. So in 10 markets,

Sam:                                      07:24                     Does 10 markets mean 18 countries.

Bilha:                                     07:24                     18 countries, yes. So, in 10 of those countries, we actually have people on the ground and operational, and then the other eight markets initial, we are looking to ‘operationalize’ for the next few months. But the goal is to go across the 54 markets a team of about 130 people and growing. And yeah.

Sam:                                      07:47                     So 30,000 developers, are developed your customers?

Bilha:                                     07:50                     Yes. So we, the way we think about it is that we think about our customers as developers. I mean, of course. Which is yeah, behind the developer will probably be a business. What I mean by that is there might be an individual developer who is just kind of, you know building their own stuff, etc. But in many cases, you tend to be a business that’s looking to integrate our services into their workflows. So some of our biggest clients, for example, tend to be mobile phone lenders or, you know, clients that are, or companies that are doing micro-financing or doing you know, the pay as you go, sort of energy solutions, etc. But even big supermarkets, etc. So all these tend to be our clients because at the end of the day, as I said, businesses need to communicate with their end customers. But we like to think about the accounts from a developer perspective so that even if it’s a business that’s represented, we still like to think about it as a, as a developer. Because for us, we are selling a technical product and we are only as good as what developers think of our product. So a business could like our product, but then if their developers don’t or don’t want to use it. Yeah. Don’t want to integrate, just becomes a real pain, you know, they kind of be like, okay, I don’t want to do this. Yes.

Sam:                                      09:07                     So do you have, How many like paying entities? I’m trying to think of like…

Bilha:                                     09:13                     So I’ll probably put it at 5,000.

Sam:                                      09:14                     So 5,000 and,

Bilha:                                     09:16                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      09:16                     Okay. And so then average of six developers per…

Bilha:                                     09:20                     Exactly. So it could be that or the other way it could be so it’s 5,000, but then there’s a lot of developers that we haven’t found ways to monetize and we’re still figuring out how to monetize them so it could be…

Sam:                                      09:29                     Could they still derive value from so many.

Bilha:                                     09:32                     Exactly. It’s kind of thing where they’ve probably, you know, cause creating an account on the platform is free. So any developer who hears about us can create an account and then tends to, what tends to happen sometimes is that they will build something but they don’t really take it to production or they’re just learning how to use the APIs but they haven’t found a way to monetize it. So, yeah. So yeah, so I’ve kind of put it at, what, 30,000 that we’ve registered and we want to keep signing that on. We have about 5,000 that we’ve actually monetized. So at least we’ll be able to move them from creating an account, learning how to use a product to actually building something that they can actually pay for.

Sam:                                      10:06                     Cool. Okay. And you said that most of the ways in which people, so Africa’s Talking, you’ve kind of, you’ve gone in, you’ve, you’ve done these integrations with banks, with how it goes and stuff and you basically said, okay, out of this there were various services. Is that right? So you, Africa’s Talking has various services, you’ve got like SMS.

Bilha:                                     10:26                     Yeah. So there’s several services. So I mean the way I like to think about it is anything like tel-co or a bank, or any other infrastructure providers sell, we can find a way to expose it to software developers in an easy way. In an easy to consume sort of manner, as have some of the products that have sort of fallen out of that sphere are SMS. So these are the typical, your bulk SMS or two way SMS. When I say two way, it’s when, you’ve heard of short codes. So you’re able to do SMS, there’s USSD, which is a three digit number. So the *435#, that’s quite, I mean it’s quite, it’s still quite useful, especially in this side of the world because it has feature, feature Phones are still a big part of the way…

Sam:                                      11:08                     So it’s a USC, it’s basically like a really light version of an app, but it works on a feature phone. And so you kind of just go through a bit of a menu.

Bilha:                                     11:18                     Exactly.

Sam:                                      11:18                     Is that right?

Bilha:                                     11:19                     So *4543# and then say like, my bank actually gives me a USSD option in addition to the app they give me. And I can query my balance. I can, you know, do some basic transfers, I can. So I can pretty much do a lot of things that you could do with an app, but of course not as feature rich, but very useful in this side of the world because most people either use feature phones or even those that have smart phones, Data is still really expensive. So most people I know…

Sam:                                      11:46                     Really, so even if you had a smartphone.

Bilha:                                     11:48                     Yes.

Sam:                                      11:48                     You wouldn’t download, say the KCB banking app?

Bilha:                                     11:52                     No. I mean they probably would, but very few. Most people wouldn’t.

Sam:                                      11:54                     Yeah.

Bilha:                                     11:55                     Or even if they had it, they wouldn’t use it because they don’t pay for, I mean data is one of those things that still are very, people use it, but I mean when we talk to people on the ground, it’s a very, it’s still very…

Sam:                                      12:07                     Yeah. People like aware of how many megabytes they’ve got left?

Bilha:                                     12:10                     Exactly. They are very conscious or actually most of what I want, what’s interesting is that people actually buy it on a daily basis. So it’s one of those things.

Sam:                                      12:18                     Really.

Bilha:                                     12:18                     Yeah. So the tel-cos actually offer this, so they have I think offers as low as 20 megabytes a day or something like that. And so in that case, someone would probably budget their megabytes on, I want to use this amount on social media, I want to use this on, you know, very, you know, very specific things. So they don’t necessarily have the luxury of I want to do a transaction on my whatever. Let me go to KCB, let me go to my mobile phone app and build that, leave alone any other sort of application. So USSD remains like a really big we have at least getting people to sort of interact with applications on this side of the world.

Sam:                                      12:54                     Okay. So you basically built technology where relatively.

Bilha:                                     12:59                     It’s almost plug and play. I mean it still requires a bit of integration, but in as, something that would have taken you months on end to do, would literally take you 30 minutes if you’re a good developer. Yes, exactly. And then we sort of, we also shield you from all the work from the tel-cos because you do have to raise the code and map it to the tel-co, etc. So that’s a lot of the work that we take away from the software developers.

Sam:                                      13:22                     Okay. So you, you’re currently doing that, so you started in Kenya?

Bilha:                                     13:25                     Yes.

Sam:                                      13:27                     You’re now in 18 markets. Does that mean that each country you go to, you need to do these difficult integration, these difficult things?

Bilha:                                     13:34                     Yes. So each country we go to, firstly, as I said, it’s a regulated environment because it’s dealing with communications and payments. So in each market you actually have to go to the regulator and get some kind of license. And then once you’re done, go talk to the different tel-cos and start over.

Sam:                                      13:48                     You’ve got an exasperated grin your face.

Bilha:                                     13:53                     But on the other hand, I think about it and I’m kind of like, that’s actually why we’re in business because if this was easy then anyone could sort of go and do it because we actually have really big clients who have the clout and could take, could actually go to a tel-co and get integrations themselves because they’re big enough and the tel-co, you know, but they still want to work with us because when, once they think about the pain of, you know, having to talk to each tel-co, go through the integration process and then maintain the integrations because there’s a constant maintenance and support that’s required. We find a lot of clients are just kind of like, you know what, let’s just deal with one person that’s Africa’s Talking. If anything breaks, I know the person I call, I don’t have to call like multiple engineers in different tel-cos to sort of work on this. So in as much as it’s an exasperating process, I recognize that’s actually part of the biggest value add we bring to the table. And for me the other thing that’s useful about it is that it allows companies, software developers to think a little bit more Pan-African because we exist. And what I mean by that is I’ve seen clients come in, maybe start out with us in Kenya, but because we do have a presence in say Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, they are sort of able to think, Oh I could actually extend my product to all these other markets and because Africa’s Talking is actually there, I don’t need to do any other integrations. My one integration with Africa’s Talking will allow me to reach customers in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, without having to do any extra work. So that’s, I think for me one of the biggest, I think one of the most important reasons why expansion is important.

Sam:                                      15:23                     Have you seen many examples of that happening?

Bilha:                                     15:25                     Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I mean I have clients for example, who’ve told me they’ll only expand to the markets we are in.

Sam:                                      15:31                     Okay.

Bilha:                                     15:31                     Because it kind of like, I don’t want to have to think about integrations and so they follow us where we go. The other thing is we’ve seen, actually part of, what sort of drove us to start expanding is because we talked to some clients who’d come in, start out in Kenya and then very quickly, because Kenya is a very, it’s a very interesting market but still fairly small. I mean think about the population, there’s about 40 to 50 million people. So very quickly companies start to think, wait, I could go to Uganda, I could go to Tanzania, I could go to Rwanda, just sort of have an East African sort of presence. And so very quickly they start asking us, can you help us reach customers in those markets? But now interestingly, because now we’ve also gone to West Africa and starting to look into Southern Africa. There’s a presence in Nigeria and as soon as we landed there clients immediately started, asking us are you in Ghana? So that also drives some of our expansion. But also at the same time, I’ve seen Kenyan clients now who have actually had the, you know who actually said, you know what, we’ll actually go try out Nigeria because Africa’s Talking is there. So it’s the same product so we don’t have to worry about the technical side of things. Now it’s more let’s go and try and sell it.

Sam:                                      16:40                     Are there any countries where you’ve said, right, we want to go there. And you tried and you’re like, you know, this is even too hard for us?

Bilha:                                     16:46                     So far, no. I think probably because we do have, I mean when you think about our vision, it’s very Pan-African and it’s very, we’re very entrenched in making sure that, excuse me, we’re very entrenched in making sure that this, this, this technologies are available across Africa. I mean, given the name Africa’s Talking.

Sam:                                      17:05                     Yeah.

Bilha:                                     17:05                     So I think we have a little bit more of a different DNA where we’re willing to go into difficult markets. I mean, that said, of course there are markets where you kind of look at it and you say, okay, this is going to be a little bit more difficult. Let’s sort of give it a more longer term.

Sam:                                      17:21                     Which are some that have been particularly difficult?

Bilha:                                     17:24                     I would say so for example, we are currently registered in Sierra Leone and DRC and so we are, we actually want to go in and do business, but then it’s kind of like, okay, let’s take this a bit more slowly than we would you know, from some of the other markets. For on the flip side, I also come to appreciate that every market is actually quite difficult in its own way, just given the intricacies of doing business in Africa. So I could actually tell you, even in the markets that we’re in, there’s been definitely some obvious challenges. So, I mean, I think rather than saying this market is much easier than this other market I feel like it’s a lot easier to just, it’s, it’s, I think what makes more sense. Is fantasy. Okay. Doing business in Africa has its challenges and I think someone coming to do business in Africa should be willing to embrace that. But then once we embrace that and I was going to a market, you can sort of say, okay, this are the issues, let’s fix them. Because in as much as, for example, we are a Kenyan company any other new market I go into, it almost feels like we’re having to start a fresh. Yes, the policies might look the same, but you have to deal with different policies. Your having dealt with tel-cos I think quite differently. And especially what’s interesting is to watch how tel-cos, banks, etc Are still very localized in as much as you might have like a global brand or like a Pan-African brand. Once you go and talk to the tel-cos in each market, they think very differently. They view the market very differently. So it’s almost a completely, completely different conversation from the last conversation you had with them. Yeah.

Sam:                                      19:03                     So you’ve got 130. How, what’s the rough split between what everyone does? What’s the split between what everybody does?

Bilha:                                     19:14                     So I think, I’ll probably put it at 50% engineering, so we’re still a very hardcore engineering company cause we build all our technology in house.

Sam:                                      19:22                     And those engineers, they are doing the difficult integrations?

Bilha:                                     19:25                     Yes.

Sam:                                      19:26                     Okay. So that’s what, okay.

Bilha:                                     19:27                     Yeah. So that’s, yeah. So they build, they do the integrations and they build the layer that developers can connect to and all the dashboards and everything that yeah, pertains to that. And then probably not the remaining people probably put out about 20% doing operations. And then we have fairly decent client relations and sales sort of organization.

Sam:                                      19:53                     Okay.

Bilha:                                     19:53                     Yeah

Sam:                                      19:54                     Okay, cool. So it’s, yeah, heavier on the engineering side of things. And then how many people sit in Kenya?

Bilha:                                     20:03                     Kenya is still one of our largest markets, I’ll probably put it at about in 90 people. Yeah. And then the rest of the people are now scattered in the other markets.

Sam:                                      20:11                     And when you do, for example, let’s say you go to Rwanda, yes. And you have to integrate with the tel-cos. Is that done from the engineers here or do you have to have engineers in Rwanda doing that?

Bilha:                                     20:23                     So I, there’s two levels. So there swamp. So yeah, so these two levels integration. So I think the hardcore engineering because it’s, it’s more or less similar set of APIs and we found that it’s a lot easier to sort of localize engineering and have the engineers sit in Kenya. So say we go to Rwanda our person on the ground who leases the tel-cos and makes sure that we get the different information that we need and then convey that to the engineers here. Sometimes engineers might need to go to Rwanda, or to the country and spend a few days or weeks finalizing integrations. So once that’s done, we then find that there’s support, the constant support that’s required. But that’s not as involving as the original integrations. So in that case, you might have like a tech support person or an engineer sort of sitting in a different markets. We have already funded a lot of that core engineering work gets done out of Nairobi.

Sam:                                      21:19                     Okay. And how has the company been funded to date?

Bilha:                                     21:23                     So for the longest time we bootstrapped the company, so it was the founders kind of just putting in their own money and it did help that we got profitable quite quickly, which is not your typical sort of cycle for a tech company.

Sam:                                      21:37                     What, why, why could Africa’s Talking get profitable quickly, whereas others couldn’t?

Bilha:                                     21:43                     I think it was, as I said, I think we came in and we hit something. We found a need very quickly. Like, I mean, I think there’s a, the product what we call it, the pro, the, the problem we’re solving was a real problem. And I think the one, the minute to able to release the APIs into the market there’s a real hunger around it. But I think it also helped that we maintained a very lean team in those days. So it was, you know the founder, one of the founders is an engineer, so it brings a lot of the engineering work that our founder kind of helped. Just make sure that we got our Tel-co connections done and that lessons and everything. So I think what helped is that we definitely have a lean team. And so as soon as one, we didn’t have the, you know, we didn’t have massive expenses and we raised the production, you know, almost day one, it kind of go the product market fit as we had a lot of people signing on. So that kind of helped to get as profitable quite quickly. So it was sort of, you know, keep the business sort of funding the business out of, you know, out of its own pocket. But last year we took our first series a investment from the IFC and orange digital ventures.

Sam:                                      22:56                     IFC?

Bilha:                                     22:56                     Yes. So the info, I see it’s the investment arm of the world bank. Oh, yes, yes. So they do have a venture capital group that are…

Sam:                                      23:04                     Is that like a commercially focused, really?

Bilha:                                     23:09                     Yes, yes, yes. Exactly. Yes. I know that the, yes, it is well behind they have the arm that’s called the IFC. Yeah. And so they do commercially, you know, targeted or commercially geared investments. And so, yeah, so last year we took funding from them and part of the reason we, the business was still profitable then, but then we thought it might be worthwhile to like bring in some partners on board for extra funding. And then it actually helped us expand a lot faster, especially given that our mission is actually go across the continent, would kind of been able to kind of keep doing the slow burn sort of expansion, but then you realize, no, we actually do want to go to, you know, we want to go across the continent a lot faster. And that of course requires a lot more people and requires a lot more…

Sam:                                      24:00                     Higher ahead of the curve.

Bilha:                                     24:02                     Exactly. Exactly. So that’s when,

Sam:                                      24:03                     Wow, okay. That must be quite exciting.

Bilha:                                     24:06                     Was actually yeah, definitely quite exciting. Changes the tone and all of a sudden, that’s where the massive growth came in. I mean, I think up till last before last year, we’re about 40 people in the company. And so we’ve literally tripled.

Sam:                                      24:20                     What’s been like some ways that other than I guess you need me needing to get a bigger office. Like what are some things we should change in the company, but also what some things would just stay the same.

Bilha:                                     24:34                     I think what’s changed a lot, quite a lot has changed. I mean I always joke with the team where, I remember the days where it would all sit in the board room. The entire company would sit in the boardroom and would all fit in one room. Now all of a sudden you’re like, no, we cannot fit in one room And so would that makes sense. I mean it makes for different. It’s a, just a different way of communicating. So where else before it could have been easy sort of make all decisions around the table and everyone knew everyone was in a way where things happening this way, etc. Now you don’t have the same luxury and you have to be a little more than, at least from my perspective, it to be a lot more deliberate about how you communicate, who you communicate to with. How do you, cause I am still very passionate about making sure that everyone feels like they’re part of the company and they’re contributing and their ideas are hard and that can become a lot more difficult. The bigger you grow and you start sort of forming sort of hierarchies where this person has to report to, this person has reported to this person. And so part of the conversations right now for me has been how do we definitely bring a lot more management. So kind of making sure that everyone knows what they’re doing and they’re properly managed. But at the same time you’re not killing their culture, which was everyone could bring the ideas to the table and could feel hard and and contributed to, you know, feel like they’re contributing to how that organization was moving forward. So I think learning how to communicate to a bigger team and making sure that all those ideas are still bubbling to the top, the best ideas are still bubbling to the top regardless of someone’s role or how long they’ve been in the company. I think that’s been one of the biggest challenge.

Sam:                                      26:08                     Yeah. How have you done it? Do you have like a Slack channel?

Bilha:                                     26:14                     We use Slack a lot.

Sam:                                      26:15                     Okay.

Bilha:                                     26:15                     So lots of different channels. But also I think we’ve kind of re optimized the team. So kind of have sort of broken down the teams into like having really small teams focused on very specific things because I think that’s a lot easier for, in as much as it’s a big company, people don’t feel like they’re part of, you know, they’re not part of this huge thing that credit. Yeah. So they, they, they, they don’t quite know where everything is going. So the premise is that if we can have people focused on one product for example, and you just have a team of maximum of 10 people in the team that sort of helps people kind of feel like, okay, yes, I’m part of a bigger company. But…

Sam:                                      26:56                     Day to day, my team,

Bilha:                                     26:57                     I know one of my team, I know what we are, we are all about, we have, you know. So I think that’s a lot easier for, from a management perspective, but also from getting everyone on the team kind of feel like I can contributing my ideas don’t have to get swallowed up with this big company.

Sam:                                      27:12                     Okay. Let’s say you’ve got 10 people team, is that made up or some engineers? Some…

Bilha:                                     27:18                     Exactly. So we kind of created that, which the whole goal is trying to create self autonomous you know, what’s the word? Autonomous teams. And so if you’re a product team, you kind of have like some engineers, some sales people, client relations, people support people. So within the team they can sort of do almost anything that needs to get done for that product. We are having to rely on people from the outside. So helps them hopefully move a lot. I mean the thesis that hopefully they’ll move a lot faster so you don’t have to wait for an external resource to, you know, fix up, fix an issue. That’s what you need, fix, etc. But everyone sort of understands the product a lot better and they all hopefully all have the same goal to grow the product. And so the engineer’s hopefully are working in sync with the sales people, with the client relations people. And you sort of, you minimize what I think I see in some organizations where suddenly you have organizations where the sales people, the technical people don’t talk to each other or they’re quite siloed. And so sales or promotions is pushing in one direction. Engineering is pushing a different direction and somehow there’s always, you know, things don’t quite always work. But I think if you sort of what we’ve seen is you can create this thing which in commercials and engineer engineering you’ve got my sales person and I’m going out there to sell. I’m confident that whatever I tell my clients or sell to the clients my engineers will actually, that’s does, that’s exactly what they’re building. And the same thing, the engineers know that if they build things. That’s actually what’s gonna get sold. So you don’t have this sort of thing where engineers will staff and no one is selling it or I go there and sell. But when 10 years on a river to fulfill. Yeah.

Sam:                                      28:55                     What are some things that have stayed the same since you’ve gone from 40 to 130?

Bilha:                                     29:00                     I think we’re also a novelist. Try to create a, we want to try to create a culture where people hopefully feel like this is, it goes beyond the job. I mean you I keep telling people you spend more than you, you know, most of your life is actually spent in the office. So the people you work with you know, are probably even much more closer to you as it were than any other person just because of the amount of time you spend with them. And so to the extent that we can sort of still maintain a familial culture and people feel like, you know what, I’m excited to come work here. People are nice. People actually want generally help each other. So it’s not a cutthroat sort of environment. I mean to a large extent I think, I feel like we’ve been able to sort of still maintain that and hopefully people still feel like, you know what I’m being pushed to, I’m being challenged to work, you know, to do, to do something more and more, and people, the people I find in the office are actually my friends, it’s not just coworkers that I, you know, come do some work and then leave. Yeah, so very much we’re very serious about what we’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve, but still very laid back in at the same time. Yeah,

Sam:                                      30:12                     I noticed outside a lot of people having lunch is lunch free?

Bilha:                                     30:16                     On Fridays only. Yeah. I’ve been thinking about trying to make it free every single day, but hey, actually the numbers actually

Sam:                                      30:22                     Series B, maybe, series B from it yet, but, but did people generally sort of eat food together and…

Bilha:                                     30:29                     Yeah. So most. Yeah, most people kind of just hung out and even hung out after work, which is a great thing I think.

Sam:                                      30:33                     Yeah.

Bilha:                                     30:34                     Yeah. So lunchtime, people either sit on the lounge or go out to together?

Sam:                                      30:39                     Very cool. So in terms of the opportunities, I mean from my understanding is Africa’s Talking is in this pretty cool position where you’re going and you’re doing this hard work that no one else is doing and then you need to turn around and sell your services to developers or clients.

Bilha:                                     30:58                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      30:58                     What are some of the challenges in the making money aspects of it? I guess there are sort of technical challenges with doing integrations, but in terms of actually for example, like going to Sierra Leone, what are some of the challenges in actually sort of making sure that you’ve got the generate enough revenue from that, from that market to make it up?

Bilha:                                     31:17                     I mean, I think two things, one I think once you’ve kind of gone through the hurdle of getting integrations, which is really hard on its own. I think that the second thing is because we’re selling a technical product and we are, it’s, it’s a product that still needs a software developer to integrate our system to whatever application he’s building or he’s building for his clients. Part of the challenge has been finding developers in the different markets we are in and getting them to know what to build and how to use it and being able to say, okay, you know what, I understand cause they see the value, but I guess they, they will sort of be able to do the integrations and

Sam:                                      31:55                     Is it ultimately dependent on people being able to make money from tech products?

Bilha:                                     32:03                     Yeah, exactly.

Sam:                                      32:04                     Yeah.

Bilha:                                     32:05                     Cause I think the more you have either that or businesses that actually understand or see the value of digitizing their processes. Because if I’m an enterprise and I think it’s important to communicate with my clients where SMS or, you know, or smart you know, voice system, then I’ll actually put the money into kind of, you know, Hey, let’s develop a system that can do that and I’m willing to pay for the SMSs, I’m willing to pay for the voice minutes. So to a large extent, I think it’s, and it’s a different, different ecosystems are different levels. So the more we can find businesses that are willing to put in money to digitize their process, then that becomes easier for us to sell the products we have.

Sam:                                      32:45                     You’ve currently, one is the the startup, which is looking to build a tech platform, but the other is just going to be organizations saying you’ve got loads of inefficient services that you’re doing versus you going, yeah, you use Africa’s Talking and we’ll make it so much easier.

Bilha:                                     33:02                     Exactly.

Sam:                                      33:02                     What’s the rough split? Are there any other types of customer or is it just those two and what’s the sort of split?

Bilha:                                     33:10                     I managed to get the actual numbers. I mean when I think about it like I think I’ll probably say 70% would probably be in the start-up area or sort of setups. Yeah. So very much heavy in the start up ecosystem especially in Kenya,

Sam:                                      33:27                     Is that 70% in terms of number in terms of revenue generated?

Bilha:                                     33:31                     I’ll probably say number.

Sam:                                      33:33                     Okay.

Bilha:                                     33:33                     Yeah. So revenue is still revenue is still very much on the enterprise side of things because at the end of the day, the businesses just have a lot more money to spend. So in as much as we may have a lot more startups. But even startups, I mean I think it’s it’s dependent because I mean you have startups that have raised quite a bit of money, so they are operating very much in a very different league compared to a startup that’s just kind of, you know, getting started and hasn’t raised quite a bit, hasn’t raised much money. So yes, they definitely wanna use a platform and we see their spend. But, you know, it’s until they actually have the resources, they can actually spend a lot more. But what you see is that businesses grow with us. So that, someone actually, you know, we’ve seen startups start with us and maybe the first couple of months they’re not able to do a lot more on the platform. But as their businesses grow or as they raise funding, we actually see their spend on the platform growing or increasing. So for us it’s really important to sell the value to anyone that’s building technology because technology scales. So we believe that if someone comes in and likes the platform from day one, maybe the money, they won’t spend a lot day one but then as whatever it is they’re building creates more value or gains, becomes more valuable. It then translates into more usage on the platform.

Sam:                                      34:47                     Is there much resistance? I’m trying to maybe on the enterprise side, resistance to using Africa’s Talking. Are there, maybe not competitors, but what are some of the other alternatives that exist for,

Bilha:                                     35:00                     Well of course I wouldn’t say necessarily resistance. I think it’s more, maybe it’s the, the couple of things. One could be that they’re probably locked up in a long term contract with a different provider. So the question could be how do you come in and make sure that, you know, the next time they’re doing a contract or something you, you’re part of that. Of course there’s some enterprises that might say it’s easy for us to go directly to Safaricom or to one of the tel-cos. Again, that works fine if the tel-cos is just, if the the business is trying to do a short term thing and they can go to and tel-co, but very quickly breaks up, breaks apart when they try and go to multiple tel-cos. And then just, I think just learning how to, I think for us it’s also learning how to sell to big customers. We started off as an engineering startup and so we’re very good. We really understand the developer mindset. Exactly. Software engineering. And so it’s been easier for us to sort of penetrate the, startup developers. Exactly. So now we’re having to learn how to work with enterprises and just realize that they have a different sales cycle and ways of doing business.

Sam:                                      36:09                     What are some interesting things you’ve learned?

Bilha:                                     36:12                     It’s basic things like they create budgets like years in advance or like a whole year in advance. And so if you miss the budget cycle, you know you’re out of that business kind of thing sometimes it might just be simple things around could you talk in an organization because it, maybe, the engineering is quite different from, you know, the person making the decision.

Sam:                                      36:34                     And you could be very excited.

Bilha:                                     36:36                     Precisely. But the person who’s making the decision, finance or whoever it is.

Sam:                                      36:42                     What’s the rough, like not specific, but rough figure that some, if, let’s say you’re a thousand person corporate in East Africa or other parts of Africa are we talking like 10,000 us dollars, a hundred thousand US dollars in terms of like how much are we’re actually going to have to pay you pay Africa’s Talking?

Bilha:                                     37:03                     Maybe, which, yeah probably around 10,000 plus whatever. But the thing is they don’t, because of the way our model works we don’t have because for you integrate into the platform it’s free. But then what happens is that it’s not quite sure of how much spend you want to use on the platform. And so the business can decide, you know, what, I want to talk to all my customers and maybe if I have a million customers probably be a lot more or maybe I want to send very, you know, so it’s up to the business and it’s kind of very much dependent on what their communication strategy is and how many of the customers they want to reach and how often, etc. So for us, because the platform is free and you only pay per transaction, we’ve seen businesses kind of, you know, scale up and down depending on either how well the business is doing or their communication needs. And so I don’t think the biggest thing is not so much how much they have to spend. I think for us, at least with enterprise, it’s always more how much, the willingness to get them on board and if they see the need to digitize their processes. Once they’re on board, then know we sort of sit there, their spend can, you know, sort of goes up and down depending on, you know, what they’re thinking about or much they want to spend.

Sam:                                      38:15                     Very cool. Okay. So just a few more questions, I know you’ve got a team meeting to go to. So what do you reckon Africa’s Talking looks like in three years? Or is this someone actually coming in now?

Bilha:                                     38:27                     In three years, a couple of things. One, as I said, we will definitely want to go across the continent. So I think we’ll definitely be a lot more, there’ll be a lot more Africa’s Talking in different markets that you see. We continue to grow the team and I think there’s a question around, you know, how big do you want to grow as a team? But I do see us becoming a you know, just a few more employees. I still don’t have a number in my head, specially just you ought to manage growth in the sense of you want to make sure that everyone coming in is well utilized and, you know, but at the same time we definitely recognize that we might need to, you know, grow the team quite significantly. When the last thing is I think just a product portfolio. So I think right now our product has been very much tel-co and banking related, so offering tel-co services and banking services. And, but the question is whether we can actually find ways to get a lot more products on the platform. And we’ve already decided to do that. So there’s interesting plays around building a platform on IOT, the internet of things a data analytics platform. So there are, but all these products are still all geared towards software developers. And I’m also trying to figure out what other ways to engage software developers, so we’re thinking about things like training, how do we train more developers? Just given that, I think there’s really smart talented developers on the continent. But I think giving them a chance to sort of learn how to, you know, work at a very high performance tech company I think is really important. So finding ways that we can engage the developer ecosystem a lot more than just going beyond the platform that we currently provide.

Sam:                                      40:07                     Very cool. And people who are listening at home. How can they learn more about Africa’s Talking?

Bilha:                                     40:11                     So you can always go to our website, so Of course we’re on Twitter @Africastalking. And so, and same thing on Facebook, but more so, I mean if anyone is actually ever in Nairobi or in any of the markets we are in we keep an open door policy so anyone can walk in any time and you’ll always find someone to talk to, talk to you. Yes. We also do quite a bit of developer outreach events. So especially for folks in campuses or developers. So you’ll probably see as in a campus near you are a tech hub near you in any of the markets that we’re currently operating in.

Sam:                                      40:46                     Fantastic. Cool. Well Bilha, thanks so much.

Bilha:                                     40:48                     Thank you so much.

How many eggs can you fit in an Uber? A Nairobi egg dealer on overcoming micro-business challenges


One of the nice things about having a podcast is that it allows you to have conversations with people you wouldn’t otherwise get around to.

In this episode I sit down with John, the man who I buy my eggs from in Kenya.

In Swahili, “mayai” means “eggs” and so his customers know him as John Mayai.

John works from an apartment building in Nairobi, and stores thousands of eggs in the car park to then sell to individuals and small businesses wanting to buy them in multiples of 30.

We talk about how he started the business buying and selling 5 trays of eggs, and is now up to 80, how cold weather affects the price of eggs, and the main challenges that come from expanding the business.

Now, the big limiting factor John mentioned was the ability to buy more eggs and transport them back to the car park to then sell to local businesses.

“There’s always demand for eggs” as John put it, so it’s just a case of increasing the supply.

Immediately after recording this episode I went for lunch my friend Raaj and we got chatting about how we could help out John to expand his business.

Long story short, the next day we were in a car with him driving up to a large egg market on the outskirts of Nairobi, returning a few hours later with nearly 5000 eggs.

I made some recordings from the trip, and so who knows, perhaps one day it’ll get made into an episode.

Anyway for now, there’s lots of interesting insights from John and I’s conversation and so I hope you enjoy this episode.

John’s business is representative of how a lot of people in Kenya work and live – buying and selling products and at a low margin in order to fund other areas of their life, such as school fees for the children.

I hope you find it enlightening.


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Sam:                                      00:00                     Intro

Sam:                                      02:24                     Cool. So we’re here today with John. So yeah, John, we’re going to talk today a bit about your your work and your, your side business.

John:                                     02:33                     Okay. Side hustle.

Sam:                                      02:35                     Yeah. So John Perhaps the best way to sort of get started is, is if you could just sort of give us a brief overview of sort of what you’re, what you’re doing right now

John:                                     02:49                     In fact I started, sometime two years ago. I was impressed when I saw people buying eggs, others selling eggs and in the morning hours, I was, Idle.

Sam:                                      03:03                     Yeah. Cause what is your, what is your main job?

John:                                     03:07                     My main, I’m a chef.

Sam:                                      03:08                     You’re a chef.

John:                                     03:10                     I am a chef, employed here. But my business is my, it’s in my mind. I’ve been doing business throughout my life.

Sam:                                      03:19                     Okay.

John:                                     03:19                     But at the end of the day, my business came down and I was, I didn’t, I couldn’t go farther, so I had to look for alternatives. I was employed here.

Sam:                                      03:31                     Yeah.

John:                                     03:32                     So I have to work so that I can push my family and those who are in school, I push them. Now when I was here and business minded just going around, I saw people selling eggs, like I went closer and asked them how much are you selling these eggs? We’re are selling, by then they were selling Ksh 330, one tray. When I went to up country. I went to the market, I did my survey.

Sam:                                      04:04                     Yep.

John:                                     04:05                     I got there were people who were selling at Ksh 270, 280

Sam:                                      04:10                     So when you say a tray of eggs, that’s maybe, is that 30 eggs?

John:                                     04:16                     30 eggs, yeah.

Sam:                                      04:16                     Okay. So upcountry.

John:                                     04:17                     Upcountry they were selling Ksh 280, 270.

Sam:                                      04:23                     Yeah.

John:                                     04:23                     I bought five.

Sam:                                      04:25                     Okay. So you said you had five times 270, so you had 1300?

John:                                     04:30                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      04:31                     1400.

John:                                     04:34                     I had 14 cause I had fare, my fare.

Sam:                                      04:37                     Yeah.

John:                                     04:38                     I came with my five trays, not Knowing I would sell to who, but in my mind, even if he won’t to buy, I’ll go, I’ll look for somebody else.

Sam:                                      04:48                     Yeah.

John:                                     04:50                     And we went, I went, the first day I sold two trays. I was very happy.

Sam:                                      04:55                     Yeah.

John:                                     04:56                     Of course. Now the remaining are three, the next day I went, I looked for another option, another customer. He told me I want at least five. If you have three, still bring five. I told him I’ll bring three today, tomorrow I’ll bring five. It was a market day. I sold her three, I went to the market, I bought six.

Sam:                                      05:21                     So you went back, you went back to the same market, upcountry?

John:                                     05:24                     Yeah. Up Country.

Sam:                                      05:24                     Okay.

John:                                     05:25                     I bought six. I came, I sold, now this guy I sold him five. I went home with one. With that time, from then, I been, I didn’t have more money. I had only the little one and now I go, I try to buy 80.

Sam:                                      05:48                     80.

John:                                     05:51                     80, I deliver them now. They are used to me. They, we knew each other. They just take my phone, they ring me, bring bring, bring. And eventually, I saw I can make something. All the same, I have one child who is in, still in school and this child is doing nothing. So I have to push her. At least I push her until she gets whatever she wants. And the little money I get here working, they are not enough. So I have to strain myself. I feed the family I feed and the and the school fees. So I have to pull up my socks and I tried to, I don’t drink but I have a rule the little I have, I try to use it in an orderly manner.

Sam:                                      06:52                     Yeah. Okay. So all of the so the, this, the egg business that you have that’s already sort of funding other parts of your family.

John:                                     07:01                     Yeah, it is funding and pushing the, those who are in school, even now he’s at KMTC. He has finished, he has a certificate but he said a certificate is too low. He wants to advance.

Sam:                                      07:19                     So he needs to go get…

John:                                     07:19                     No, he’s now advancing. Still there. And since he’s determined, I said I’ll push him to the end. So we are there.

Sam:                                      07:28                     Makes Sense. Okay. So at the moment, so two years ago you, you went up country and you bought your five trays of eggs.

John:                                     07:37                     Yeah. From then, I’ve been going daily.

Sam:                                      07:40                     Daily?

John:                                     07:43                     No, weekly, weekly.

Sam:                                      07:43                     And so you’ve slowly been increasing and now you, now you do 80 trays of eggs. How do you, how do you transport 80 trays of eggs?

John:                                     07:53                     I put them in a big box like this one. I fold them with a rope, tightly.

Sam:                                      08:00                     Okay.

John:                                     08:01                     Then I put it in a ‘matatu.’

Sam:                                      08:03                     Okay. ‘Matatu’ Is the bus?

John:                                     08:06                     The bus. I pay as if it’s a customer. I pay the luggage and me.

Sam:                                      08:14                     I see. Oh, so you pay for two fares. One is for you to sit and one is for the eggs to sit.

John:                                     08:19                     Then when I come, to ‘Kawangware’ then I shift to another car. When it reaches here, now I get the trolley, I bring them here.

Sam:                                      08:30                     Yeah. Okay. Do they have a break?

John:                                     08:33                     No. They break. Yeah. Like do you see this one?

Sam:                                      08:37                     We’re looking at this tray now where they are some broken eggs.

John:                                     08:41                     They are broken, but they are not many. If you, they can be broken less 10. You won’t feel it. But if it’s more than a tray, it will cost you. You’ll cry, but all the same, I know they are perishable things.

Sam:                                      08:58                     Yeah.

John:                                     08:58                     And they list, they are not, I handle them with the care. When putting in the car, when offloading. You have to be very, very sensitive. Even whoever is helping you, he helps you in an orderly manner. You pull them down slowly. Then you tell him thank you he goes.

Sam:                                      09:22                     And where do you, why do you buy your eggs from?

John:                                     09:25                     From ‘Wangige,’ it’s a big market where people, about 1000 farmers go to that.

Sam:                                      09:35                     Whereabouts in Kenya is it?

John:                                     09:36                     It’s not far. It’s between Nairobi and Kiambu.

Sam:                                      09:42                     So it’s maybe 40 minutes?

John:                                     09:45                     If you have a personal car is half an hour.

Sam:                                      09:49                     Okay.

John:                                     09:49                     It’s not far. But now the cash, I don’t have a car so I have to…

Sam:                                      09:56                     Take a ‘matatu.’

John:                                     09:57                     I have to use a ‘matatu.’

Sam:                                      09:59                     So the, all the, poultry farmers, the egg farmers that are coming to this market.

John:                                     10:06                     Very many. Over a thousand farmers come, there is a market place. They bring their eggs. Customer know, they go buy their egg there. They go.

Sam:                                      10:16                     And so are you buying directly from the farmer?

John:                                     10:19                     Yeah, exactly. I have three, four farmers who they are, we are used to. Okay. When they, they come, they phone, we have arrived, OK, I’m on the way, when I reach there and I wanted these eggs. Okay. We just bargain and I transact, I pay.

Sam:                                      10:39                     And do you always pay cash or do you have like…

John:                                     10:41                     Always cash.

Sam:                                      10:42                     No they don’t give credit?

John:                                     10:43                     No they don’t give credit because now they are demanding the chicken want to eat. They don’t have money, they have to go and buy.

Sam:                                      10:50                     So they need to get it so you can more eggs Okay. And so you go there is the price still Ksh 270 for a tray?

John:                                     11:00                     No, it is not constant. Sometimes it’s low, sometimes it’s upper.

Sam:                                      11:05                     Why does it change?

John:                                     11:06                     Because of the climate. Like now it’s cold. So the eggs, the chicken are not hatching eggs. Why? Because of the weather. It’s cold. Some who, supposing you didn’t feed them properly? They won’t hatch.

Sam:                                      11:23                     Yeah.

John:                                     11:23                     But if you feed them proper, they will hatch. It goes with the weather and the type, of Type of food you are giving the chicken. There are chicken which, you can, you can have at least 500 chicken, but you are giving them bad, bad.

Sam:                                      11:45                     Bad food,

John:                                     11:45                     Bad food. So the production will be low. But if you give the, the quality, the best quality. They will still, they’ll hatch.

Sam:                                      11:53                     Okay, that’s good. And so you can always get, so normally though you’re always able to get eggs?

John:                                     12:00                     I tell you there are over 1000, 10,000 farmers, over

Sam:                                      12:06                     Okay. So there is no problem with getting eggs

John:                                     12:09                     Getting eggs, unless you don’t have money. Now that time, you can say you won’t get but when you have money you definitely have to get, even if it’s 1000 trays.

Sam:                                      12:20                     Yeah.

John:                                     12:21                     You get them, you pay, you get them, you put them in your car, back off, you go..

Sam:                                      12:27                     Okay. So that’s so it seems like you’ve got quite a good supply chain as in it’s quite simple. You can go, they’re all the…

John:                                     12:34                     But the problem here is only the available money cause I wanted to buy more than at least a hundred and but I reached 80, I’m squeezed, there are problems here and there. I push a portion, so I’m close that, I don’t want to do, I don’t want to go below 80. I want to stand at 80. The little I get, I can use that into the family, to school like that. Okay.

Sam:                                      13:04                     And on, on the, on the demand side, so in terms of who’s buying the eggs, so you, you sell them for Ksh 330, is it?

John:                                     13:13                     No, I sell them, the current is Ksh 300.

Sam:                                      13:16                     Ksh 300. OK.

John:                                     13:17                     So I make 10 shillings for transport. So I can, I know I normally get 10 shillings out of one tray. If I have 80, I have, Ksh 800.

Sam:                                      13:29                     Yeah.

John:                                     13:30                     If they are not broken, if they are broken, you might get Ksh 750, 700 like that.

Sam:                                      13:37                     Okay. So each each time you make a trip and you come back with 80 trays, you’re thinking I’m making about 750 shillings.

John:                                     13:47                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      13:47                     Roughly, which is about $7 50.

John:                                     13:50                     Yeah. That one easily I’ll get it.

Sam:                                      13:52                     You’ll get it.

John:                                     13:53                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      13:53                     Okay. So if you, if you go with that, you’ll come back with that.

John:                                     13:56                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      13:57                     Okay. And, I mean we’re, we’re currently sat in the, this is, this is your, your room?

John:                                     14:04                     Yeah. I’m given this room, after working, I sleep here.

Sam:                                      14:10                     This is an apartment.

John:                                     14:10                     Apartment.

Sam:                                      14:12                     And you keep the, store the eggs here?

John:                                     14:17                     No, I keep my eggs here.

Sam:                                      14:19                     So we’re just looking in the corner of the room is

John:                                     14:23                     Yeah, that’s four eggs.

Sam:                                      14:25                     Yeah. .

John:                                     14:26                     And you see when I, like today I want to finish the whole load. I finish the whole load, then I, I know tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, I’ll go for market.

Sam:                                      14:37                     You’ll go to the next. Okay. Who, so I’m one of your customers so I live a few minutes walk away and I will come to you and I’ll pay 300 shillings to get my tray of eggs. Who else is, who else is buying eggs from you? Yeah. Who else comes and buys.

John:                                     14:57                     There are people, a few apartments, like your apartment. I have three, four apartments. I deliver two, three, four, three, three eggs, four eggs, four trays, about, no five plus those two, six apartment. Usually I take, I deliver them there. Okay. There are others who come here, they take, take their, to their business. Small, others big, others, they’re different.

Sam:                                      15:27                     Sometimes it’s businesses?

John:                                     15:29                     They come here, and I leave at least 10 trays with the soldier. Even if I’m not around, they pay the soldier…

Sam:                                      15:36                     When you say the soldier, this is the guard whose at the gate. So this means if…

John:                                     15:41                     You are not around, I leave them there.

Sam:                                      15:44                     Sometimes I’e done that. I’ve come and I’ve asked for, asked for John, you’ve not been here and the guard has said, oh it’s okay, I’ve got the trays.

John:                                     15:52                     Because now the 10 is easy to calculate. I’ve sold four, so you have six. And they gave me a shot and by the end of the day I just push him something small, he’s happy and we call it a day.

Sam:                                      16:07                     Call it a day. Great, and so it’s, sometimes it’s small businesses, sort of like hotels, restaurants.

John:                                     16:13                     Hotels. They are very many. They are many. But now since my time is limited, It’s only morning when I can go out, I deliver, afternoon I’m occupied here. Now you see I can’t go in the afternoon cause I’m working here. But in the morning I utilize the little time I have, I make sure I have surveyed at least every corner and as I make calls then we communicate because I work from morning to noon, from noon I, business of eggs I finish.

Sam:                                      16:49                     Okay.

John:                                     16:50                     Now go back to my business.

Sam:                                      16:53                     Very good.

John:                                     16:56                     If I can get something like a van.

Sam:                                      17:01                     I was about to say, what are the main challenges.

John:                                     17:04                     The challenges are, now you see 800, wee need to transport them in a keen way, you know because in the, you can go to, you hire a car and that man, that taxi man, he’s been called somewhere else. So he’ll drive you faster. By driving you fast, at least, some things are delicate, will be broken. When he reaches, you tell him let’s move cause he want to go to their other costumer. But you have, if you can have, let’s say a personal car, I tell you me, I can’t do any other job. I can do only this. I know I have my 500 trays. I have sold 300, I’m remaining with, I can do now more, only this. Because now the suppliers I know where I’ll get them, beautiful fresh eggs. From there, I knew where to deliver to customers, but then the challenge is transportation

Sam:                                      18:10                     At the moment you have to take it on ‘matatus’ and so it’s, you have to be there and there’s only enough room for about 80 trays. But if you could get the transports, you know that that would be the, that would be the game changer.

John:                                     18:25                     I can, I can be the happiest man in this world cause I know my luggage will go safely, reach, I’ll keep it there.

Sam:                                      18:34                     And would you be able to sell 500 trays? Because at the moment you’re selling 80 trays. That’s like, 500, that’s like 500% that’s like five times as much.

John:                                     18:49                     No. I can sell even 500 but now that, that time I can tell now the boss, I’m a bit tired with the business, I concentrate on eggs only

Sam:                                      19:02                     So how do you, okay. So let’s sort of think, so who, who would buy, who would be your customers? So at the moment you’ve got some small hotels.

John:                                     19:12                     No, I saw I have a small, but others like my neighbor here, he was telling me when I can deliver 300 trays in one week.

Sam:                                      19:21                     And who is that? What did he do?

John:                                     19:24                     You know, he’s a, has a supermarket.

Sam:                                      19:27                     Okay.

John:                                     19:27                     But he’s a Chinese.

Sam:                                      19:29                     Okay.

John:                                     19:29                     Now I can deliver the 300 but financially, I am weak. Second thing, I don’t have something to carry and to bring and to…

Sam:                                      19:40                     You needed the transport.

John:                                     19:42                     Market is there. If I can go outside on a serious game, I can sell 500 trays a day.

Sam:                                      19:49                     500 a day.

John:                                     19:51                     A day, one day, 500.

Sam:                                      19:53                     No.

John:                                     19:54                     I can sell. I sell here three, the others I sell a hundred, I go another corner, a hundred, finished. I go home.

Sam:                                      20:02                     So where did the, where did the, this Chinese supermarket. Where do they currently buy their eggs from?

John:                                     20:08                     You see the Chinese, they like these African eggs.

Sam:                                      20:12                     Okay.

John:                                     20:13                     Because they have looked at them, they saw they are good quality.

Sam:                                      20:19                     Great quality.

John:                                     20:20                     They enjoy them.

Sam:                                      20:22                     Yeah.

John:                                     20:22                     So they need them.

Sam:                                      20:24                     Okay.

John:                                     20:25                     Now they want a constant…

Sam:                                      20:27                     Constant supply.

John:                                     20:28                     Supplier.

Sam:                                      20:29                     Yeah.

John:                                     20:29                     Maybe I used to learn my, I know we know each other, but now me, I, they tell me of 300, I tell them I will see them, but I don’t go back and go another corner. Because they want too much, which I don’t have.

Sam:                                      20:45                     They want…

John:                                     20:45                     They want many.

Sam:                                      20:47                     Yeah, and it’s you can’t, so they want eggs, you don’t have the money to buy.

John:                                     20:51                     I don’t have the money to buy.

Sam:                                      20:53                     Yeah.

John:                                     20:53                     And I don’t, something to deliver, you see. I gave them, but if I can, if they can be, they tell me deliver 300 and I have a car and money, I deliver.

Sam:                                      21:08                     Yeah.

John:                                     21:10                     Okay. One week I can deliver 500, I go to another place, 500 only eggs.

Sam:                                      21:18                     Yeah.

John:                                     21:19                     Only Eggs. And I mix eggs. This grade and ‘Kienyeji.’ There are two types.

Sam:                                      21:25                     Say it again.

John:                                     21:27                     There are these grade.

Sam:                                      21:29                     Gray?

John:                                     21:30                     This grade, is normal.

Sam:                                      21:32                     Okay.

John:                                     21:33                     And the other one, local, local chicken which are, when they go to look for them, their food outside.

Sam:                                      21:41                     Okay. Which, which ones are better?

John:                                     21:44                     Those ones are, they are very rare. They are not many, they’re rare. Cause now you see this is, if you have two brothers you share the small portion you have, you fence yours and maybe he’s growing onion and ‘skuma,’ spinach.

Sam:                                      22:03                     Yeah.

John:                                     22:03                     You don’t need any chicken to go in the garden. So many people have, they have, they have fenced where they’re putting poultry.

Sam:                                      22:16                     Yeah.

John:                                     22:18                     But the others are better than these. They are very rich.

Sam:                                      22:22                     Why? Why are they better?

John:                                     22:23                     Because of the type, their type but honestly, they are good. They are good. But if I were told which, choose among the two, I would choose the other one and they are rich more than, but even these, they are good.

Sam:                                      22:40                     Even these are good.

John:                                     22:42                     Cause many people now. I don’t know, and also there’s no as this one.

Sam:                                      22:47                     Okay. How many do you, do you eat eggs? Do you have eggs to eat?

John:                                     22:54                     No. Let’s say when they are broken, that time I say you now at least, like yesterday I took four. Yeah.

Sam:                                      23:01                     Okay. So when they are, when there’s like some which are slightly broken.

John:                                     23:05                     When they are not broken me, I don’t eat, I sell, I sell. When they’re broken now I say these I don’t know, somebody to sell and I bought them. I bought yesterday.

Sam:                                      23:17                     Yeah. So John, we’ll sort of just finish up now. But basically it’s, I mean I’ve, this is just, it sounds very, very interesting. Like you’ve had the business for, is it two years now?

John:                                     23:35                     No, This is. Yeah. This is the second year.

Sam:                                      23:37                     Second year. Yeah. So you’ve gone from five, five trays.

John:                                     23:40                     Yeah. Now I’m at 80.

Sam:                                      23:42                     Now you’re kind of looking at, okay, how can we get to the…

John:                                     23:46                     If I can get something to boost me, I go instead of going for 80, after one day I go another 80…

Sam:                                      23:54                     At the moment, you’re saying the demand is there. So people want to buy,?

John:                                     24:00                     People want, I tell you my neighbor here, here, the Chinese supermarket, they know me. There’s a time I delivered them but I didn’t, we didn’t go far. They know me. I know they, they delay paying but they pay.

Sam:                                      24:20                     Yeah.

John:                                     24:21                     They are good.

Sam:                                      24:22                     Okay.

John:                                     24:23                     If he tells me bring, he will take them. He sees them. You Count, he writes you an invoice. That’s money. Even if you are not going to get that day, next two days.

Sam:                                      24:37                     Okay. And you recon that, in order to, the thing that you need to grow the business, it’s just the ability to do transport.

John:                                     24:43                     Yeah. If you can get the transport and at least with small capital to add the little you have, you’ll sell. You’ll sell.

Sam:                                      24:55                     Cool. Well, that sounds really good John. I’ll yeah, I’ll certainly be thinking about this and also I will talk to some, some friends.

John:                                     25:03                     Okay.

Sam:                                      25:04                     But yeah.

John:                                     25:05                     I can be very happy. At least somebody, if you can just boost me, small.

Sam:                                      25:10                     Yeah.

John:                                     25:11                     You’ll also see you cause now I won’t tell you of 80, I will tell you 200, 300.

Sam:                                      25:19                     Will you have enough space because at the moment this, at the moment the eggs are in the room but do you need a new place to store them?

John:                                     25:26                     No, I can now talk to the boss here.

Sam:                                      25:29                     Yeah.

John:                                     25:29                     We keep them outside.

Sam:                                      25:31                     It’s a big car-park.

John:                                     25:33                     There’s a small portion. I tell him I will utilize this, because he knows me. [Inaudible] Cause he knows me, I’m a bit hardworking and I don’t have anything else in my mind. I know his time. I know my time.

Sam:                                      25:57                     Yeah.

John:                                     25:59                     No, the place to put, there is. Even I can remove this thing, I put another hundred there, another hundred and another hundred here. The space is still on, yeah.

Sam:                                      26:13                     Awesome. Cool. Well John, thank you so much.

John:                                     26:16                     OK. Thank you Sam.

Sam:                                      26:18                     Asante sana

How a Kenyan couple captured the Japanese market in Kenya, with Wangari Wachira


Near to where I live in Nairobi is a Japanese cafe.

Whenever I’ve been the food has been delicious, and the small place is full of people from Japan, enjoying Ramen bowls and cold imported beer.

I thought it would be interesting to interview the owners to learn about how the business started.

It turns out that the owners Wangari (the other, her husband) have cornered down a niche market in the city.

Both were born and raised in Kenya, independently decided to learn Japanese as kids and ended up getting married after a mutual friend introduced them so they could connect on the shared love for Japan

Today they run a diverse portfolio of businesses to serve Japanese consumers in Kenya.

In the interview we discuss how their businesses came to be, the interplay of owning a safari company, supermarket, cafe and farm all geared towards the Japanese market, and practicalities of, for example, selling Bento boxes in Nairobi.

It’s a really interesting example of finding a business area that’s aligned with your personal interests and skill set, and then occupying that niche to very high standard.


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LinkedIn: Wangari Wachira


Sam:                                      00:00                     Intro

Sam:                                      01:43                     Cool. So we’re here today with Wangari from Jinya, Wangari, welcome to the show.

Wangari:                              01:49                     Thank you very much. Welcome to Jinya.

Sam:                                      01:50                     Thanks. So we’re currently sat drinking Japanese tea in your Japanese supermarkets. Did you call it Japanese supermarkets?

Wangari:                              01:58                     Yes, yes, we do.

Sam:                                      01:59                     Fantastic. And then there’s the cafe just around the corner as well. In the same sort of block.

Wangari:                              02:05                     Yes, that’s right.

Sam:                                      02:06                     Yeah. Just to get us started, can you tell us a bit about Jinya and a bit about yourself?

Wangari:                              02:12                     So Jinya is I started to run Jinya about five years ago after the original founder retired back to Japan. She had been doing this for around 10 years and she wanted to retire and go back to Japan. And so she was looking for people who would either take on, take it on and continue as a way of having continuity and also taking care of the Japanese community that was in Nairobi. At the same time I had sort of also established that I wanted to start a food business and through my husband who has interests in the Japanese community where he runs a safari company that handles Japanese tourists. He had known this lady Reiko for many years by giving her business of the Japanese Bento box. And so when they had known each other for a long time and she mentioned that, you know, she was going back to Japan and she needed to, to get somebody else to continue with the business. And at that point David knew that it will be very suitable for me first because of my love of Japanese culture, Japan, the Japanese people. And he knew that you know, this is something that I might want to try. And so he came and asked, would you be interested to do this? And and I jumped at it and I was like, this is a wonderful idea. Let’s, let me go and see what it is. So I went into her kitchen for around two months just to intern with her and learn about the cuisine and what she was doing. And spending time with her, you know, as I saw that, you know, I could do this I can challenge it and learn more. And and that’s how it started.

Sam:                                      04:15                     Very cool. Okay. So Reiko so she started maybe 15 years ago.

Wangari:                              04:21                     That’s right.

Sam:                                      04:22                     Yeah. So she was in, she was based in Nairobi as well?

Wangari:                              04:24                     That’s right. Yeah.

Sam:                                      04:26                     And did she have the same premises that we’re sat in now?

Wangari:                              04:29                     No. So she’s been in several premises. So the last premise that Jinya was, it was on Riverside drive.

Sam:                                      04:37                     Okay.

Wangari:                              04:38                     It was a house that was, she used it, a multipurpose, it was a geo house. She lived in it and downstairs was the shop. So when she left I also had the same, I didn’t have a premise to set it up in. So I sort of set it up also in my house for a short time as I tried to get a place to position it or a little store like this. In one afternoon when I was doing a delivery and I was on Lenana road I saw the sign of shops to let, and now I, I jumped at the, at the opportunity because in this area that’s where a lot of the Japanese people and Southeast Asians there’s a big number of them who live in this area. So it was the area that I was looking for. And so when this came up in 2015I jumped at it and then I got the space.

Sam:                                      05:37                     Very cool. Okay. Well there’s going to be lots of things sort of for us to talk about with the business, but I think, you know, the thing which I sort of struck with at the beginning was you said that you’ve always had an interest in the Japanese culture and where’s that, where’s that come from?

Wangari:                              05:52                     I’m not sure. Sometimes I say, I think in my past life I must have been Japanese, because I studied the Japanese language when I was studying for college. I was it was an added advantage to have an extra language. So I studied French and I thought to myself, I want to do something different from everybody else. And I think a crazy idea came to my mind. Why don’t I study Japanese? I often ask my mom, so when I said I want to study Japanese, why did you even respond? Because she responded instantly came to the Japanese embassy and asked, is there a place where if somebody is interested in learning Japanese language, they can get? And the funny story is that this I always try to think what an interesting story this is. My Japanese language teacher, the first person who told me about Japan and anything about it is actually was married to Reiko who ended, who I ended up 25 or 20 odd years later buying her business as, so I learned language and culture from Weda Sensei and I learned the food from Reiko Weda interesting cycle.

Sam:                                      07:16                     I know it’s a very influential family.

Wangari:                              07:17                     Yes, yes. They have had a very big influence on me. So back then I just studied the language, a bit of culture, then went into work as work happens, I really did not use…

Sam:                                      07:34                     What did you do?

Wangari:                              07:34                     So I was in the safari business. So I worked in a, I actually ended up in the hospitality section of the safari business where I worked for several camps in Maasai Mara. And a few years, maybe 13, 13 years ago, I left that to come and join my husband in his safari business. And we set up a camp in Maasai Mara also. But,,or everyday work, that does not, didn’t involve me every day. So for, I needed something that I would do something everyday. And being based in Nairobi, hat’s why the food business sounded like a good thing to do. But also, he safari business over the last couple of years has been facing a lot of challenges from terrorism to drop maybe I think a difference of interest in tourists around the world. Having more options to go to, aybe a little bit of under development of our tourist product. So the, the safari business changed and the numbers of tourists that we would receive several years ago really dropped. And so we were thinking that we needed to diversify because we were 100% in that. And that’s where we depended on. And we needed, we felt that we needed to diversify into something that’s not affected by terrorism, that’s not affected very much by political, different political incidences. Something that we could have a little bit more control or predictability to. So we needed to diversify into that area. But with our strengths being in the tourism and hospitality business, e still wanted to be, some way, in that sphere. And also, he investment that we could afford to put in felt, you know, the food business in Nairobi sounded, ooked like, you know, the low lying fruit that we could be able to harness. So we, yeah, so basically that’s how, how Jinya has evolved to where we are today.

Sam:                                      09:53                     Very cool. Okay. So you sort of always had this interest in, in Japanese culture and then various turns and luck, you’ve sort of ended up being here. Is, I mean, the businesses you’ve got, you’ve got the sort of supermarket, which we’re sat in now and the cafe as well. Who were the main customers at in both and did the base sort of differ as well?

Wangari:                              10:21                     So we, we started with, the first people who knew about Jinya was the Japanese customers. They depended on Jinya for certain things. A lot of the handmade foods. Before we did not have the fresh produce. And this is something that I started. Reiko did not have fresh produce. Being business people, we had also ventured into agriculture, agribusiness growing local vegetables, trying to grow flowers for the European market. So we have a farm that we’ve always said we are hobby farmers, but we wanted to end up being a commercial farm that actually works. And we tried various things that didn’t work. And so, the way Jinya was when I took it over, it was also facing challenges in its structure, because there was a lot of influx of supermarkets that were bringing a lot of things that, you know, the Japanese could depend on.

Sam:                                      11:27                     So previously, was it sort of a, a specialists store and so that it would import particular Japanese products?

Wangari:                              11:36                     Yes, there was a little bit of import and very targeted just to the Japanese community. But for it to survive, it needed us to go more beyond just the Japanese community and we needed also to give them more than what was being offered then. So, we still have pretty much a number of things that Reiko used to, used to supply, you know, the sliced meats, the miso, the miso paste and the tofu and various other things. But we then added the fresh produce. So I just went onto the internet and I asked myself, you know, do the Japanese eat other things, other vegetables that are not available in Nairobi. And I went to the Internet and I saw, wow, there was a whole list of other vegetables that I could grow.

Sam:                                      12:32                     Alright. So someone had made a list of these are the main vegetables eaten in Japanese cuisine?

Wangari:                              12:38                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      12:39                     And you could then sort of go through them and see if they were already being grown in Kenya?

Wangari:                              12:44                     Yes. So that’s what I did. And then we started to, to try, so growing different things.

Sam:                                      12:56                     What did you grow?

Wangari:                              12:56                     You know apparently the Japanese have their own radish, a particular radish that is predominantly used in Japanese cuisine. The Koreans have their own radish. So I started to grow the Japanese radish. I started to grow some of the, some bottle cruet. I started to grow some different salads that we have them here. But one of the things you know, the Japanese are very particular about what they eat and they prefer a lot of highly good quality, highly well grown food. So when, when I grow the food on my farm I’m able, they are able to get the traceability of what they eat and then they can trust what they eat because it’s all been grown on one farm. We use good. We are not, we’re not an organic farm, but we use good agricultural practices. You know, we do a lot of positive things like that are in organic farming, like using organic manure pesticide control through pest control, through plants like different plants that that keep away pests. There’s one Japanese vegetable, the Chrysanthemum greens, which is very, a very good pest controller. And so we now grow it on the farm as a vegetable and as a pest, pest control. So we adapt those kinds of things. We have a good water source, so we were able to offer them, we are able to offer our customers, good fresh vegetable, which we bring every once a week from the farm, and we sell on our Saturday vegetable market. And that changed immediately that changed the trajectory of the business. Just bringing in the vegetables because now the Japanese people who are in Nairobi and even others who came to hear about it and they, you know, once in a while they like to eat southeast Asian food or they change a little bit of their food. I mean, you can also get cabbage or lettuce, things that are in continental cuisine, but because of the freshness and the, where they come from and all those guarantees, we’ve grown outside of just the Japanese market. And then we have more.

Sam:                                      15:18                     Alright. So have you, have you always had this farm?

Wangari:                              15:20                     Yes. We’ve always had it.

Sam:                                      15:22                     And before you were saying you were just growing sort of local foods that…

Wangari:                              15:26                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      15:27                     But now you’ve, now you’ve got this shop that’s, yeah. That’s a great synergy where you’ve had this, this farm before and now you’ve got the supply on the and the vehicle to deliver it.

Wangari:                              15:39                     That’s right.

Sam:                                      15:39                     Yeah. You can now you’ve got this, this market’s delivering suit. Yes. Sounds really great,. Okay.

Wangari:                              15:44                     Yeah. So, it was a struggle to get a consistent market when we grew just for the local market because the local market has a lot of other external influences that you cannot be in control of. So for example, you can plant lots of cabbage and everybody else planted lots of cabbage, so when you come in the market, nobody needs your cabbage. So I started sort of stopped farming first to, to be able to understand which direction that I wanted to take it to. I tried various things like I had, I had had a little stall in one local market, but it was still very difficult to predict what to grow, when to grow it and all that. But then now when we created our own market here that had a specific kind of food that you would find I found that now that made sense and we have gone, we can continuously now plan based on that. And even our growth, we can easily plan based on that because we have seen the trends that has been said.

Sam:                                      16:51                     Alright. So, the Japanese community that was there before you, where they unable to get Japanese radish?

Wangari:                              17:01                     Yeah. You know.

Sam:                                      17:03                     How many people, roughly how many Japanese people are roughly living in…

Wangari:                              17:06                     I understand that about probably 800 of them families, many children and adults and children.

Sam:                                      17:14                     Yeah.

Wangari:                              17:14                     Not very many, but we expect you know them to increase because, you know, Japan is increasing its, position in Africa and interest in Africa and Kenya being it’s hub for a lot of this. I have seen you know, increase in Japanese companies, so I expect that the growth shall continue. Yeah.

Sam:                                      17:38                     Okay. So roughly 800, is it roughly 800 people?

Wangari:                              17:43                     Yeah.

Wangari:                              17:44                     Okay. Doesn’t sound very many, does it? No, no. It’s a very small number. How many have you, how many different Japanese people do you think have come to your cafe?

Wangari:                              17:58                     When we said the cafe, I have seen Japanese people who were never customers of the shop, the supermarket come to the cafe, which has been wonderful because they mainly, they were local. They know how to survive here with, without necessarily their Japanese favorite ingredients. They have figured a way to survive. But somehow the cafe has brought them out. And I’ve got to meet the new, new Japanese people that have been here. You know, some telling me they’ve been here for so long and I’m like, I’ve never met you before. How come? So I mean we, we’ve gotten a good number of them coming through. The goodness about the thing about the cafes that we are doing home home-style cooking and, and that’s very close to a lot of Japanese people’s heart,so.

Sam:                                      18:57                     What are some of the popular dishes? Yeah.

Wangari:                              19:00                     Some of the popular dishes they keep changing because I keep changing the menu but you know I have a lot of, a lot of Japanese people are our bachelors. They haven’t yet come with family. Some, some don’t have families. We are seeing also very many young, younger Japanese coming. And one of our most popular is Katsudon. So katsudon is a, dong is a bowl of rice with something on top. So this one has a cutlet, a pork Cutlet and it has an egg sauce. So that’s real home cooking and it’s comfort food. There’s also shogayaki. Shogayaki is pork in ginger. Also very easy to make at home. And probably eaten a lot. There’s a Japanese curry and we can have various twists to the curry. We can have a cutlet in it, we can have a curry soup. So there are many other options. And, and the good thing that I’ve also found out is that when I introduced them to non-Japanese people also, because one of the aims of creating the cafe was I realized that my store might not have a big influence or a big impact if I do not reach out to more of the local people and they would come to the store and, you know, they would look at all these strange things to them. And I would tell them, I know this, I mean, you could cook this at home, you can eat this at home. It’s not complicated. You can adopt a Japanese meal once a week in your menu, and they would look at me and say, well, okay. And they would walk out of the store. And so I thought to myself, you know, if I could only cook this food and get people to taste it then they would see the, you know, when I was talking about and so to take care of people who asked me for Bento boxes and, and food in general, and also to take care of growth for us. We thought, you know what, let’s put up a cafe. So when the space came available, just here, you know, it’s perfect to have it just here. So if somebody enjoyed something at the cafe, they could come and pick it up from the store and then they could try it at home.

Sam:                                      21:30                     So who does the, whose the chef, who does the cooking at the cafe.

Wangari:                              21:36                     I have a team. I have a main chef who, we, we searched for with our history, knowing there was a Japanese restaurant several years ago that was run by a Japanese chef. He was a chef and he ran the business. And so we, it was shut a few years ago. So we went out all the way to Kitengela, to go and look for some of the people that he had trained. And we had one, my husband had one.

Sam:                                      22:08                     What were they doing in Kitengela?

Wangari:                              22:08                     They, you know, they would, now they’re doing different things. So we tracked them down through one waiter that was in one of the Japanese restaurants and he was a colleague to one of their chefs and we asked him, so where is so and so, do you know where so and so he was there. He was their manager at the it was called Nihonjin club. Nihonjin club means a Japanese people club. And so he was the manager at Nihonjin Club. And we were told that you can find him in kitengela. That’s where he has a school.

Sam:                                      22:44                     Kitengela is like, maybe an hour drive from…

Wangari:                              22:46                     Yeah. Or towards Athi river. So, you know we got his contact and we met and we went and met him there. And, you know, so we asked him, you know, do you have contacts of the people who you worked with who could be young, who are younger then, who had been trained how to make Japanese food and where could they be and what are they doing? And he had the contact of two of them. Unfortunately one was not interested in coming back to Nairobi, he had already settled in his rural life. And I think we didn’t entice him enough. But his specialty was also making Sushi and we really were not geared to making Sushi because Sushi is not Japanese home food. It’s also for special occasions, even in Japan. So we were not very keen on having a Sushi, just a Sushi chef. We wanted somebody who was more, who wouldn’t be, who knew more about the Japanese traditional foods. And then, that’s how we ended up with the chef John. The other rest of the team was the junior team, so we used to do Bento boxes.

Sam:                                      24:00                     What was a bento box?

Wangari:                              24:01                     So a bento box is a traditional lunchbox in Japan. It’s very popular to have a boxed lunch for lunch. So it’s either from home or from the train station or from the convenience store. So when you go to Japan, you’ll see these lunch boxes all over the place and they are wholesome, very delicious. You know, it’s, it’s an everyday.

Sam:                                      24:24                     What’s in there?

Wangari:                              24:25                     It will have, there would be, they have a variety of them. And you know, in Japan they see four seasons where, which they use to even change their cuisines. So because, you know, in different seasons you get differentdifferent ingredients. So they change, they sometimes change based on the four seasons, but you get the regular karare, which is the fried chicken, the tonkatsu, which is the breaded pork. You get the shogayaki, you know, so you get the daily kind of food, but you know, emphasis is into food that is not soupy, that will not leak, that will still be enjoyable cold because it’s enjoyed at room temperature. So a lot of emphasis is based on that. You will find a rice ball in it or a, or just some rice some vegetables. So it will be a nicely balanced boxed lunch that you can enjoy in different places in Japan.

Sam:                                      25:23                     So do you sell bento boxes?

Wangari:                              25:26                     Yes, yes.

Sam:                                      25:29                     Do people bring their own box and then you fill it up or do they do…

Wangari:                              25:34                     There’s disposable. So there are disposable boxes and we arrange depending on, so you, what you do is that you choose the main, the main that you would want to have. So let’s say you want to have fried chicken and then we choose the other accompaniments to go with the fried chicken. So there’s, we balance the textures, the flavors, the colors, you know, we have to pay attention to lots of details in Japanese, when you’re making Japanese food. There’s the rule of five, five colors.

Sam:                                      26:06                     Five colors per meal?

Wangari:                              26:07                     Five tastes and five methods of cooking.

Sam:                                      26:10                     Really? So five methods of cooking for every meal?

Wangari:                              26:12                     For every meal. Yeah. But somehow they get it. I guess you can, you could have about four, but you know, you can try. The five colors sort of help you to know that you have a balanced meal and that you have taken care of all your nutritional requirements.

Sam:                                      26:31                     Did you do like a different lunch each day that people get?

Wangari:                              26:34                     So we have about, I think there are five, five different sets that we have made just to make it easier for lots of people to be able to order a bento box, and also coming from for the Japanese people they’re used to it. You know, whatever is in the Bento box, you look at it and they have a lot of variety in their convenience store. So you look at whatever you want. But here, because we don’t have already so many people, who are taking different, bento boxes, we tried to create about five. So you can get around five of them from our option, you just pick what you like.

Sam:                                      27:09                     Do people come into the store, coming to the cafe everyday and pick it up and then go, or do they do the pre-order?

Wangari:                              27:15                     So they pre-order, you know, a bento box needs to be pre-planned because there are little other things in it that take time to be prepped. So, you know, it’s it’s always we say that you have to order your bentobox before 10 o’clock. If it’s for lunch if it’s for dinner, you have to order it before three o’clock. So that we can be able to make it a complete bento box.

Sam:                                      27:41                     How much does it cost?

Wangari:                              27:41                     So they vary from I think our least bento box goes for 950. And the highest is about 1,500.

Sam:                                      27:49                     Okay. So between 10 and $15.

Wangari:                              27:51                     Yes.

Sam:                                      27:53                     Is that quite expensive?

Wangari:                              27:54                     Well, it I think it is, it’s reasonable.

Sam:                                      27:59                     OK.

Wangari:                              28:00                     In Nairobi, it’s reasonable. What we’ve also done is that we’ve also, one of the things that I keep challenging at the cafe is to be able to have reasonably priced food that’s well balanced, that you know, where you get value for, for what you’re paying for. So we’ve, it’s something that I have that we have worked very hard on to try and make sure that, you know, it’s, it’s something that you can afford for a daily lunch. You know, like when you go to the other cafes you, you spend about the same amount of money and, and you don’t even get the variety that you can get, that you get in a, in a bento box. So yeah, it’s great value.

Sam:                                      28:41                     Yeah. Cool. How does the, how do the businesses interplay with the safari business? You mentioned that you’ve diversified, but I think you said you still, you still kept the safari business. Is, is David having a lot of Japanese tourists?

Wangari:                              28:59                     So yeah, so we still maintain that. And that actually is David’s core business. The cafe and Jinya, he, he supports but his core business is the safari business and the comp in Maasai Mara and, and his business is still 95%, almost 100% Japanese clientele.

Sam:                                      29:24                     How did he get into that at the beginning?

Wangari:                              29:27                     So it’s a very interesting story also. I mean, he also out of we hadn’t met, I hadn’t met him and he also went to study Japanese.

Sam:                                      29:36                     Roughly how many people go to study Japanese in Kenya?

Wangari:                              29:43                     It’s not a big number, but it’s been growing. When we did it, we were very few.

Sam:                                      29:50                     Yeah,

Wangari:                              29:51                     I know about, to this day, I know about five people who we went to school with around the same time. But it’s been growing. The numbers grow, slightly.

Sam:                                      30:04                     Yeah.

Wangari:                              30:04                     I think it will grow even more because of the plans that the Japanese government has. And it would be an advantage to learn the language because there are opportunities there are big opportunities with working for Japanese businesses or even working in Japan or even going to school in Japan. So, yeah. So expect that to.

Sam:                                      30:32                     You and David both, so I’ve got to ask, how did you guys meet and did you, and how soon did you realize that you both learnt Japanese?

Wangari:                              30:42                     I always, I think of our interest in Japan and Japanese culture is what brought us together because one of his friends or colleagues was talking to me on the phone and where I worked. And he’s, and you know, he told him, you know, there’s this girl that I know who also speaks Japanese. Like you. Yeah. Oh. And I think David, out of curiosity must’ve said I want to meet her. That’s, that’s unique. And I think our love and our passion for many things, Japanese brought us together. And the rest is history. So we’re, so it’s been a, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to be able to bring together that passion and it has brought us this business opportunity to also venture into.

Sam:                                      31:40                     So the fact that David could speak Japanese, that kind of meant that he was a natural fit for yeah. Being, run safaris for Japanese tourists.

Wangari:                              31:49                     That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. So he was employed at the time. He worked for a safari company that had a lot of Japanese tourists but was not employed for very long because then he started his own company. And just last week, 1st of July, we celebrated 20 years.

Sam:                                      32:07                     Wow!

Wangari:                              32:08                     Of his, of that company of Great Land. And so we have continued, so we, we still make Bento, so now we make Bento boxes for Great Land.

Sam:                                      32:18                     Yeah.

Wangari:                              32:19                     And their customers, and other safari companies that have Japanese tourists. We still make the Bento boxes cause they, you know, when Japanese tourists come, sometimes they really miss their home food after being in in, out on holiday for maybe 10, 10 or so days. So it’s always a good opportunity for them to eat something that’s close to home.

Sam:                                      32:47                     Yeah, definitely. So did you make them in the cafe and then sort of distribute them? No, no.

Wangari:                              32:53                     Yeah. So we make them at the cafe and then when the, depending on what itinerary the customer has, they either come and pick it up from here or we drop them, it off to some convenient place to them. So it all depends on, on the nature of the, of the safari. Sometimes we do them when they’re departing to, to the airport, you know, they’re like, oh, I’m so tired of this continental food. I would love to have some Japanese food on my way back out. So,

Sam:                                      33:24                     Yeah. Okay. So you’ve got sort of like, you’ve got safari, you’ve got the farm, you’ve got the, the supermarket and the cafe, all sort of seem to have synergies with each other. Is there something which is missing? Is there, from doing this, are you like, oh, there’s an opportunity here. If we, I don’t know, started a tea company or your, or your something, is there anything that you can sort of, you can see how this trend might continue?

Wangari:                              33:53                     There’s lots of things, but we are also at a point where we, we want to focus our attention to developing the supermarket because there’s potential to develop that. The cafe we’ve just started and we can see the potential in that. So one of the, this, to take you back a little bit in 2016 as we were trying to, think we, you know, we could see the dangers and what was happening to the tourism industry and the way it was becoming unreliable and undependable. So we decided to take a trip to Japan to go and learn what were the Japanese trends for the safari business. We went basically for the safari business. And I also went on a, we also went on a culinary journey to try and get different tastes of the Japanese food and to understand the Japanese food better. But our main agenda was to try and go and understand where the Japanese tourists’ mind was. So that we could come back here and prepare ourselves for that. And but there had also been a lot of talk of diversify the tourists, the Kenyan tourist product, you know, that it was getting tired and same old, same old. So we weren’t, we constantly had this question, what does that mean? Diversify and different and because, you know, everybody was doing safari or a hotel or a safari company and now we could see where the challenges were. So we kept on asking ourselves, what can we do? We don’t have the kind of money to start an amusement park. That’s a diversification, that’s a product that can be put out here, but you know, that needs big money. So, so we went on this trip not knowing what we were gonna find. And so we went for Japan travel fair, one of the biggest in the world. And in that there was some side meetings and for love of food I picked one that had to do with gastronomic tourism. I was, I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t even know what it meant until I attended the meeting, but it, you know, had food and it had tourism. So I was like, you know, that’s a good mix. Then we also attended an outbound tourism one and an inbound tourism one. We wanted to understand everything. And the gastronomic tourism side meeting is what inspired the cafes. We’re gonna do this. We always played with the idea, but, you know, we didn’t not, maybe have the thing, the drive, the push, the reason, the confidence to go for it. And, and in that meeting, I went and learned that food in Japan is their tourist product is the product that they sell. So every, every tourist around the world going to Japan, goes for food. And I was like, oh, there’s diversification right there. So let’s go and diversify the product and let’s make a restaurant. And maybe we shall attract the tourists to our restaurants also. But more so attract the local people. And then this is not dependent on terrorism. It’s not, it doesn’t get hurt by terrorism much because the locals, once they know to the Japanese food, they will still come to the restaurant. And so that’s how we diversify the tourism product that needed diversification and improvement and our own having another business that we could rely on for ourselves. So at that meeting we learned a lot. Then we came to implement more confidently that, you know, we were not just targeting the Japanese who are living here and that this is something that we could grow into various, into various directions. So in Japan, there’s so much good food, different kinds of food small restaurants. So, you know, we came from a background of you have to have big restaurants to make economic sense to make business sense and you know, we went and so very small, tiny restaurants with six seats or nine seats or 15 seats. So that really was helped us to be able to bring down our, to set up you know, at a point where we were comfortable. I don’t like big, I never imagined having a very big restaurant, but when I went to Japan and so that, you know, what I have in my imagination can actually work. I’m always afraid of mass. I’m afraid of mass production of especially food. So I couldn’t do, I think if I saw 50 people I would shut, I’d have a mental shutdown. But when I see a few people and I can control the product and the quality, that’s very important for me. And that’s very much the way they do it in Japan. So I was able to see firsthand how I could actually actualize something that was just in my mind or just in our mind and how we could do it at our scale. So the restaurant is just a 25 seater. In Japanese numbers, it’s almost two restaurants. So we are happy with that.

Sam:                                      40:03                     Okay. Well, just a few more questions if that’s all right. I’m interested, since you’ve sort of started working on this full time what have been some of the surprises that you’ve had? So if you sort of compare what it was like when you started compared to what it is now, like what are some of the ways in which it’s different?

Wangari:                              40:25                     The surprises, can I think of some surprises some pleasant surprises from especially from our Japanese customers is they have said that our, in Nairobi, they think we are the most authentic. Even visiting Japanese people who will live in Japan most of the time and they’ll be just visiting, they’ve also made that comment and they’ve also made comments like some of the foods you get here is in Tokyo quality. So that’s, those are pleasant surprises. I don’t know. I don’t think that we expected too match that. I always wanted to do, my aim, I always aim for the best. So I always tell my staff we have to be the best Japanese restaurant. But that’s just saying it. Actualizing it is another thing and I didn’t know what that meant. And you know, the standards in Japan are so high that, you know, when the Japanese say that, then you know that you’ve started on the right footing. Other surprises is that not just Japanese people come to the restaurant.

Sam:                                      41:41                     Yeah, myself included.

Wangari:                              41:43                     Yourself included. You know, I did. I was, I have been surprised where did this people, where were this all this people, but I know from having attended that meeting in 2016 that the Japanese government or the Tourism Department of the Japanese government about 30 years ago made this policy to make Japanese food known around the world. And so when you go to America, if you go to Europe you go to Asia Japanese food is slowly becoming very, very popular among the people not just Sushi. Even other different things. At that meeting we were showing how Japanese food names that are in Japanese are found in some of the haute cuisine, French restaurants in France or…

Sam:                                      42:38                     What do you mean?

Wangari:                              42:38                     So, for example, maybe I remember one was hamachi, hamachi is a type of fish. So you would look at the menu in a French restaurant, fine dining French restaurant that is selling hamachi, but they don’t call it the French name or the English name, yellow tail. It is named in the French restaurant, whatever, hamachi something but in a French restaurant or different Japanese ingredients you would find being adopted in other cuisines. So they have successfully managed to get other people to adopt, other chefs around the world to adapt Japanese styling, Japanese ingredients into their restaurants. And so that’s the reason why everybody now they, they can attract around 2 million tourists into Japan and almost all those tourists are not going to see the temples and the old, and the other different cultures there. One of the biggest thing is that they want to go to all these ramen restaurants, tonkatsu restaurants, Japanese tea ceremony or the much longer kaiseki, which is a, you know, like the haute cuisine of Japanese food. So yeah.

Sam:                                      44:01                     Alright. Any challenges?

Wangari:                              44:04                     Yeah. I think the farm is the biggest challenge of all of them. Farming is, has a lot of enemies. I think from the sun, the African sun you know, the heat.

Sam:                                      44:22                     Is it too hot?

Wangari:                              44:24                     It’s too hot for some the vegetables. I have had to put infrastructure there to be able to help my veggies grow peacefully and happily. But slowly, we have overcome some of those, but I don’t think there’s anything like overcoming farming challenges because the different seasons present different challenges. Other challenges, just the strings of business, you know, when you have to, when you’re running the business yourself and you’re thinking everything and setting it up. So, you know, from start up of, I’m not Japanese so I have to read a lot, so that I do not make, any blunders or any obvious mistakes that would offend the Japanese people.

Sam:                                      45:18                     Have you done any of those? Have you made like a little blunder or like something in the menu?

Wangari:                              45:24                     I think so, but they’re very gentle with me.

Sam:                                      45:28                     They don’t take offense?

Wangari:                              45:30                     They don’t take offense, some are very nice. They come back and they tell me, you know, that’s not the way we do it. You could try this or the other. And so they if you go to the cafe, you will see, I have another second menu that I’ve never really printed on the proper menu. And that second menu has been developed by our customers and they came and suggested different things. And so they would come and say, what I did is when I launched the cafe, I sent a message to all of my customers from the store. And I told them there’s a Japanese drama series that I love to watch and it’s based on a little restaurant. It’s called midnight diner. And the story behind Midnight diner is that the chef does not have a menu. And what you do, you come in, requests whatever you want and provided he has the ingredients, he’ll make it. And so I told my customers I’m going to have a simple menu, but please come to the restaurant and if you see, if you want something just request it and if we have the ingredients, we’ll make it. And so the second menu has actually been developed out of that. Because I wanted to you know, when I opened the restaurant I wanted I was not very sure what to put in. You know, if you think about all the Japanese food that you could put in a menu, then you would not be able to run a restaurant. So I needed to start with some of the favorites, some home favorites and also some not so home favorites because people go to restaurants to eat some of the things that they can not enjoy at home that you know, are only made in restaurants or are best made in restaurants. Not necessarily that not made at home. And various other things. So my, I’ve been fortunate that the customers have come forward with different suggestions and they think about it, you know, they come and tell them, you know, you can make this, it’s not so difficult and everything is available and people love it. And then I’m also very responsive to my customers because that’s actually how we have grown the store. By listening to them and talking to them and asking them lots of questions about what’s, what don’t we have, what do you need and what can’t you find and we can provide it. And so we’ve developed the many that way.

Sam:                                      48:05                     Fantastic. Very cool. And people who are listening at home, how can they learn more about Jinya? How can they, where can they find you in Nairobi? What’s sort of the best way for people to try and sort of learn more?

Wangari:                              48:16                     We have online presence. You can find us on the social media. We are on Facebook, we are on Google maps. I have, I’m not very tech savvy, social media savvy. I have an Instagram that I don’t remember to upload photos on. My daughters tell me I don’t know how to do it. So I think I’ve lost the confidence to do it at all. So yeah, but we are here on Lenana road both the restaurant and the, and the shop. So you can easily find us there. I love to cook and I, and I want more people to adopt one or two Japanese recipes in their menu. It’s really it brings variety into your weekly dinners or weekly meals. If you could adapt a few Japanese tricks, you could be much more healthier and you would feel very good.

Sam:                                      49:16                     Well actually, I mean I’m, I need, I need to decide what I’m going to have for dinner tonight. So what, what would you recommend that I could bare in mind. I don’t eat meat, so what would you recommend? What’s a good Japanese which I can mate. I can make my sleeping.

Wangari:                              49:30                     Yeah you know, Japanese food is very, very healthy. Actually, you asked me about challenges at the cafe. Taking care of vegetarians in Japanese cuisine is a very big challenge because the Japanese are not vegetarian. They are, they have a very healthy cuisine that knows how to consume the red meats and the meats and all but they don’t have much emphasis on vegetarian. But you can get various vegetarian options. You know, tofu is very healthy and very nutritious. And you could do so many things with tofu. You can have it for a meal, you can have it for a snack you can have it with your salad. And it can be a very good source of your protein. If you stir fry with mushroom and then just add the teriyaki sauce or just soy sauce to it, you, have a good vegetarian, well balanced, delicious meal.

Sam:                                      50:34                     Right. It seems we stopped recording. I’ll go buy that.

Wangari:                              50:37                     Yeah,

Sam:                                      50:38                     Very cool and well Wangari, thanks so much.

Wangari:                              50:40                     Thank you very much for coming.

Sam:                                      50:41                     Cheers.

Why did the home of running not make running shoes? Nava the co-founder of Enda Running explains


If you think about brands that different countries have, most people probably have two strong associations for Kenya.

Safari and running.

The safari industry is well established, with innumerate tour companies able to take you on your dream holiday seeing the Big Five.

Running, however, is an industry which is much less developed.

In fact, until Enda, there were no running shoes made in arguably the home of running!

As we discuss in this episode, Nava, the co-founder of Enda Sportswear wanted a way to promote sports in her country and settled on building shoes as the biggest impact way to do so.

In the process, Enda has become a vehicle for promoting local industry, with all of the assembly taking place in Kenya, and many parts, such as shoelaces, being produced in the region too.

Nava and I talk about all sides of the business, including where and how the shoes are currently sold, the global (ahem) footprint that the brand has, and the practicalities of setting up production of high-end footwear in East Africa.

The Enda offices are in the same place as a number of artist workshops. 

We’re doing the interview outside, and so there may be a bit of background noise from people moving stuff, as well as some chickens who wandered over at some point.


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Social Media Links


Facebook: EndaRunning

Twitter: @endasportswear



Sam:                                      00:00                     Intro

Sam:                                      01:58                     Cool. So we’re here today with Nava from Enda, Nava welcome to the show.

Nava:                                    02:02                     Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

Sam:                                      02:03                    So to get us started, can you tell us a bit about you and a bit about Enda?

Nava:                                    02:07                     A bit about me, I studied law. I am a lawyer by profession. I did accounting as well. I haven’t practiced either for a really long time and right now I’m making running shoes in Kenya kind of just working with athletes, create running shoes because I think it’s time to really make shoes in Kenya, by Kenyans who totally understand running and sharing that culture with the world. And I think I’ve also answered about Enda, so Enda is the company that does that and Enda is a Swahili word that means go which is basically we thought the best way to encompass a company that is like advocating for Kenyan running and sharing that culture around the world.

Sam:                                      02:50                     Correct.

Nava:                                    02:50                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      02:50                     So Enda is the first Kenyan made running shoe in the world.

Nava:                                    02:56                     Yes it is. Not Kenyan made, Oh yeah, running shoe, yes. I thought you were like saying other shoes. Yeah, it is the first Kenyan made running shoe in the world and also nobody is doing it in Africa. So we are also kind of…

Sam:                                      03:07                     Really? The whole of Africa, no one’s making running shoes?

Nava:                                    03:09                     No, nobody’s doing that. Like they are making different types of shoes but not pro-running shoes.

Sam:                                      03:14                     Why are you not seeing running shoes?

Nava:                                    03:16                     I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think it’s just a matter of maybe who are you producing for? What are you producing for? What’s the, I can’t answer that specifically. I just know we’re doing it. Yeah.

Sam:                                      03:29                     Okay. Yeah. So the market you’re in is selling running shoes. So these are, who are you selling to? Are you selling to athletes to casual? Wearers like…

Nava:                                    03:40                     Both I’d say runners definitely are the first crowd that got really attracted to us. There are also other people who are buying it in Kenya for the pride of it. Like something that’s made here locally and supporting us. And then there are people who are wearing it just for everyday wear. Like I’m going shopping or going to an event, like looking for something comfortable and wearing them. So I’d say we kind of cut a broad spectrum of of customers, but we do basically appeal to runners a lot.

Sam:                                      04:12                     Okay. And so how many, like how long has the company been going?

Nava:                                    04:16                     Our company is going, been going for about three years right now, roughly, getting there. So, but of course the earlier years were more of just setting up structures and in terms of production, they started in I think August, like mid 2017, so I’d say 2017 is when we really started operations. Before that, was just a lot of planning.

Sam:                                      04:37                     Okay. So you’ve been sort of coming up to two years. Yes. Sort of shoes being made. Exactly. How many pairs of shoes are out there at the moment?

Nava:                                    04:44                     That’s a good question. I would say right now about the first run, we did like about 2,500. We’ve done quite a bit, I would say about like over 4,000, 4,000 pairs are out and about all over the world. So, but our goal is definitely to increase that number because we know we have capability to reach so many people. And make so many shoes.

Sam:                                      05:08                     Yeah. Very cool. Okay. So lots of things to talk about. So I thought maybe we’d sort of start on the, on the demand side.

Nava:                                    05:16                     Okay.

Sam:                                      05:16                     So you said that, sort of these runners are the first types of people who you sort of started aiming at. What’s your sort of split between selling in Kenya and selling internationally?

Nava:                                    05:30                     Kenya, I would say about 10% internationally, most of it is international. Yeah.

Sam:                                      05:37                     And these are athletes who are famous or sort of like keen runners?

Nava:                                    05:44                     Yeah. It’s like runners. I would say it cuts across a broad spectrum because we do have like people who are like really athletes running lots of races and they’re wearing them. We do have people who are starting out and they’re wearing them. So we do have quite a variety of different people who are wearing them.

Sam:                                      06:01                     Okay.

Nava:                                    06:02                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      06:02                     What type of shoes did these guys wear before?

Nava:                                    06:05                     So a runner typically has like different types of shoes. So you have like a daily trainer, you have a light-weight trainer, you have like spikes, you have trail shoes. So people, right now our key products are I light-weight trainer and a daily trainer. So those are the categories where we kind of like entered into and most of the people who are wearing our shoes are people who are in those categories, right.So they would be wearing them for running, for walking, for comfort that specific category.

Sam:                                      06:37                     Okay. Once you have a, if you’re serious about running, you have different shoes based on the type of athlete.

Nava:                                    06:41                     Yes. Yeah.

Sam:                                      06:42                     Why is that?

Nava:                                    06:43                     Because different shoes are for different purposes. You know, if you are going for a 42 kilometer race, you’re not going to use the same shoes that you go to the gym with. Right? Like you need something that has more cushion, it’s softer. It’s kind of taking you the longer ride because it’s also kind of like endurance, like your body needs, like the best support mostly in terms of just the cover, like the rubber between you and the ground. And also like the consistency of the EVA, which is the component that is used to make the mid-sole. Like it has to be soft and yeah, like you, whatever you use has to be different. If you are running like a hundred meter, it’s a different shoe. Right? So basically there’s different types of runs and you want to make sure that you’re using the best shoe for that. So for example, I wouldn’t use a road shoe for trails. You’re just going to go break your neck or something, you know, a trails shoe would need something that has more like more rubber that is basically really avoiding the friction, like having more friction to keep you stable. So it’s different runs, different shoes. Yeah.

Sam:                                      07:51                     Alright. So there’s different, different times. Okay. And so is it the case that the people buying it they’re like they’re just adding Enda as like another pair of shoes they got? Or will they be like switching out from Nike or whatever.

Nava:                                    08:05                     I mean the thing is like as a new brand already there were people wearing other brands when you come in. So of course they will switch your product with something and that’s the beauty of running because a lot of people who run, they replaced their shoes a lot. So that means that also, are keen on seeing what’s new and also the way the industry is, is created is that there’s always like new product releases or something like that. So the runners mentality is geared towards trying something new. Right. Which has a good side and a bad side. But from the market entry perspective, it worked for us because they were willing to try something that was different and was new in their daily rotation. Yeah.

Sam:                                      08:45                     That’s really cool. And then how much do they cost?

Nava:                                    08:48                     They cost $100, which is like 10,000 Kenyan shillings.

Sam:                                      08:51                     Okay. Is that expensive for a pair of running shoes?

Nava:                                    08:55                     Nope. I mean if a pair of running shoes would go, at least for the light-weight trainer, would go from like $80 to $250. So it really just depends on like what you’re investing in. But if you compare us to other brands in that specific category, we are basically like right at the affordable level. So from, if you’re looking at is from a competitors perspective, we are basically just price right for the market for that kind of shoe.

Sam:                                      09:21                     Alright. And then how do most people like actually physically buy?

Nava:                                    09:25                     Most people mostly two ways: online, that’s our key method of selling. We’re direct consumer brand, so we sell online and do deliveries and the other one is we also do a lot of popups, especially here in Nairobi, just being at places where people can see the shoes, touch them, try them on. And of course the long-term plan is to get into stores. Yeah.

Sam:                                      09:47                     Why have you not decided to try and get into stores earlier on?

Nava:                                    09:51                     In the US we actually are in three stores. So kind of just a good start and hoping to expand and get into more doors. In Kenya, it’s also, I mean, one of it is linked to resources and capacity. Like basically we have to it’s a small team and we have to figure out how to do this in the most efficient way possible. Secondly, it’s also a new brand. So a lot of the re-sellers or stores especially locally would want to already sell something that they know the customer knows about, right? So they want it needs more investment in marketing so that it’s not just based on the re-seller to say, oh this, there’s this new shoe, it’s about x, y, z. It’s much easier for them if someone says, I am coming to look for this particular shoe. So it’s kind of part of the, our plan in terms of just getting more one out of the marketing and creating demand to get to a point where the retailers are actually being asked for shoes and then they can be able to stock because they have the confidence to say, people are asking for this products. Yeah.

Sam:                                      10:58                     What’s the benefit for going in stores like that?

Nava:                                    11:00                     Because people, people, especially in Kenya, we are not yet an online society. Like a lot of people still prefer using hard cash. A lot of people are not comfortable with online purchases. I think it’s just a, it’s a new thing, right? We do use M-Pesa but M-Pesa is not an online purchase, like it’s mobile. Whereas going on a website and doing all of that, a lot of people, it’s a new experience for them. So that’s why we tried to do pop ups as much as possible so that they can also come and for other people they also just want to try the shoes fast before they buy them online. So what we did is just essentially say free exchanges and returns. You can try as many as you want and we’ll literally just be bringing them over so as to give people that comfort of knowing that they can still order online and not feel bad, or not be afraid that the shoe won’t fit. Yeah.

Sam:                                      11:55                     Do many people do that? Do many people actually send them back.

Nava:                                    11:58                     So not really. I mean one of the things we’ve really been working on is getting the sizing right. So a lot of people do get in touch and say if they have any concerns they would ask us and we would recommend for them. But we have also translated our sizes in UK, EU, and basically all other sizes and US as well, so that it’s less confusing for people. Like, whichever your size regime you, you can find yourself there. Most people have a problem converting one into the other.

Sam:                                      12:26                     Yeah.

Nava:                                    12:27                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      12:27                     Cool. Okay. And so this is people will be going on the website, pick out, I want the lightweight or daily… Did you call it lightweight and daily?

Nava:                                    12:36                     Right now we just have the light-weight, the daily one, we are producing it as we speak. Yeah.

Sam:                                      12:42                     Does it have like a name? Is it called like Enda light-weight?

Nava:                                    12:45                     The lighter it is called the Iten. Yeah. So Iten is a small town in Rift valley.

Sam:                                      12:49                     So not E number 10?

Nava:                                    12:52                     No, no, no, no. Like I T E N.

Sam:                                      12:56                     I T E N.

Nava:                                    12:56                     Yeah. Someone would say I ten but in Kenya its Iten. Yeah. So Iten is a small town in the rift valley. It actually has the world’s highest concentration of gold medal winners, as I really.

Sam:                                      13:07                     What do you mean the highest concentration of gold?

Nava:                                    13:09                     In athletics. In running like, yeah, it’s a small town up there in high altitude and everybody trains there. Everybody. Everybody from around the world goes to Iten if you’re running.

Sam:                                      13:22                     What is so good about it?

Nava:                                    13:22                     The altitudes, the altitude and then also the fact that everybody’s there. So there’s like a very strong running community over there. And you’re not alone. Like in the morning there’s group runs, there’s athletes staying in like camps. So it’s really much a running town also called the home of champions. Yeah. So we basically named that Iten then the new one, the daily trainer that we’re working on right now is called the Lapatet. Lapatet is a Kalenjin word for run, it means run.

Sam:                                      13:54                     What’s Kalenjin?

Nava:                                    13:56                     Kalenjin is a local language. In Kenya we have about 42, but most of the runners come from the Rift valley and they speak Kalenjin. So the term lapatet is very it’s very common in running in the running world, in the Rift Valley. So when we were naming it, we knew like they, they, they are happy about that. Yeah.

Sam:                                      14:19                     Do you speak Kalenjin?

Nava:                                    14:20                     No, no, no, no. I don’t speak Kalenjin, but one of the things we do, and we are trying to name our products, we always reach out to our community and kind of, even Iten was a suggestion by someone through Facebook because we were going to give it some other name. And someone was like, no, no.

Sam:                                      14:35                     What were you going to call it?

Nava:                                    14:36                     I cant even remember, one of the animals.

Sam:                                      14:40                     A cheetah perhaps.

Nava:                                    14:40                     Exactly. And then, you know, it’s always amazing, someone is like, you know what, we kind of like know about tourism but we are in running world. So like, let’s keep it like closer to the running culture as possible. And same for Lapatet, we were like, hey guys, we’re trying to name this shoe, what do you think we should and we got like lots of ideas. But the person who suggested naming it Lapatet had a really compelling reason why we should call it that.

Sam:                                      15:07                     What was that?

Nava:                                    15:07                     Basically the, you know, like there’s North rift, South rift, you know, there’s like all this demarcations we have internally, but also just the fact that a majority of the runners understand the word Lapatet and also using the shoe to tell a story. It’s not just a product, but someone who’s buying it has to ask, what does this mean? You know? So it’s a medium to have a chance to educate or to share the culture of the Kalenjin, of the running culture with someone else in a, in another part of the world. So the whole cultural exchange thing was also very interesting and also just the linguistic aspect, like he had a really great explanation of how the whole, the word lapatet is linguistically different anyway, we have a video on Facebook about that. Yeah. We actually called him, it was like, you know, you do this, you’re like the best at explaining it. Yeah. Go, go for it. But it also does the story of Enda, like using the shoes not just to be products, but also as vehicles for social mission and also for like fostering a culture of empathy and like knowing what other communities around the world are doing. Like kind of like an education of sorts. Yeah.

Sam:                                      16:27                     Okay. When people talk about sort of Kenyan runners, is it basically kalenjin runners?.

Nava:                                    16:34                     Yes and no. Majority, yes. Because of course the Rift valley and the high altitude is like a big plus. But we do have lots of runners who are also not from the Rift Valley. So, for instance Henry Wanyoike he’s really good, broken like, lots of records and wins a lot we had the late Samuel Wanjiru, who also did not come from the Rift valley, came from the central part of Kenya. We do have another one. One of our athletes actually is called Daniel Simiyu, who comes from the western part. So, predominantly they are, but not all of them. Yes.

Sam:                                      17:14                     At the moment, you said 10% Kenya. 90% international.

Nava:                                    17:17                     Yes.

Sam:                                      17:19                     As you sort of project forward, what do you think that might start looking like?

Nava:                                    17:23                     Oh, I think it will grow. You know, I feel like the, I still meet a lot of Kenyans who haven’t heard about our brand, so I know for a fact there’s a growth margin that we still haven’t captured. I think it’ll grow both ways. You know, like in the US also we aren’t known that much. Like those who know about us, know, about us, but I still feel like there’s a whole world out there that has no idea that Enda exists. So I do see also growth from, I’d say from both perspectives. I do see a lot of growth opportunity.

Sam:                                      17:54                     Nice. Okay. And what’s the sort of pitch to people? Is it, can you rely on Kenyan running shoes or did you need to say… I kind of get it if you’re living in Kenya and you’re like, you know, you want to buy running shoes that are produced here and you want to support the Kenyan economy. Does that pitch work as well internationally or do you need to sort of change it around abit?

Nava:                                    18:19                     Really? I think it works because even if you check the Hashtag #runlikeaKenyan, you know, like it’s, it’s actually, it is a legit Hashtag. It’s not used mostly in Kenya. It’s like a global thing. Like, so the fact that you just said running shoes made in Kenya, it’s an automatic click for anyone runner or not, you know? So I do feel like the running culture history tradition of Kenya has been so solid over the years that it is unquestionable. Right. So I think it’s kind of still keeping it simple and saying Kenyan running, but also, you know, like for us, producing quality products that match that excellence as well so that people associate that excellence with our products and the fact that we are working with athletes to develop this products. Yeah.

Sam:                                      19:09                     Okay. So let’s actually talk a bit more about the production side of the shoe, So company started about three years ago, kind of went into production about two years ago. What’s that process been like?

Nava:                                    19:23                     It’s, it wasn’t easy to be honest. It was a lot and it did take us a long time because we were essentially trying to establish a lot of things over here from fact finding a factory that could work with us because we knew from the outset we would be a contract manufacturer. The resources required to set up a factory…

Sam:                                      19:43                     Contract manufacturer.

Nava:                                    19:44                     Yes. It means you go to a factory, you lease out their lines you make what you’re making and then you exit.

Sam:                                      19:52                     You don’t have to like buy a factory?

Nava:                                    19:54                     No, you don’t have to buy it and have to build it, you don’t have to make it, which I think is really great, especially if you consider how manufacturing industry is so exclusive, if I can call that, like you need money to get into manufacturing. So if you, if more people are to get into manufacturing, I think contract manufacturing, especially in Africa is like a really good thing because you have one side with resources and you have another side with demand. So I may not be able to operate a fully functional factory for a year, but I can lease it for like two months or five months of the year. So it works both ways for both the factory and the entrepreneur.

Sam:                                      20:31                     Okay.

Nava:                                    20:31                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      20:31                     So first of all, first thing you have to find the factory.

Nava:                                    20:34                     Yes.

Sam:                                      20:34                     How easy or difficult is that?

Nava:                                    20:36                     It wasn’t easy to be honest. Like we literally went to every person who makes shoes or thinks about making shoes.

Sam:                                      20:43                     Is there like a list of factories that make shoes. How do you, how do you find out?

Nava:                                    20:49                     Google, talking to people. In Kenya, you talk to people a lot, yeah. People lie online. A lot of things are on the ground. So the thing is though, that networks already exist. So if I’m making shoes, I’ll tell you about someone else who makes shoes. And that’s how we basically went around. Went to Limuru. We went to a few places in Nairobi. Like we, we went to a lot of places and they were like, okay, I may not be right fit but talk to this person or this other person I know has something going on. So we spoke to a lot of people and we did hear a lot of people saying no, I think just the whole concept of contract manufacturing was, is new in Kenya. And also the fact that, you know, like people were like, why would you want to do that? You know, like, like it just felt like whatever we were trying to do was so big and so impossible that they were like, you know, like, okay, that sounds like really amazing and all the best, you know? Yeah. So we did…

Sam:                                      21:47                     This is the concept of making a Kenyan running shoe?

Nava:                                    21:50                     Yes. Yeah. So it felt like it was like a big order for a lot of people. And we did actually find the factory we are working with through someone read about us online and he was making shoes in Ethiopia. Right? Yeah. Shout out to Tal, Tal Detya. He was formally Olubate. They closed down, which I was, I found personally sad because they, they, they really came through for us and we didn’t even know him, like literally came through for us in terms of just giving us connections, he was like I bought my stuff in Kenya, this is what you need. Like talk to this person and that person. Yeah. Like he, he’s really good.

Sam:                                      22:36                     And how did he know about you if you hadn’t made, hadn’t started making shoes yet?

Nava:                                    22:40                     Kick-Starter I think. Yeah. I think by then we’d launched our Kick-starter.

Sam:                                      22:44                     Alright.

Nava:                                    22:45                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      22:46                     So where does kick-starter fit into the story?

Nava:                                    22:49                     Kick-Starter fits in, we did it in 2016 actually. Right. So we essentially got the prototype and then decided to launch it online as a way of raising funds. Also, we didn’t have all the funds and the, it had like really great momentum and I think there’s a lot of sharing on Facebook and stuff like that. And that’s how he read about us. And then he got in touch and he then at that he got in touch, we spoke with him and then after Kickstarter we were not able to continue with our previous manufacturer and Tal basically introduced us to Umoja. Yeah.

Sam:                                      23:32                     Umoja is the?

Nava:                                    23:32                     Umoja is the company that we work with here in Kenya. Yeah.

Sam:                                      23:37                     In Nairobi or where are they?

Nava:                                    23:37                     No, no, they’re in kilifi. Kilifi is one hour from Mombasa. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sam:                                      23:45                     So the shoes get made in Kilifi? Okay.

Nava:                                    23:49                     Yeah. Which is particular also, because Kilifi is also, I like places where, and that’s Also one of the reasons I respect Umoja, Kind of going to a place where you’re actually making a difference because it’s like deep in Kilifi and you are providing employment to residents around, so…

Sam:                                      24:08                     Kilifi is kind of like, like a sleepy beach town, sort of thing. Yeah. Yeah.

Nava:                                    24:12                     So having factories over there is really good for the population.

Sam:                                      24:16                     Okay. Yeah. So is that an, I mean, what’s the, what’s the, the requirements that you need? So you said that no running shoes have been made in Africa. Are there like fundamental things, which prevent you from doing that?

Nava:                                    24:28                     I think especially you need to know kind of like understand the science of making running shoes. So you wouldn’t necessarily use any type of EVA. Like you, you need to know what consistency of the EVA you’re using. What’s the…

Sam:                                      24:46                     Don’t mind me, that’s the…

Nava:                                    24:47                     The mid-sole. Like it’s the kind of I’d call it plastic that makes, it’s basically the sole, the white part, like before the rubber at the bottom, like the soul. So you need it to be a certain density and a certain consistency. You need it to be. We make it through as a process called injection molding. So you create a mold and then you kind of inject the EVA into the mold. So you kind of need to have the safety requirements for that and stuff like that. You need to be able to know how to cut the patterns, how to stitch them because it’s a kind of like a special stitch. If you’re not careful, then you have a lot of mistakes that can happen. So there’s a whole process to it. And we basically were very ambitious at the beginning, but then we also realized the capacity of the factory depended on us kind of showing them and also us creating a demand that was worthy for them to also invest, invest in the process.

Sam:                                      25:44                     I see. So is it like, if they’re already gonna make a thousand pairs of shoes, if they’re gonna make 10,000 pairs of shoes, it might be worth them investing in a piece of, a new piece of equipment.

Nava:                                    25:55                     Exactly.

Sam:                                      25:56                     Got it. Okay, how do you know how to make shoes? It sounds quite complicated. Is there someone in the team who like, is a shoe expert?

Nava:                                    26:04                     So we basically had to look somewhere for someone to help us do that. And we were looking for someone who fit a certain criteria, would understand the mission that we are doing so that they would, they would understand where we, it’s important to make the shoes in Kenya and not in China. And we also needed someone who had the experience of making footwear for the global industry so that we weren’t going to spend a lot of time recreating the wheel, but essentially working with someone who has already made shoes for all the big brands and understands the process of making the shoes.

Sam:                                      26:35                     How do you find that person?

Nava:                                    26:37                     E-Mail, LinkedIn. You just ask people.

Sam:                                      26:41                     What’s that? What do you search for on LinkedIn? Like do people call themselves like shoe experts?

Nava:                                    26:44                     Shoe developers like you remember when you’re like searching on Google and you just create this like different things that might land you near where you went to be. So you’re like looking for a shoe maker shoe developer, shoe like everything under the planet that leads to that. And then you kind of meet people or you find people and then you email them and then they either get back or they give you a reference or they don’t get back. So it was a lot of networking and a lot of just asking anyone and everyone like, hey, we are looking for this specific skillset. Do you know someone who fits that pier? Yeah.

Sam:                                      27:28                     And these people typically work freelance.

Nava:                                    27:31                     Yes. We did meet a lot of freelancers who were basically either engaged in something or they were like, this is great, but I don’t have the bandwidth for it. Or like I’m interested or talk to this person. Yeah. There are actually a lot of freelancers in the industry.

Sam:                                      27:46                     And how did you structure your contract? Did you sort of say, this is your deliverable, we’ll pay you X. Or was it like, we’ll pay by hour?

Nava:                                    27:54                     Not really. You know. And that was why it was important to find a specific fit, right? Because we needed someone who understood why we are doing this. Right. So if you’re, if you’re purely like I want profit a thousand percent, you’d be like, I want to peak process, let’s make it in China and done, finished, show’s over, you know. So the kind of person we were looking for was very specific in terms of what motivates them and what drives them. So right now we do work with Dan Richard Designs, they’re based in the US and they are also we do have someone here in Kenya. You met him Cyprian and he’s also kind of working with them to make sure that we are getting the kind of products that we anticipated. Yeah.

Sam:                                      28:41                     So are there some, I don’t want to say things you have to compromise on, but what are some of the differences you’ve had to make by the fact that the shoe was made in Kenya and not China?

Nava:                                    28:52                     I wouldn’t say much. I think in the whole process, definitely time. I would say time. It took us much longer, much, much longer than we anticipated. That includes also just delivering the Kick-starter orders. We took so long. It took so long, I’m embarrassed about it.

Sam:                                      29:12                     These are people who went on Kick-starter and they said I’d like to purchase some of the first pairs and you now have to go and make them. And there was just a few delays.

Nava:                                    29:25                     So I’d say time. It took us a really long time.

Sam:                                      29:29                     What were the main reasons for delay?

Nava:                                    29:31                     First of all the supplier who we were supposed to work with essentially said no, I need bigger numbers. So we weren’t able to work with them. So we had to literally start.

Sam:                                      29:42                     And find new suppliers.

Nava:                                    29:43                     Yeah. Post Kick-starter. You know, like how everything is like all drawn out and it’s like back to square one. So it means shopping for a supplier discussing the terms, like getting to like to get to the point where you’re like, okay, now let’s, let’s do this. It, it took a really long time.

Sam:                                      30:00                     What are the sort of supplies that you need to get?

Nava:                                    30:03                     So you basically need someone to make them molds. You need someone to make the mid-sole in someone to make the uppers.

Sam:                                      30:12                     What’s the uppers?

Nava:                                    30:13                     The uppers are the up part of the shoe. Yeah. And then you also need here like the factory to be able to do certain processes like the stitching, the labeling, like the packaging. So there’s, it is actually a lot of people who are involved in like the whole supply chain. Yeah. Yeah. Okay.

Sam:                                      30:36                     So you’ve got to kind of source all these, but you’re basically sourcing these three bits that the sell that…

Nava:                                    30:43                     Yeah, we, so we source mainly the upper and the mid-sole and the idea is to move it progressively. So like now we are making shoelaces here. Now we are…

Sam:                                      30:56                     How’d you make shoelaces?

Nava:                                    30:56                     Is a factory that does that, you know, so it’s just giving them a specification of what we’re looking for.

Sam:                                      31:01                     Yeah. Is it basically just like some fabric that’s turned over? It’s like stitched together?

Nava:                                    31:06                     No, I think they knit it, like there’s special knitting machines for making that. Yeah. Cause otherwise if it’s fabric, then it can tear, you know, like, yeah, they have most of them are actually woven. And yeah. It’s also quite a process. Yeah. So…

Sam:                                      31:25                     Fascinating. Such a process to like make shoelaces.

Nava:                                    31:28                     Appreciate your shoelaces ladies and gentlemen. A lot of work went into it. Yeah. Yes. So, and then now we are experimenting with uppersto make them here. We actually also doing a local shoe, I’ll show you when we go back to the office. That is 100% locally-sourced. I’m very proud of it. Can’t wait for us to launch it.

Sam:                                      31:48                     What’s that one going to be called?

Nava:                                    31:49                     We haven’t had a name yet, but it has a really cool story. I think people will love the story behind it.

Sam:                                      31:57                     Can we get a preview of the story?

Nava:                                    31:57                     No, no. But we’ve worked with a few people on it, so their thought process has been really inspiring about what they’re putting into the shoe. It’s literally, I don’t know how to, it’s a work of art. Let me call it that, yeah. That’s as much as I can go. Yeah.

Sam:                                      32:24                     So same thing. So sort of, the philosophy with Enda is to just use like with each of the different components that go into this.

Nava:                                    32:31                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      32:31                     It’s just like how can you be, I might be putting words in your mouth here, promoting Kenyan business and industry to sort of help in…

Nava:                                    32:39                     Yeah. Because right now, for instance, that company is making shoe laces specific for our type of product because we asked them to. Before they were not doing it. The other companies that are providing other stuff, for example, the leather, the all these other, like, we, I feel like we play an important role in expanding the supply chain because business is about supply and demand. So if we are creating demand for another business to supply, then we are creating business. It means those people have jobs we like. It’s, it’s like a whole step by step process and I think that’s essentially the whole idea of establishing this industry locally, that there are people who are able to tap into it and benefit, that it’s not just the athletes, but we are literally bringing the benefits of running of the running industry locally.

Sam:                                      33:24                     What’s some of the challenges you’ve had in the industry?

Nava:                                    33:27                     Financing of course, that’s why we go to Kick-starter because Kick-starter is a good way to basically get money.

Sam:                                      33:34                     How much did you need to get started?

Nava:                                    33:35                     To get started? I’m trying to remember. Kick-Starter, we raised like about 140, but that was post.

Sam:                                      33:46                     $140,000.

Nava:                                    33:46                     Yeah. That was post like our own investments and getting family and friends to pitch in. I can’t remember the exact, but you do need like I’d say maybe like $250,000 to start up. And I’d say funding is a challenge and also it’s one of the reasons why I feel like we haven’t been in front of as many people as we can because it’s an investment to basically like marketing is a big deal and the running shoe industry is essentially a marketing industry. You know, it’s all about storytelling. So how do you get your story out there? So I’d say funding affects that. Challenges. Also just understanding because we are a direct consumer company, like understanding the whole digital marketing landscape. Like just how, you know, there’s just so much going on in that world. How do you optimize what words do you use, what pictures, how do you put all these things? So we are like doing it as we go. But we haven’t like found the, you know, we haven’t found the sweet spot. Exactly. I can’t wait to get there. But we are basically, right now, we are experimenting a lot of things and just seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. Yeah.

Sam:                                      35:04                     What’s looking like it’s going to stick?

Nava:                                    35:08                     I’d say at least we know it’s definitely going to be a lot of digital. We know that there’s a lot of like micro influencing. Yeah.

Sam:                                      35:19                     That means like getting YouTubers to talk about it?

Nava:                                    35:22                     Yeah. But there’s influencers and then there’s micro influencers, right? Influences are like the people with like huge accounts, but they don’t necessarily, like having a person with a huge following talk about you does not necessarily mean that they’ll convert, you know. People, I think, they’re assaulted by so much information that if you’re not coming off as genuine like people can smell it. They know what’s authentic and what’s not. So I feel as though A) because of our size, we also can’t afford some of the expensive stuff, but B) I would rather that people are hearing about us from people that actually care or are dedicated to their thing. And I feel like a smaller crowd is more intimate than it used to be in a big crowd. Right. So that’s some of the stuff we’re looking at. We also, like, we have a huge marketing plan that we want to, to execute. We have challenges but we’re like, at least we have a wish-list and here’s what we’re doing. But if we kind of get to the point where we need to be like, this is like us going full throttle.

Sam:                                      36:31                     The challenges are more on the demand side than the supply side.

Nava:                                    36:34                     Yeah, I feel like the supply side, we’re at a good position. We were, we had a lot of challenges when we started out. Absolutely. But I feel like right now the ducks are kind of like lined up on that side for now. It’s to now get more word out that about the product.

Sam:                                      36:50                     Yeah.

Nava:                                    36:51                     But that’s took close a lot of time, to get that sorted out. Yeah.

Sam:                                      36:56                     How big is the Enda team?

Nava:                                    36:57                     Not big. We are literally five and we have we have two volunteers, but it’s like in and out and that’s why I’m like hesitating because they’re leaving soon. Like, no. So we have, we have two volunteers. We have an intern and there’s the core team, which is about five of us right now. We are about to eight. This is the biggest, the team has been. And the volunteers are leaving. So I’d say we’re usually like about five, five, six.

Sam:                                      37:32                     So basically, you’ve been able to sell 4,000 pairs of shoes, with just like five people?

Sam:                                      37:34                     Yeah. That’s why I tell them they’re like a million dollar team because they, they have executed like even the last Kick-starter, it was the team that executed it. We raised $99,000.

Sam:                                      37:46                     Was it deliberately $99,000 or we’re you just really close to getting to $100,000?

Nava:                                    37:49                     We were really close to getting $100,000. We hit our first target was 80. Our next target was 110. Yeah. Yeah. But it’s still these people who are seated around that tiny table who did it right. So I’m kind of always telling them like they did it. It wasn’t anybody who walked in with this massive silver bullet. Like it was them hustling. So I think, I think the team is good and, but there’s definitely more room for us to be, for example, in the markets we need to be because we are here, our key market is the US. I don’t even think we’ve scratched the surface of that market because even most of the stuff we do is around here because we’re available. So we definitely are planning on expanding in the US market, kind of getting, at least setting up something or having a small team there that is also waking up and thinking about how do we everyday, how do we make and at least be known or grow in this market.

Sam:                                      38:49                     Yeah. Yeah. Cool. Okay. So if you sort of look forward next year, 12 months time, what do you think Enda would be looking like then?

Nava:                                    38:58                     I think we are going to be, I’m just smiling because I had the vision in mind. Like I’m definitely like I’m not, I see it in terms of growth in terms of customers and just numbers and people who are running in our shoes and kind of talking about our philosophy and understanding. So definitely more sales in terms of achieving our sales targets, and yeah, like more social impact, you know, like more. Cause the more we sell, the more the supply chain grows, the more we give to our community foundation. So I see that also as an opportunity for us to be a brand that cares, you know, like that people actually even locally associate us and they know that we are different because we’re not just paying lip service, but we are actually saying let’s invest back in communities. So I see a lot of like bigger, bigger social impact, if I could call it that.

Sam:                                      39:57                     Okay.

Nava:                                    39:57                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      39:58                     So you mentioned that the community…

Nava:                                    40:00                     Foundation.

Sam:                                      40:00                     What’s that?

Nava:                                    40:02                     So 2% of our revenues, we give them to a foundation which essentially invested money in community projects, right? So when we were starting out, getting funding was such a problem, you know, and we met so many people who are doing amazing stuff, but we also feel as though we were lucky in some sorts and have grown and we basically decided to be on the lookout for community leaders or people who are just doing something that is worthy in the community and they need an extra hand and kind of investing in that be it for profit or nonprofit. And also just the opportunity to engage our customers, like to be like a part of our community. So that is, you know, like there’s so much in the news going on about Kenya, but then do you know about this amazing stories that, leave the news aside? Like there’s actually really great stuff that’s happening on the ground. So we do involve our customers to make sure that when we have routine and saying, where should the money go? But it’s also, I feel like the world needs more empathy right now. Like there’s just so many I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like when you, when you’re in a city and there’s like bad news coming out of it and you turn on the TV and it’s like, I dunno, it’s like apocalypse or something. And then you stand outside and it’s like, oh my God, the sun is so beautiful. It’s like two conflicting, you know, things at the same time. So I feel like there’s there is, the world has gotten to a point where there’s just so much, there’s a lot of echo chambers. There’s a lot of mistrust. There’s a lot of all this stuff just because we think of the other people as the other, you know, and I think part of the community foundation thing and the whole essence you’re trying to create is that, to show that people’s stories at the same, regardless of where they live. We are all, we all want to achieve our dreams. We all want to like raise our kids in a clean world. We all want to like, there’s just different, there’s things that bind us together. And the whole idea of that community is to also kind of bring that empathy as we share the running culture and help people also run and become better.

Sam:                                      42:13                     So we’ll just do a few more questions and that’s all right. Let me see, since, so you’ve been with Enda since the beginning, since it’s started, what have been some of the main surprises you’ve had, both, both positive and negative that you’ve had?

Nava:                                    42:28                     That’s a good question. I think a bigger surprise, like a positive surprise has been the fact that the longer you go, the more you meet people who are aligned. Like when you start, it’s very difficult. You’re by yourself and you’re doing things and like it uses, It was Weldon and I for the longest time and the more we grow, the more you find that we have allies. And I think that’s a really cool thing. I love that because sometimes you’re like, I’ve been thinking about this problem for so long and then you find someone who purely like for no, no reason or anything that like people just want to help and to support. So I would say that has been like a pleasant surprise and also a proof for me in my personal life as well. Like sometimes you just jump, you know, like you, if you spend too much time analyzing you won’t do it. So maybe you’ll jump and maybe you’ll fall or maybe you’ll find other jumpers mid air and you’ll hold hands and like land together, but the process is through the fall. It’s not at where should I fall? Am I going to fall in this particular area or that? What are the pros and cons for this? Like it’s great to plan, but once you have the plan, like execution is more important because in the execution, then you find the, you find the helpers. So I would say that was a pleasant surprise that I feel like sometimes it gets hard, but I’m like, I need to hang on for tomorrow’s helper because I didn’t know who’s going to come through tomorrow. So it gives me that, you know, I need to just get through this day because,yeah. So I think that’s a pleasant surprise and another surprise, maybe not so pleasant. Is just people have different motivations, you know, like you have what drives you or what motivates you is not what motivates another person. So kind of just the disappointment of that and recognizing that there are people who you don’t necessarily agree on some fundamental things and that it’s okay to let go of that. That’s hard. I think that was had for me because I think relatively now that I can look back, I think I grew up in rather happy childhood. You know, like we, like I grew up in a place where I’d say there’s a lot of trust and a lot of people you don’t really second guess because you believe that the your neighbor or everybody has the best interests of everybody at heart. So I grew up in that environment and I think you kind of grow, go into the world and you realize that’s not how people are. Like some people just don’t care, you know, other people just have their own problems or other people have their own prejudices. So for me the surprise has been that, you know, like kind of, it’s, people are different and it’s okay. You know, it’s OK to, to know that not everybody thinks like that and it’s, you know, you can’t judge them because you don’t know where they came from, why they are the way they are. But just,I just learned that people like, we trust a lot here. We trust quite bit.

Sam:                                      45:44                     “We” Being Enda?

Nava:                                    45:44                     I think Enda, also just Kenya, like where I grew up, I grew up in a place that just does a lot of trust. Like people did stuff for people, like not just, not because of anything. Like I would, it would be raining and I would like remove your clothes even if you’re not there, because I know that you, your clothes would get rained on and you washed them, you know.

Sam:                                      46:06                     If they’re out on the line.

Nava:                                    46:07                     Yeah. So, yeah, I’m just thinking about it mentally, if they’re like on the line. Like if you see like someone’s kid, like walking around and without their parents, you would be sure that their parents would know that by the end of the evening. So there was a lot of support, I would say and trust in the community. And for me, the surprise has been that’s not how the world is. And it’s like sometimes you’re like, why would people choose to be miserable? But then I also realize that I just grew up in a corner of the world. I was like that and it’s not everybody’s like that. And that’s OK too.

Sam:                                      46:43                     Okay.

Nava:                                    46:43                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      46:44                     Just quickly. What’s the how’d you end up starting Enda like, are you a runner?

Nava:                                    46:51                     I say that question, don’t ask, if I’m in the Rift Valley. I’m not a runner. Like, no, no, no I don’t run yeah because you don’t want to run with those guys. But I mean you do, but they’re really good. So I met Weldon. I’ve always been interested in sports.

Sam:                                      47:10                     Weldon’s your co-founder?

Nava:                                    47:10                     Weldon’s my co-founder, I’ve always had a deep interest in spots. I don’t know why. I just like sports. Like I like the atmosphere. I like the competition. I like the personal stories, the triumph, the defeats. I love it. And at some point I had a dream of starting a sports academy in Kenya because I was like, oh my gosh, you know, like imagine if we had and I love tennis like now, Wimbledon is going on. And I’m like, oh my gosh, it would be so amazing if there was someone from Kenya, you know. But then the challenges are that barriers to sports, especially in the sports that are technical, You see we’re good at running cause you literally just wake up and run, Right. If you introduce a sport that is expensive, then it becomes so much harder for people to join. Right. Because they need to have a court, they need to understand the rules. There’s just like so much that goes on. And the idea was how about starting a place where kids wouldn’t have to worry about that and they could literally start training as early as other kids in the world. And we would like offer really good competition. And I was talking about this at a place like it was it was, an accelerator. Was it? It was, basically I was talking somewhere. Yeah. I was talking about…

Sam:                                      48:23                     In Nairobi?

Nava:                                    48:24                     Yes, in Nairobi, about the potential of sports and how Kenya we are so good, we’re so good at sports but we don’t do much with it other than just celebrate and that’s it, you know, and like engage with it. But from a more commercial perspective and Weldon was in the audience at that time. He was with and literally, I think he was, he was like winding up with them and he was like, yeah, like the, the problem statements are like really compelling. Like, Kenya is so great, but we haven’t like done much with it. And when you, our conversation just turned to run running shoes and I think that was just like, a eureka moment of, you know, like why hasn’t this been done before? It makes so much perfect sense and saying, okay, let’s make running shoes and yeah, met a couple of days later and really had a long chat about it. And I think that was the day we’re like, okay, we are doing this. Yeah. Yeah. Sounds like something to try and yeah. Many days later, here we are.

Sam:                                      49:31                     That’s the history. People who are listening, how can they learn more about Enda?

Nava:                                    49:37                     They can check us on our website, www.endasportswear, e n d a. People usually type Edna. I’m like, no, its Enda, We’re also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well.

Sam:                                      49:55                     What’s been a popular Instagram post you’ve had recently?

Nava:                                    49:58                     Lupita, Lupita wore our shoes at some point. Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan actress who won an Oscar.

Sam:                                      50:09                     The chess movie?

Nava:                                    50:10                     Yeah, yeah. She did Queen of Katwe she also did 12 years a slave, and she’s really popular here. So she…

Sam:                                      50:17                     She wore a pair of your shoes?

Nava:                                    50:17                     Yeah, she did. So that was like really…

Sam:                                      50:22                     Did she go for a run or did she just…

Nava:                                    50:22                     Oh no, no, no. She just wore them out. Yeah. She was at a festival in New York. Yeah. So that was really cool. That was very popular yeah, I’d say that one was, it was quite popular.

Sam:                                      50:34                     Okay.

Nava:                                    50:34                     Yeah.

Sam:                                      50:35                     So endsportswear is how people find it. Yeah. And then go on and, you ship around the world?

Nava:                                    50:40                     Yes, we do. Yeah. We do have fulfillment centers here in Kenya and in the US around the world we ship from Kenya. But we basically work with DHL and, but you can still order on our website and we’ll be able to put your order through.

Sam:                                      50:53                     Fantastic, cool. So Nava, thanks so much.

Nava:                                    50:55                     Nice. Thank you too for having me. Enjoyed it.

Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, why SunCulture can profitably sell to smallholder farmers


If you’ve been following The East Africa Business Podcast for a while, you might notice that most episodes are around the 30-40 minute mark.

Whilst that was the intention here, in this episode Samir and I end up chatting for well over an hour.

The reason being is that (to me at least) there’s just so much interesting stuff to talk about the business he’s running.

Sunculture exists to improve productivity amongst smallholder farmers, and does so through a variety of services including solar irrigation pumps and financing all run on a state-of-the-art software platform.

We talk about how and why the company was formed, why Samir believes that, unlike the US, there will always be smallholder farmers in this part of the world, and how Sunculture’s dream team operates, in part motivated by Samir’s monthly emoji email.

A big part of the Sunculture thesis on development is aligned with the discussion I had with Conrad Whitaker. To learn more, search for the episode on the Distributed Economy.

We do the interview in the garden of the lovely Sunculture offices and so there may some background noises (including a nearby scuffle between a dog and monkey) which I hope doesn’t detract from what is a really fun and information-packed episode.

We sometimes go a bit off-piste, including how Samir is hoping to one day reach out to the Ohio band that share Sun Culture’s name. We sample one of their tracks at the end of the episode, if you’re interested.


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Social Media Links



Twitter: @SunCultureKenya



Sam:                                      00:00:00               Intro

Sam:                                      00:02:15               Cool. So we’re here today with Samir from Sunculture. Samir, welcome to the show.

Samir:                                   00:02:19               Thank you very much.

Sam:                                      00:02:20               Cool. So we’re here in the Sunculture garden. Would you call it a garden?

Samir:                                   00:02:25               I call it a garden. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:02:26               So we’re in your new office, which basically, you know, to say it’s an office is unfair, when you’ve got a vegetable patch over there.

Samir:                                   00:02:34               You know when we harvest, we actually cook those vegetables for lunch. You’re more than welcome to come by. You’re missing it by a couple of weeks.

Sam:                                      00:02:42               No way,

Samir:                                   00:02:43               Sadly.

Sam:                                      00:02:43               Okay. Anyway, what does Sunculture do?

Samir:                                   00:02:46               So we exist to help improve and protect the productivity of smallholder farmers. So our official mission is that we develop and commercialize life changing technology that solves the biggest daily challenges for the world’s 570 million smallholder farmers.

Sam:                                      00:03:05               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:03:06               Solve problems, help them increase their incomes, allow them to participate in consumer markets, and then a whole lot of macro issues can be solved. So lifting a lot of people out of poverty helping Africa not spend the $110 billion, it’s projected to spend importing food by 2025, help people be able to make money in rural areas. So you don’t have mass urbanization and the challenges that come with that. But at the very core of it, it’s helping farmers increase their productivity.

Sam:                                      00:03:35               Pretty cool. Okay. What are some ways which you do that?

Samir:                                   00:03:38               So when we, I’ll give you like our little trick for how we think about this. Okay. And then you can also come up with all your own ways of solving this. So we have this framework that we called the productivity ladder. So a lot of folks in energy who you’ve probably spoken to think about their services in terms of the energy ladder. How do you get people to use more energy services over time? We think about it in terms of how do we get our customers to become more productive over time. So how do we get them to climb up the productivity ladder at the base of that, when you look at the sort of core problem you need to solve, you have to look at how a farmer lives. Farmers, or at least most of our customers, the smallholder farmers in east and west Africa live on plots that are about this size as our subculture garden. They live in a, in a small structure that’s like the small structure on our, on our property as well. And they make money by either selling crops, selling animals, or selling milk from their livestock. All three of these things need water. And because most people get water by physically filling up these buckets with 20 liters of water, which weighs 20 kg. So if you went to the gym and this morning, it’s those big weight plates at the gym, because it’s so heavy, they’re only able to move enough water to barely meet their domestic needs. So they practice what’s called rain fed agriculture. Which, rain is inconsistent, unreliable. They don’t get enough of it.

Sam:                                      00:04:59               Rain fed agriculture is, basically…

Samir:                                   00:05:01               You wait for the rain to fall. That’s it. Yeah. And they don’t get enough water to become productive. So if you’re looking at figuring out how to give their crops enough water to grow, or their cows enough water to produce a sufficient amount of milk or their chickens enough water to hatch eggs and have more chickens to sell, You need to figure out how to move water from where it is to where it needs to go. So most people know us as a solar irrigation company because we were the first company to commercialize solar irrigation in Africa. But, solar irrigation isn’t a silver bullet. It’s just the first step on the product, to be honest.

Sam:                                      00:05:32               The first round.

Samir:                                   00:05:33               Yeah, first round. Makes Sense.

Sam:                                      00:05:35               Yeah. Cool. So solar irrigation, that is using solar panels to create energy to pump water from a river?

Samir:                                   00:05:43               River, well, lake, bore hole water harvest area, dam, any water source.

Sam:                                      00:05:49               When did you start that?

Samir:                                   00:05:51               We started our first pilot in late 2012. We spent the first seven months in the field, started selling stuff in 2013. Didn’t raise any additional capital or didn’t start raising external capital till mid 2015. Only kind of had figured out what product market fit could look like.

Sam:                                      00:06:09               Okay, and what did it look like?

Samir:                                   00:06:10               It looked like solar panels pumping water or powering a submersible water pump, pumping water to an elevated tank and then using gravity to release water through drip irrigation. And we’ve since then sort of moved away and iterated on the product, made it more affordable, made it more modular. That was what V1 looked like. It was called the Aggro solar irrigation kit. If you Google, you’ll still find some like pictures and articles on the Aggro solar irrigation kit.

Sam:                                      00:06:38               Yeah, that’s all right. So yeah, just say, cause we’re in the garden, people are beginning to go home.

Samir:                                   00:06:43               Yes.

Sam:                                      00:06:43               Yes. Hence, there might be a sound of a car.

Samir:                                   00:06:46               There might be sound of cars. There might be a sound of birds. Really loud birds if you get lucky.

Sam:                                      00:06:49               Excellent. Okay, so you started off, you said it was like 2015, was when you…

Samir:                                   00:06:56               Started getting our first sort of bit of grants.

Sam:                                      00:06:58               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:06:58               So we came with some friends and family loans, which we paid back. Yeah. And then we said, look, we were, no one’s doing this anywhere. We need to figure out what, what this looks like. And I’m sort of air quoting this, this and this looked like technology bundled with value added services and financing.

Sam:                                      00:07:19               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:07:19               And then we started in 2015 raising some grant capital to try it a bit more at scale. And then over the years we continued to iterate on our product. So we went from a product that costs about $5,000 down to $500, which took three days to install, and now it takes a few hours to install, that combines hardware and software now and now we’re sort of this one stop shop for smallholder farmers where we have a technology platform that includes hardware and software and we bundle it with value-added related services and financing.

Sam:                                      00:07:55               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:07:57               Yeah, yeah. A lot of things.

Sam:                                      00:07:59               Ok, on that, how many people work at Sunculture?

Samir:                                   00:08:03               We have official count as of last week was 88 non sales employees and we just trained our 99th sales agent.

Sam:                                      00:08:18               88 plus 99.

Samir:                                   00:08:19               You want to do the math.

Sam:                                      00:08:21               I just wanted to make sure that you don’t have 11 people. All right, cool. Why do you separate them like that? Why did you, why did you speak to them separately like that?

Samir:                                   00:08:30               Dude, we just went through a huge hiring and on-boarding of sales agents. So in my head, one of the metrics for tracking is how many people we’ve trained for sales agents and we just finished 99 so it was just separated in my head. Just in terms of counting numbers.

Sam:                                      00:08:45               It’s not like you have one office where all the non sales employees go and another where sales people.

Samir:                                   00:08:50               Yeah. That’s just how I viewed it in my head right now.

Sam:                                      00:08:54               Okay. Very cool. And when, how many people did you need to get to V1 ?

Samir:                                   00:09:00               Two.

Sam:                                      00:09:01               Really?.

Samir:                                   00:09:02               Need to get the V1, yeah, it was myself and my co-founder. And that was V1, like original V1 like the OG V1.

Sam:                                      00:09:09               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:09:09               Was us two existing products off the shelf. We put it together on a farmer, on a farmer’s farm.

Sam:                                      00:09:17               Yeah. How did, how did you get in situation where…

Samir:                                   00:09:19               Yeah. So I am not a farmer.

Sam:                                      00:09:23               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:09:24               My family’s from here.

Sam:                                      00:09:25               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:09:25               So my family got here from India in 1850. Okay. They got on a boat and decided to check where the wind would take them and very fortunately landed in Zanzibar, not a bad place to land and live there. And then in the 70s, they left and I grew up with this emotional attachment to the region and sort of a feeling of responsibility to…

Sam:                                      00:09:45               When you say left. And they left.

Samir:                                   00:09:46               They left in the 70s, went to North America. Yeah. So did what a lot of immigrants do. Find someone that they know somewhere else and just go there. So they ended up in Canada where I was born and then I grew up in Florida and went to school in New York and yeah, grew up feeling responsible to use the opportunities that my immigrant parents never let me forget they gave me to solve big problems. And my co-founder, Charlie had this idea to combine renewable energy and agriculture and he looped me into it. He actually, this, I only got involved by pure luck. The Universe is, was working in, in our favor. I guess he wanted to put this idea through a business plan competition at the university I went to and in order to enter the competition, you needed someone on your team who went to the undergraduate business school at NYU where I went to school and I was the only person he knew that went to that program, so he just asked me to sign a piece of paper, letting him enter the program and pretending I’m on his team.

Sam:                                      00:10:58               And you’re a, hold up this looks pretty good.

Samir:                                   00:10:59               Not, not even then. It was a few months later, he calls me on a Wednesday night at like 10:30 PM and if anyone calls you on a Wednesday night at 10:30 PM it’s trouble usually. So I was worried. I say, “hey man, what’s going on?” He goes, “we’re in the semifinals.” I’m like, “of what?” He’s like, “remember that competition that we entered? We’re in the semifinals and I’m calling you because you need to pitch with me so it looks like you’re on my team.” That was when I was like, wow, this is actually interesting. He had no idea of my family background. He had no idea that I was really passionate about the private sector’s role in economic development. No idea. It just happened that we had complimentary skill sets, we had similar values. We wanted to solve big problems. Like it just worked out super, super well and so one of the things that I think we we’re the luckiest about just figuring out a working relationship and that works well.

Sam:                                      00:11:50               What was it about the initial pitch which grabbed you?

Samir:                                   00:11:53               The macro numbers for sure.

Sam:                                      00:11:55               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:11:57               We saw, and you know Charlie, Charlie saw this early on, there’s this huge untapped asset class in smallholder farmers, right? 570 million of them globally that because they practice this rain fed agriculture, they don’t make so much money. So between 600 and a thousand dollars per year, they don’t have any disposable income. Their incomes are not predictable or dependable because they’re relying on the rainfall, which is unpredictable and unreliable, which means that banks don’t want to finance them and insurance companies don’t want to insure them. So these smallholder farmers don’t have access to capital to invest in assets to help them make more money later on, which means they can’t participate in consumer markets. And then all those macro problems happen like I talked about.

Sam:                                      00:12:41               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:12:41               So we said if we can figure out a way to create a dependable and reliable income for these farmers, we, one, can build a really meaningful business that no one is doing. We can lift an entire group of people out of poverty. We can create a new consumer market, we can then sell into that consumer market. We can then also solve all these big knock on effects. So that’s how it started.

Sam:                                      00:13:06               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:13:07               It just, no one was doing it. It made sense. We said, why not try it.

Sam:                                      00:13:11               Yeah. And then from there you were like, you’ve felt some connection to East Africa and you’re like, let’s just go over and try it out. Or like when did you, when did you first…

Samir:                                   00:13:20               We got second place in the competition, that fueled the fire a little bit.

Sam:                                      00:13:23               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:13:24               And then I was working at PWC at the time. Yeah. My sort of that, that was my post, post college job. I was in their financial services, structured products and real estate group and Charlie had taken a year off of school to start a consumer electronics business in New York. That’s a whole separate story. Very funny story, which I maybe we’ll get to later. And I had saved, I had saved I think 17 days of vacation in PWC. So that’s Monday through Friday, five times plus a little bit more and add on weekends. That was 23 days.

Sam:                                      00:14:01               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:14:02               So we decided to use those 23 days and come here and try pilot, post getting second place. Charlie had come in January of that year just to check it out. But it was really, you know, we got second place. We were, we thought that we deserved first place because it was such a big opportunity.

Sam:                                      00:14:21               What did get first place?

Samir:                                   00:14:23               A company that was making iron fortified cookies for pregnant women who were anemic.

Sam:                                      00:14:32               Okay. In the US?

Samir:                                   00:14:34               In India. Yeah. So we said this has to work there, there has to be a way to make this work. So we went in, we launched the pilot and we had a sort of set of questions that we said, if we answered yes for all of them, we’ll do it. We answered yes to all of them and we…

Sam:                                      00:14:50               What were some of these questions?

Samir:                                   00:14:51               Does the technology work? Does the business model make sense for a for profit business? Does the business model make sense for smallholder farmers? So can we make money? Can they make money and does this whole thing work? And it was, yes. I called my partner in PWC and quit from here. Charlie called his dean and said, hey, I’m not coming back. Went back, packed our bags, begged everyone we could ask for, for loans and then got on a one way flight.

Sam:                                      00:15:20               Was the company called Sunculture?

Samir:                                   00:15:21               It was.

Sam:                                      00:15:21               Yeah

Samir:                                   00:15:22               But we only had the website, Suncultured, with the ‘d’ at the end because Sunculture was taken, so we had to negotiate for that.

Sam:                                      00:15:30               Really?

Samir:                                   00:15:30               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:15:30               What was the initial, the original sunculture.Com doing?

Samir:                                   00:15:34               I don’t know. There is a sunculture band who if you’re listening to this, we’d love to meet you.

Sam:                                      00:15:39               A Sunculture band.

Samir:                                   00:15:40               There’s a band called Sunculture in the US that has, I think the Twitter account and maybe the Facebook account, but we would love to meet them. They’re like a small band that I think, I mean, I listen to music. It’s pretty great. Yeah. I should reach out to them.

Sam:                                      00:15:52               What type of music is It?

Samir:                                   00:15:54               Like indie rock.

Sam:                                      00:15:56               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:15:56               I should reach out. Maybe I’ll do that.

Sam:                                      00:15:58               Yeah. Cool. Okay. So that’s Cool, then you land here and you’re like we’ve got to like make this thing work

Samir:                                   00:16:05               First we have to figure out what we don’t know. I think there were like two characteristics that really helped us at the beginning days. One was we were super naive, like just uberly naive, which I think was really good quality at that time.

Sam:                                      00:16:18               How old were you at that time?

Samir:                                   00:16:18               23 turning 24 in a few months. Yeah. so I think the naivety inflated our confidence, which was really helpful for us to make the jump, but also this, we really knew, we didn’t know anything. We knew we could figure it out. We knew we had the resources, we knew we had this sort of base understanding to make this work, but we knew we didn’t know a lot about the problems we were solving. So we said, let’s spend the first seven months in field, First big mistake, putting our first pilot four hours away from where we live. So we would take the matatu up four hours and back everyday. Ended up getting a car driving up and down.

Sam:                                      00:16:56               What was the logic? There must be some logic to doing that.

Samir:                                   00:16:58               It was the first farmer that we had met because we met one of his relatives in the US at some point and said, we need to find a farm to pud a demo on. It was a great way to get to know each other, Charlie and myself. Great way to get tour the country.

Sam:                                      00:17:14               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:17:14               But I do think if I would go back and do it again, I would put the first demo much closer, which we did for the second demo.

Sam:                                      00:17:19               Yeah,.

Samir:                                   00:17:20               Only 45 minutes.

Sam:                                      00:17:21               And the reason you made that choice was just like, here’s an opportunity. Like we should just take it.

Samir:                                   00:17:25               We just need to put something somewhere and see what happens. But we didn’t know how the, we didn’t understand the day to day lives of smallholder farmers. So we needed to put the system in the field and see what the farmers touched, what would be potential break-points, what questions they had, where they needed help, where the tech may not serve them very well. We always say that the farm is our lab. So even when we roll out new products, it always starts with our customers. What are your problems? What do you need? What don’t you have? How can we help you? And I think that’s one of the founding principles that have allowed us to grow into what we’ve grown into right now.

Sam:                                      00:17:59               Yeah. Okay. What was the name of your first farmer?

Samir:                                   00:18:02               Our first farmer. Sirma.

Sam:                                      00:18:04               Sirma.

Samir:                                   00:18:04               And then the second one was Peter.

Sam:                                      00:18:07               Sirma and Peter. Did they know each other?

Samir:                                   00:18:08               They did not. They were very far.

Sam:                                      00:18:11               Okay. Alright. So what was, what was the deal with like when you went to Sirma, what did you say?

Samir:                                   00:18:16               We met, we met one of his relatives in the US.

Sam:                                      00:18:18               Yeah

Samir:                                   00:18:19               Well this one was easy. We’re going to give you something for free just to see if it works. That was the first one. We don’t like giving things away for free. We often don’t, the reason we gave these first two products for free was because it was really a product we need, needed to test the product. So the first two farmers was very much product r and. D. Then we started selling stuff to people. So the sales pitch for these guys was really easy. We’ll give you free stuff. Let us come to your farm whenever we want, let us try stuff and then you don’t have to pay us. There’s your birds, dinner time.

Sam:                                      00:18:53               Do you remember the first time you went to a farm when you asked them to pay you?

Samir:                                   00:18:57               Yes.

Sam:                                      00:18:57               What was that like?

Samir:                                   00:18:59               Amazing. Oh, we got so excited.

Sam:                                      00:19:04               Paint a picture. So like, were you like planning up to this day or was it like, it just kind of happened? What was it?

Samir:                                   00:19:09               It just kinda happened. We realized one day we were running out of the money we borrowed like, man, we really need to start selling some stuff. We didn’t know how to raise money. We didn’t know what grants were. We didn’t, we didn’t know how to raise capital at the time. We didn’t know that there were organizations that were built and created to just support us. In the early days, we didn’t understand.

Sam:                                      00:19:31               Okay

Samir:                                   00:19:31               We understand it now. But were like man, we really need to start selling some stuff, otherwise we’re going to run out of money. So we started marketing and started calling people and used Facebook.

Sam:                                      00:19:40               When you say calling people, is it like calling up farmers?

Samir:                                   00:19:43               We used Facebook to get warm leads and then we’d call them and try to sell to them.

Sam:                                      00:19:48               So the phone was on Facebook?

Samir:                                   00:19:49               Yes.

Sam:                                      00:19:50               Like Facebook groups?

Samir:                                   00:19:51               Yes. We have one of the top hundred Facebook pages in Kenya. Yeah. We have something like 160,000 people on our Facebook page. Our posts get a million views.

Sam:                                      00:20:02               Really.

Samir:                                   00:20:02               It’s amazing. It’s, it’s, and it was, it was born out of just our need and the cheapest way for us, our need to market, the cheapest way for us to Ab test. And it was at a time when people were starting to figure out that giving Facebook for free was a really great way to get people online in a really cheap way to get people access to information.

Sam:                                      00:20:22               So you, you were kind of like, there at the right moment and stake your claim.

Samir:                                   00:20:27               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:20:27               Wow.

Samir:                                   00:20:28               And Charlie has now developed a skill set in digital marketing. So we started just marketing on Facebook. Our first sale was to an organization called the Likipia wildlife fund foundation. It was an NGO and they bought three of our systems, one for this place called Rumuruti, one for Tigoni, one for Timau out on Likipia.

Sam:                                      00:20:50               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:20:50               I remember sitting at the, at their office, which was in Nanyuki at the airstrip, like quote unquote closing the deal. And I remember the first check that we got, it was like something happened. It was a whole mess. We really wanted the first check. We wanted to have our first sale. Car broke down on the way down to drop it off to us. We sent someone to go pick it up and I remember having the check in my hand and like Charlie and I were just like yes.

Sam:                                      00:21:17               Physical piece.

Samir:                                   00:21:17               It was a physical check for three systems. We went and cashed it, not cashed it, deposited it. That was a big day for us.

Sam:                                      00:21:25               So much more symbolic.

Samir:                                   00:21:25               So much more symbolic. It was amazing. It wasn’t a transfer. Yeah it was a check. It was a physical check that we picked up and like we had in our hands. It was super symbolic. I think symbolism is important. Yeah, it’s important. Definitely. That was a big one.

Sam:                                      00:21:38               How much does it for?

Samir:                                   00:21:39               A little over 10 grand.

Sam:                                      00:21:41               USD?.

Samir:                                   00:21:41               Yeah, it was a big one. It was a great for sale.

Sam:                                      00:21:46               Cause one thing I’m thinking is like if you’re making money off smallholder farmers who don’t have much money, like how do you get, how do you, how do you make money? Like in terms of just the transactions, like departments, transaction values and stuff like that.

Samir:                                   00:22:02               Build something people want, create value in their lives and they’ll pay for it. I think that’s one of, that’s one of the being a business that being a for profit business, our farmers really hold us accountable because if we don’t make stuff they want, they won’t buy it. If they don’t buy it, we ride a business. So we always sit with the farmer in the middle, solve problems for the farmer, they’ll pay for it. Yeah, the profile of our farmers certainly has changed from the $5,000 product to the $500 product. But we still have margins when we sell products. And if we figured if we can create value for a farmer, a farmer is willing to pay for it. We also finance for our farmers, so they have a, we have a program called pay as you grow. Yeah. You like the name? Cute?

Sam:                                      00:22:51               How long before you, how long did it take?

Samir:                                   00:22:52               It was really quick for that one really quick for that one. But our farmers pay us over 30 months.

Sam:                                      00:22:58               Did they get the joke?

Samir:                                   00:23:02               It’s not a joke.

Sam:                                      00:23:04               What I mean…

Samir:                                   00:23:04               Yeah. They love it and they love it. Pay as you grow. They love it. It’s like, oh, we’re growing. We’re going to pay over time while we grow. Sweet. Our, our main product is our flagship products called Rainmaker. Also, they get it. It’s like it’s raining.

Sam:                                      00:23:19               Yeah. Yeah. Have you got like, like a naming department? Where does this stuff come? Is this come from, it’s like, being there and just being like, what should we call our next thing?

Samir:                                   00:23:30               Pretty much. Yeah. We just had one of these naming conversations last week at our leadership meeting. We had to name a new pump that we’re coming out with and it was kind of going round the table and saying, what are we, what do we need? What’s the, what’s purpose of a name? It’s one for brand. For customer also for what we call it internally.

Sam:                                      00:23:48               Yeah. What’s it called?

Samir:                                   00:23:51               Can’t tell yet.

Sam:                                      00:23:52               Really?

Samir:                                   00:23:52               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:23:53               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:23:53               Yeah. It’s just a larger version of a water pump for our internal uses. It’s not, this one isn’t a customer-facing one so far. It’s been just sitting around and then try and go with customers. So saying, you know, what do you think about this name? Because again, it really matters what a customer thinks. It doesn’t matter what I think. So we’ll come up with a name and then we’ll share it with customers and say, what do you think about that?

Sam:                                      00:24:12               They must all gravitate towards the rainmaker and all that.

Samir:                                   00:24:14               Same with colors and with everything.

Sam:                                      00:24:16               Yeah. Okay. What about your map? Make money. Okay. Make money. So, you’re now at $500-ish price point

Samir:                                   00:24:23               Yeah, we have, we have two products. We have about $1000 price point, $500 price point financed over multiple years.

Sam:                                      00:24:29               Okay. So how, what’s the initial cash cash outlay?

Samir:                                   00:24:32               $89.

Sam:                                      00:24:34               Are any farmers excluded from that?

Samir:                                   00:24:36               Of course. Absolutely. Yeah, there are, there will always be people that are excluded from what we can do alone. You know, their governments need to exist to provide welfare for people that, for profit businesses can’t necessarily do that too. Yeah. Now that may actually let me take that back. That might not always be the case. I completely take that back. So right now there are people that are excluded. The only way for this in all these businesses to work at massive scale and I’m not, I’m not talking about it’s scale for Sunculture to do well or other companies to do what I’m talking about its scale where you’re looking at like hundreds of millions of people, governments needs to get involved and the dorm likely of subsidies or smart subsidies. Then these types of products can be affordable and available for everyone. But until that’s in place and then it’s there, there will be people who are excluded from this.

Sam:                                      00:25:32               Okay. But there’s enough, I mean is it like I’m not, I’m not quite sure how to answer this question or ask this question, but I’m trying to think at $5,000. What percentage of your smallholder farmers market could your access? Like what does that…

Samir:                                   00:25:46               Much smaller market.

Sam:                                      00:25:47               But is it like a linear thing? Is there a particular drop offs wave?

Samir:                                   00:25:51               No, we, good question. In terms of like is it linear or not? I don’t, I don’t think it’s linear. Right now at a, between a 500, so at sort of a $38 or $39 a month, so between a dollar and a dollar 30 a month, there is a market of between one and 2 million farmers for us in Kenya alone.

Sam:                                      00:26:15               1$ and $2 a month?

Samir:                                   00:26:17               One and, 1$ And $1.30. So repayments of a dollar and a dollar 30 a day.

Sam:                                      00:26:26               Okay. Which adds up to about $30, $40 a month. About 40. Again,

Samir:                                   00:26:31               There’s, there is between and farmers that meet the criteria of having a water source, etc, about one to 2 million of those in Kenya. So there are enough farmers, it’s not linear. I think there’s much more farmers. There’s more than 10 times the amount of farmers available at this price point than they were at the $5,000 price point. Yeah. but there is a point at which you can’t make something cost less without sacrificing the quality of the product for the farmer. So we always say relevance and quality before affordability.

Sam:                                      00:27:03               Relevance and quality before affordability. Okay.

Samir:                                   00:27:06               So relevance in this case, let’s say you’re a farmer relevance is getting the right amount of water that you need from where it is.

Sam:                                      00:27:15               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:27:15               So most farmers in Kenya have water between 20 and 50 meters. So it’s pulling that water enough water on a daily basis to satisfy your agricultural and domestic needs. So our water pumps for water from 70 meters.

Sam:                                      00:27:28               Got It. So you could do one for half the price, but it only does 20 meters and it’s not gonna be relevant to them.

Samir:                                   00:27:33               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:27:34               So its got to work.

Samir:                                   00:27:35               It’s got to work. Yeah, its got to be high quality.

Sam:                                      00:27:37               And even it costs a bit more. We don’t care. Not really care.

Samir:                                   00:27:39               We don’t care. But we want to make sure. It’s, it works and it’s relevant and we don’t, you know, there’s a Strive Masiyiwa, so this is Zimbabwean entrepreneur. He was at the office a little bit ago and he said something along the lines of don’t build, don’t make condescending products. And that really stuck with me. You know, make products that people actually need and that they’ll use and it’s not, I’m going to give you this product that’s like, okay, just because you can’t afford anything better, make something better, figure out a way to finance it over time where the daily cost of ownership is affordable, but you extend the lifetime of the amount or you extend the terminal which they need to pay. There are ways to make really high, high quality products affordable for consumers that don’t have too much disposable income. I fully believe that.

Sam:                                      00:28:35               Yeah. Okay. So you sort of touched on a bit in terms of the financing in that, like there’s, it’s, you know, there was this, this time gap before you can, so you, you have the initial outlay of like you have to produce and manufacture the system and then you’re getting the money back in piecemeal. So there’s going to be this time period that you sort of mentioned a few times, you’ve taken on some external capital. Is that predominantly to fill that gap or is it, yeah. What are some of the main things that you’ve used? Your external capital for?

Samir:                                   00:29:09               Everything. I believe that different types of capital are needed for different parts of the business at different times. Okay. I’ll explain that. When we started the business, we raised grant capital to just operate the business. Now we raise grants for very specific pilots where we’re the first mover. Okay. So same type of capital grants, but not used to run the business used for very specific parts of the business. Yeah. We raise equity to grow and operate the business and now we raise debt to cover this period of time in which we need to order inventory before we get paid back.

Sam:                                      00:29:48               Okay, cool. Right, so you got four, these are the four. You got friends and family?

Samir:                                   00:29:53               Yeah, friends and family paid back. Okay. grant, capital equity, debt and equity from different types of investors. So our earliest investors were these angel investors, so folks that really believed in what we were doing and they have operating experience. They came in to be a bit more hands on and for the network. Then they raised some money for some vcs. They have a bit more institutional experience. Help us think a bit more about how do we professionalize what we’re doing. In the last year we raised money from the French utility EDF who have now come and helped us think about how do we, you know, how do we think about operations at scale?

Sam:                                      00:30:29               Okay. Do the these investors want different things from Sunculture.

Samir:                                   00:30:34               In terms of.

Sam:                                      00:30:35               In term of are certain investors feeling, I got into this because I want to see, let’s say financial risks. I know you can say ultimately, you know they’re all going to converge, but some might say, I’m coming to this because I really care about the impact that comes from this. So I might be saying, I did this because I care about the scale that you get. I don’t really care about profitability right now. Others might be saying, no, we need to start making this a profitable business. And if it was, if we sort of build it down, I’d want to make sure that we sacrifice making money so that we can impact more farmers. Whereas other people might be saying, right, this is a profit making business. We need to follow that way. Yeah, here’s any, this is all conjecture in my head. I’m joining you have any of those?

Samir:                                   00:31:23               Oh that, that’s a very valid question. We’ve been very careful about putting the group of investors that we have together and we have a group of investors, so the angel investors, the vcs and sort of the strategic institutional investor that all want to make money and make impact and don’t think you need to necessarily separate those because to make impact at scale, you need to have a sustainable business. But we won’t. And our investors won’t sacrifice making money or building a business that’s profitable to necessarily reach more people because we don’t always think reaching more people or selling more widgets is the only way to look at impact. And when Charlie and I first met, it was because his best friend growing up was dating a good friend of mine from university. And I was hosting an event at NYU where I was at school to bring together entrepreneurs all over from, from New York City. He came to the event late of course, and he ended up at that event meeting some guy who really influenced the way that we can describe impact. And it’s, we look at it as sort of the, it’s called a cube of value. So how many people can you impact? How deeply over how much time number of people is just one dimension of that. And we look at how do we maximize the of value. So we don’t necessarily look at impact in terms of reaching as many people as possible. We look at impact in terms of how do we increase that decreased volume, right? One way could be fewer people, deeper impact, quicker time. One could be more people, longer time, shallower impact. There’s just a lot of ways to put that together. We just want to increase that area. And that changes with the available technology, with the regulations, with types of partners. And that, that changes just with, with the environment in which we operate. So we look at how do we increase that, that cube of value, but doing it by building a profitable business.

Sam:                                      00:33:37               Okay. Have there ever been arguments, argument might be a bit strong disagreements between the direction the company should go in based on some of these things?

Samir:                                   00:33:47               Not based off of impact. But certainly there, there certainly have been disagreements. And I, I think that that’s healthy in terms of direction types of farmers we may need to serve markets we want to enter. But that’s, that’s good. It’s healthy having a lot of different perspectives on the table. It’s healthy. Where we draw the line is when people would ask us to serve a specific market without any reason other than we want you to serve a specific part of the market. So if someone says, we want you to sell a product at this price point to which these people, we draw the line, there. Some investors have specific mandates around that

Sam:                                      00:34:28               Really. Like what they’d have a mandate that we need to, they’d need to, they’d be an investor. That’s mandate is we need to sell cups at five shillings in this area.

Samir:                                   00:34:39               You know when, when funds are created, they’re created with specific mandates and those mandates are then used to raise money from their investors and when they invest in companies, they need to invest in companies that reached certain mandates. That was just an example, a very specific example of what it meant. It could be. Now people’s mandate could be we need to reach this portion of the population or x percent of our invested investments need to go towards this type of people, which is, which is very okay for us because we have a different view of impact, sort of this Cuba value. We don’t work with folks who say we have to serve these, these types of people at this price point because impact is a little bit more robust than that.

Sam:                                      00:35:24               Yeah. Okay. That makes sense, you said that some of the grant money you’re taking at the moment is too wet to do things that you’re the first people doing.

Samir:                                   00:35:33               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:35:34               That sounds quite cool. That’s quite cool. How do you, how does that, at who, who leaves it, he leads the discussion there do you, are you kind of like, cool, we’ve got some fun stuff that we can do. You know, let’s go out and find some grants or do the grants out the grant. People like going, we need someone to go out and do this and you’re all working, which, which normally leads to the other.

Samir:                                   00:35:54               Normally the first one.

Sam:                                      00:35:55               Okay. So normally, you’re like.

Samir:                                   00:35:57               We have something called the find the right partner for it.

Sam:                                      00:35:59               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:36:00               Often times donors will have these open calls for specific programs. Yeah. We won’t raise grants to do stuff that we wouldn’t already do ourselves. Yeah. And that’s where you can get in trouble because people, when money’s in sort of available or in your face some people can get into trouble by saying, I’ll bring on this capital to do x, even if x wasn’t part of my plan. So we first say, what is it that we want to do? And then what’s the right type of capital for us to achieve that? And then we go and find partners to satisfy those capital requirements.

Sam:                                      00:36:41               Have there been any interesting grants that you’ve won?

Samir:                                   00:36:43               Oh yeah. Many.

Sam:                                      00:36:45               What are some of the ones you like.

Samir:                                   00:36:47               I mean, we’ve run grants from a number of different organizations and you know, we wouldn’t be here today without grants. And it’s really interesting when you look at agriculture and energy and other markets around the world. Sectors are very heavily subsidized by governments. And you know, the donors that come in to work with private sector companies like us are sort of filling, filling the gap of, you know, how do you work with organizations that have a first mover disadvantage where you’re testing new ways to achieve what would be national priorities as well. But that hasn’t, the solutions haven’t existed yet.

Sam:                                      00:37:28               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:37:28               So we’ve, we’ve raised money from a number of governments. Right now we’re actively working with Microsoft to develop a very cool software platform. We worked very actively with the Shell Foundation for all the donors we haven’t listed. We really love you, but it’s a number of donors, right? It’s and for different parts of the business. You know, like USAID came in really early when we were looking at thinking of how to expand our business. The GSMA came and said that, we were thinking about building a new product and looking at financing, they were the first ones to take a bet on that. And throughout our history, there have been a number of organizations that have taken bets with us on things that have never been solved before.

Sam:                                      00:38:11               Like what?

Samir:                                   00:38:13               Like, how do you become the first company to commercialize Solar Irrigation Africa? How are you the only company to bundle these value added services and financing with this technology? How do you pilot the first solar irrigation financing scheme in sub Saharan Africa? How do you build a solar irrigation platform that’s 10 times cheaper than what you started with? How do you build a software platform where you are, you know, detecting agricultural risks earlier than anyone else on the continent. All of these bits and pieces that add to our business require capital to try. And there have been a number of donors who’ve come and said, look, we know you’re the first one to try this. We believe in this. Let’s try it. When it works, then you go and raise commercial capital. And we wouldn’t be here today without all of the donors that have supported us on this journey.

Sam:                                      00:39:01               Yeah, very cool, so kind of like, oh that’s not so I hadn’t really grasped that before. So it’s basically like giving you the safe space to fail. Yeah. Is what the, I mean a lot of the time that’s, yeah,

Samir:                                   00:39:13               Yeah, exactly. Try this out. We think that you’re right and we know that if you are right, you’ll go and raise commercial capital to then build that into your business. But it’s really, we’re going to be really expensive for you to try it out with equity or debt because if you fail, then you’re in a little bit of trouble. So let’s give you the capital to satisfy our development needs, which is trying to see your business work cause it’s impacting a lot of people. And then once that works, then you can go and raise commercial capital for it.

Sam:                                      00:39:41               Yeah. Very cool. All right. Yeah. Before we came over and sat in the garden you showed me, the, what you call the, the root and that, the sort of the living space that is representative of where…

Samir:                                   00:39:54               Oh yeah,

Sam:                                      00:39:55               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:39:56               Demo home.

Sam:                                      00:39:57               That’s the one, one of them was the pressure cooker?

Samir:                                   00:40:00               Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:40:00               Can you talk to me a bit about that?

Samir:                                   00:40:02               To make it clear on what we make, what we don’t make, we only build sort of platform level technology. Okay. So in terms of the hardware, we built the control electronics for the energy management system, the battery that can power different appliances. We don’t make our own appliances because appliances exist and there are a lot of good appliances around the world. In terms of the software, we’re building a software platform where we can plug in other people’s data sources, but it’s platform level stuff. Our energy management system can handle appliances that were acquired 500 watts. So it’s a quite a large amount of power for folks living off grid. So we can power pressure cooker, electric pressure cooker. It’s quite interesting. A lot of our customers spend hours per day gathering firewood and/or charcoal to cook the number one cause of noncommunicable diseases in…

Sam:                                      00:40:52               Non-communicable.

Samir:                                   00:40:52               Like, so noncommunicable diseases are diseases that are not able to be transmitted from one person to another.

Sam:                                      00:41:07               So the, the number one non-communicable

Samir:                                   00:41:11               The number one cause of noncommunicable diseases in Kenya. And I don’t have to start a sub Saharan Africa, I definitely not it’s for Kenya, is cooking for like a non clean cooking. Okay. So if I were charcoal in the house, yeah. So pressure cookers or something that’s quite interesting for our customers because they saved time and they, it’s much, much healthier for them.

Sam:                                      00:41:32               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:41:34               So we started piloting pressure cookers. We haven’t commercialized it yet. Yeah. But it’s one of those appliances that we would be happy to have as an add on after someone increases their income with the solar irrigation. And then how do we continue to make them more productive either by saving their time, making them more healthy, etc.

Sam:                                      00:41:51               So what’s, what’s the, what’s the big sell with a pressure cooker? So,

Samir:                                   00:41:54               So let’s say you live in rural Kenya, you spend a few hours a day cooking. Yeah. So if I could cut that time by 70%, then you have more time to do other stuff. Plus I’m making sure you don’t bring in all, you don’t breathe in all these nasty fumes, your grand-kids don’t breathe in all these nasty fumes keeps you healthier.

Sam:                                      00:42:11               Yeah. Gotcha. Okay. What some of the other so what the, have some of the devices that we have in there?. So there’s a TV…

Samir:                                   00:42:19               There’s a TV. So even to answer this question more broadly too, I’m going to ask myself the question, how do we choose appliances?

Sam:                                      00:42:27               Sumit, you want to come and take my…

Samir:                                   00:42:31               Kicking you out of business over here. We run focus groups with farmers. We’ve done focus groups with hundreds of farmers this year, to help ourselves figure out what appliances farmers would want after they increased their incomes. TV’s interesting. Bundled with agriculture content to help people learn about farming. There’s a lot of other potential appliances that are used for agricultural productivity and increasing productivity at a domestic level. So saving a lot of time, making people healthy. Can’t share all of them just yet. In the House we’re showing egg incubators, which is very interesting for us as well.

Sam:                                      00:43:13               Egg…

Samir:                                   00:43:13               Egg incubators.

Sam:                                      00:43:15               Egg as in chicken egg?

Samir:                                   00:43:15               Chicken egg.

Sam:                                      00:43:16               Not ag?

Samir:                                   00:43:17               Not ag, egg, egg. I’ll have some more water so you can more clearly, egg incubator. So people will hatch eggs in egg incubators and then sell day old chicks. So there’s a large market for people to buy chicks that are a day old, then grow them and then sell them or grow them for more eggs. But there’s a big market for people to grow hatched chicks and then sell them. It’s wild.

Sam:                                      00:43:46               I was thinking more in terms of like this device, this machine that is the egg incubator. Is like quote quite a well known thing. What I’m trying to get is there a sense of you don’t know what you don’t know when you go, when you do focus groups?

Samir:                                   00:43:56               Partly we show a lot of, when we do focus groups, we have a number of products, we go in and we use and we show pictures of and then see how people ranked them based off of a number of factors.

Sam:                                      00:44:08               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:44:08               So we’ve a very specific way of running focus groups to make sure we’re making it feel as real as possible with the amount of money you have. How do you make money? If you use this, you make more money here, how would you invest it to really get a sense of what people would actually invest in? Yeah, so sometimes you know for incubator, for example, if someone hadn’t seen it, they understand what it’s used for, they go, wow, that’s really useful. I didn’t know I could ask for that. Yeah. So we go with pictures and we describe it because you know sometimes it’s hard to even ask for something you don’t know is available.

Sam:                                      00:44:36               Yeah. What, honestly, what sort of, what have you found have been some of the important bits of information you do you share when doing this focus group that you might not have done the first time?

Samir:                                   00:44:49               So one of the really important pieces is helping people understand how much money they can make from it and how much money they would be spending without it. Which sounds really obvious, but it’s just taking time to really put that in writing. Hey, you can make this much money or having them figure it out themselves. So if you had this product, what would you do with it? How much money would you make from it? How much money would you be willing to invest in it? So just taking time and having them walk through their own process as opposed to telling them what they could use it for. Right. It makes it more real. It makes it more personable. And also it’s just the right way to do things is to allow people to understand how they would use it for themselves as opposed to you telling them how they should use it. You know, when we started the business, I told you the V1 was a big solar powered water pumping system and drip irrigation altogether. The gold standard. We realized that trying to sell and force people to go for the gold standard right away, it’s not, it’s not the best way to do things because it requires so much behavior change and so much investment. Instead we change our approach to say, look, instead of going for the gold standard, why don’t we start you off with a solar powered water pump and a sprinkler and/or a hose pipe, which requires very little behavior change and then upgrade you to drip irrigation and then upgrade you to bigger drip irrigation, etc, over time. So getting you to the gold standard, but over multiple years as opposed to saying, you have to do this now. When we first started, we said, you can only buy this package and that was wrong. And we broke up the package and allowed people to mix and match based off of sizes, based off of what their needs are, what their comfort level is. And instead of trying to determine what is best for our customer, we show them our customers, the option, allow them to decide what’s best and then kind of graduate them. So we took, we expanded the Lens in which we look at our customers instead of a sort of a one year lens, we now have sort of a longer 20 year Lens. So we go through the exercise of, you know, what our customers need over the next 20 years and how do we serve them over the next 20 years.

Sam:                                      00:47:00               I see. Okay. So one thing I’ve, I’ve always sort of wondered about smallholder farmers and sort of productivity, etc, is by funding. You can obviously enlighten me a bit more on this, but if Amazon.

Samir:                                   00:47:15               I’ll be your guru on this.

Sam:                                      00:47:16               If Amazon are getting more productive from their plot of land, is there a limit to productivity they could get. Whereas if they kind of combined together and kind of did more, more of a commercial farming thing, you might get the economies of scale and that would make things even more productive.

Samir:                                   00:47:36               How much time you have? So it’s, it’s a, if you look at countries like the US, where you had over half the population operated on farms or farmers and now single digits, just a few percent of people are farmers. One of the bigger reasons for that was farm aggregation. One of the reasons why people aggregated farms in the US a hundred years ago plus was because in order to mechanize your farm, so to use machinery to do work that humans would take too long to do or would do it ineffectively, you had these really expensive machines. So it was not, you were not able to be, to have a profitable small farm that was mechanized because the machines cost too much. Right now we can mechanize 1/16th acre farms profitably. So there doesn’t need to be aggregation as there were in other markets around the world because we now have technology that can be that, that we can sell to really small farmers where we don’t need to have big masses of lines. So that’s one thing we don’t need to aggregate. Of course you can achieve economies of scale when you aggregate, but you also have to look at the farmers that we talk to, don’t want to give up their land because traditionally land is passed down to your children and then to your children and then to your children. And that is an asset that you own. And culturally it’s a, it’s an honor to have that piece of land. Our customers tell us that they wouldn’t want to aggregate because that’s, that’s theirs, so there’s, there’s also a cultural bit and cultures differ across different regions in Kenya as well. But across the regions that we work in, which are most regions in Kenya, our customers say they wouldn’t want to aggregate. This is their land. It’s for their family. They want to use it that way. So my philosophy, my theory is that there won’t be aggregation at a farm level and we need to figure out how to make farmers profitable on an individual level.

Sam:                                      00:49:46               Solid answer. Done. Yeah. Good. That’s good. Alright. Sleep easy right now. All right. Supply side. Yes. You’ve spoke a lot about demand side. So you’ve got this platform and then you basically….

Samir:                                   00:50:03               What a good Buzzword Huh?

Sam:                                      00:50:04               Isn’t it?

Samir:                                   00:50:04               Yeah. It’s how, how, how do you use the word.

Sam:                                      00:50:07               How quickly was that on your pitch decks?

Samir:                                   00:50:09               Not so quickly, not so quickly.

Sam:                                      00:50:11               Right.

Samir:                                   00:50:11               We don’t like using buzzwords for buzzwords sake. We’re like very anti that.

Sam:                                      00:50:16               How else do you, if you don’t, if you weren’t allowed to call it a platform, what would you call it?

Samir:                                   00:50:20               Which part of the business?

Sam:                                      00:50:22               The bit where different manufacturers can, you get different products, which can all go through the Sunculture system.

Samir:                                   00:50:31               I don’t know.

Sam:                                      00:50:32               Maybe it’s a platform, maybe that’s the word.

Samir:                                   00:50:33               It is definitely a platform, it’s definitely a platform.

Sam:                                      00:50:36               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:50:36               You hear people talk about X platform Y platform.

Sam:                                      00:50:40               Yeah.

Samir:                                   00:50:40               And really all it is is their way of doing things.

Sam:                                      00:50:45               Have you ever just found yourself not necessarily as the Uber for x, have you ever described yourself as, the something for something?

Samir:                                   00:50:52               We, we haven’t but, and you know those, those kind of analogies are useful in some ways but also really detrimental in other ways because it’s really hard to put us in a box because we touch so many sectors, water, energy, food, Fin-tech, IOT. Again, more buzzwords, but in all parts of what we do and people like to put us in certain boxes. So it’s hard for us to say where the, you know, the A for B. One thing that we have thought about a lot, and it’s how we use our, we did a re-branding, how we define our core values as a business. Part of, part of how we define our core values has looked at how apple has designed products for its customers and how apple has the purchasing trust of its customers like me and how apple is reliable in terms of its servicing. You always find someone smart at the genius bar or on the phone who can help you solve your problems. But really putting the customer at the center of it’s product design strategy. We’ve often, we’ve, we’ve talked about that internally, so we want to have the best products that can satisfy our customer needs. Then that we have the purchasing trust of our customers because of the quality of the products and services that we offer.

Sam:                                      00:52:25               Apple for smallholder farmers, no I’m joking. Yeah, I’m one day people will be saying.

Samir:                                   00:52:31               I have my black turtleneck inside if you want me to go, pull that out.

Sam:                                      00:52:36               And one day people will be the Sunculture for X.

Samir:                                   00:52:39               I hope so. Yeah, I hope so, I hope, you know, I hope we are breaking a lot of the rules that people think that you have to follow and I hope that we’re showing that, you know, you don’t have to do things the way other people do it. One of the hardest things to do when you start a business is to not emulate people, especially in markets where things haven’t been figured out and where there are a lot of people to look up to. It’s really important to understand that, you know, your business is different, you’re different, your customers are different and don’t emulate. So hoping that we can break the…

Sam:                                      00:53:10               Is that?

Samir:                                   00:53:12               I don’t know.

Sam:                                      00:53:14               Maybe it’s a cat. We’ve got, we’ve got.

Samir:                                   00:53:16               Theirs, there’s a cat. And then there’s dog, dog, two dogs. There’s monkeys around here as well. So I dunno what…

Sam:                                      00:53:26               We’re in a residential area?

Samir:                                   00:53:27               We’re in a residential area. Yeah. It’s nice. It’s, this used to be a daycare.

Sam:                                      00:53:35               Really. It did look a bit colorful.

Samir:                                   00:53:37               Yeah. If you see the playground in the front, yeah. You can use it as well. As one of my mandatory requirements was to keep the playground here. So, yeah.

Sam:                                      00:53:48               So we talked about supply.

Samir:                                   00:53:50               Yep.

Sam:                                      00:53:50               And I said, I thought I thought supply was your platform, but maybe it wasn’t like what, what, what would you say is the supply? What is your, when you think of the supply side of your business, do you not think about it?

Samir:                                   00:54:00               No, we think about it a lot Something we’re very good at. It’s one of our core competencies. My co-founder and his, his R and D team can look at sort of China as like a Walmart. He knows where to find everything, knows how to test everything. We’re very good at the supply side. Very good at sourcing. Very good at quality assurance. Very good at quality control. Have I told you that we got on a way flight here, when we left New York, we first stopped in China.

Sam:                                      00:54:25               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:54:26               So we have very good relationships with our contract manufacturers, our suppliers with our manufacturers as well.

Sam:                                      00:54:31               Yeah. So they’re making stuff few.

Samir:                                   00:54:35               So sometimes we buy off the shelf stuff. Sometimes people are making stuff for us. We make some of our own stuff so we make our own the controller electronics, the green board, the PCB, we make our own. Yeah. And which allows us to power all these really high powered appliances from different parts of Asia. And then we do our own sort of assembly and we send it over here. And then we do the own, we do our installation, we do the installation for our farmers on their farm.

Sam:                                      00:55:04               And this is done, is that from the sales agents?

Samir:                                   00:55:06               Done by engineers. So we have sales agents and we have engineers across the country that do the installation. And then the repairs and maintenance.

Sam:                                      00:55:14               Do you have like little hubs?

Samir:                                   00:55:15               We do, we do, we call them sales and service centers. Sscs centers. Sscs yeah. You can say it seven times.

Sam:                                      00:55:22               Sales agents. They’re kind of a locus around those.

Samir:                                   00:55:30               So our sales and service centers actually trail our sales agents. So they go in areas that we start to saturate and then they stock spare parts. They’re used for good branding point of sale. But if we don’t have a sale service center in the area that need spare parts, we send them directly and we have engineers and go and do all the repairs and installations. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:55:52               Who’s your star salesperson?

Samir:                                   00:55:53               We have two right now, Olivia and Margaret. Okay.

Sam:                                      00:55:56               What, what makes them so good?

Samir:                                   00:55:58               They, well we, we had a town hall last week. We do a town hall every quarter and we’re sort of going over where, where we’ve come from. These two women together sold more units, like more than, together they sold more than half of what we sold in our whole first year and they sold that in like Q2 this year. I haven’t been able to dig into why they’ve been so good.

Sam:                                      00:56:25               Do they work together?

Samir:                                   00:56:25               Separate, independent yeah.

Sam:                                      00:56:28               Are they different personalities?

Samir:                                   00:56:29               So this is my first time meeting them in person.

Sam:                                      00:56:31               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:56:33               Different personalities for sure. Yeah. Both very confident, very competent. We find that sales agents that, that are sort of, that understand that this is just generic for everyone, but it’s so true. It’s that if a sales agent understands the challenges that their customers go through, that they become really good sales agents because it’s not even a matter of selling someone. It’s a matter of serving someone. So I always tell people we’re in the service industry, we exist to serve our customers. As you grow and as you have a bigger sales organization, it gets, it gets hard to often have that message go through to every new person that comes on because they want to hit numbers and make commission. But the best sales agents that we have are ones that understand that they’re here to serve our customers. And both Margaret and Olivia, when I met them last week, they both came off and had sort of, they had the empathy to be able to understand where our customers went through and were very humble about their work. And sort of didn’t say this directly, but you kind of picked up that they were sort of, yeah, well we’re here to help our farmers. That’s all we’re doing is helping them out, which is really cool. Which is, you know, what you want to hear, which is I had my dream to hear that from everyone. Yeah.

Sam:                                      00:57:52               What’s your sales cycle?

Samir:                                   00:57:54               So, so different, so different. I mean, most, most people are quite quick.

Sam:                                      00:58:04               Quite quick like…

Samir:                                   00:58:04               Within the month.

Sam:                                      00:58:05               Okay.

Samir:                                   00:58:06               Some people, we have people calling after hearing about us for a year.

Sam:                                      00:58:09               Yeah. How many visits will someone make?

Samir:                                   00:58:13               So we need, we need somewhere between four and six touch points. So it doesn’t necessarily mean visits. Could see us on Facebook, could see one of our agents get a few SMSs. We, we know that for us there’s, there’s, you need just a number of touch points as of now and that could change as we release new products. So we also found that our sales cycle and the way we need to communicate needs to differ based off of region, based off of product we’re selling. And there’s again, no silver bullet. You have to adapt to the needs of your customers. Some people in some regions want to see things in person, some people are okay buying it from their neighbors. Referrals work better in some regions. Different marketing channels work better in other regions.

Sam:                                      00:58:55               Quite a complex operation. Yeah. With all these different terms to factor and all these different…

Samir:                                   00:58:59               Yeah. But it’s so interesting. Yeah. It’s so interesting and being able to filter all this into a system that works. It’s super defensible too because if you systematize this and you, you know, we’ve, we’ve really strongly moved from an intuition led business to a data driven analytics led business and doing that has allowed us to systematize lot of the work that we do. So how do we systematize and put algorithms around digital marketing or about where we open up a new market or about our supply chain? How do we create a system that links our accounts with our after sales, with our, with our dispatches. Now that there’s a system in place, it’s fascinating because it’s so defensible. So working in markets that industries don’t exist for you to piggyback off of all these different pieces, it’s challenging, but if you can figure it out, it’s quite, it’s quite a defense. It’s quite a moat.

Sam:                                      00:59:52               Yeah, I can see that. What are the main hires you’re looking to hire for next?

Samir:                                   00:59:59               Only people that are front lines right now. So we have, I think the best team come the Dream Team. So we had the dream team.

Sam:                                      01:00:08               I saw there was a little sign that said teamwork makes the dream work.

Samir:                                   01:00:09               Teamwork makes the dream work.

Sam:                                      01:00:10               So they’re clearly listening.

Samir:                                   01:00:11               Clearly listening. Yeah. Our, our head of HR, Joanne, who’s a superstar, she has this she has this sweater that says Dream Team on it. We, we, we pay attention to who we hire. And we have an amazing team. That’s just an amazing team. Now the only people we’re hiring are customer facing people. So sales agents, engineers, credit officers, relationship managers, people that have a direct interaction with a customer.

Sam:                                      01:00:38               To what degree do you attribute the fact that you’ve been able to assemble a dream team? Because one thing is my hypothesis, it’s like obviously partly be yourself, but the fact that you’re doing quite a cool business that people can feel inclined to.

Samir:                                   01:00:54               Unless you’re gonna post something about my phone. I’ll answer that question. I’m going to ask myself another question as well because I think it’s quite interesting.

Sam:                                      01:01:01               It’s a better question than I’ve asked.

Samir:                                   01:01:02               No, it’s not a better question. It’s just something that I, I thought about what we san pull this up. So I send out a, one of my monthly emails. There’s been,

Sam:                                      01:01:14               Is this an internal email sent?

Samir:                                   01:01:16               Internal email.

Sam:                                      01:01:17               Are they, do they have fun name like Sumir’s monthly email?

Samir:                                   01:01:20               I always put a nice, there’s a subject for all of them. With an Emoji.

Sam:                                      01:01:26               What was the emoji this time?

Samir:                                   01:01:26               For June. June was a target. The target Emoji, cause we were talking about targets. May was a trident.

Sam:                                      01:01:36               A trident?

Samir:                                   01:01:36               That thing.

Sam:                                      01:01:39               Oh yeah. Like oh the thing that Zeus has.

Samir:                                   01:01:43               Yes.

Sam:                                      01:01:45               What’s the, what does the trident symbolize?

Samir:                                   01:01:48               So the subject of this email was ‘gyshido’ which stands for get shit done. We work with an organization called Unreasonable and they have this ‘gyshido’ policy about how to get shit done. And I was reflecting in this email on sort of three key factors that have got us to where we are and that I see in all the most successful people on our team. One of them is the hustle. Yeah. So we have a lot of folks who are just super hungry getting an MBA on the side of working you know, managing team from home, asking for mentorship, just the hustle people who are really hungry for, for development resilience. So people who really believe that, you know, the craziness is going to work, that being resilient to the words and they say are seeing the light where other people don’t. That’s been a huge factor. And then putting the company over self. So, you know, putting the purpose of our work ahead of their personal beliefs or ahead of their personal benefits. That’s something that’s really, really key. The thing that, that would, the reason I had the trident was because the one, the one factor that our lowest performers lack is this ‘gyshido’ so get shit done. So the trident was kind of like, Eh! Get shit done. Yeah, that was the closest thing. I didn’t want to put a poop Emoji. This felt more, more get it, getting done. So those are, those are the factors that have contributed to the highly successful people in our organization. I think the reason we’ve been able to assemble the dream team is that we, I mean, we’ve just from day one, Charlie and I have always put our customers first. We’ve always said that increasing the productivity and incomes of our customers has been the most important thing and that we just embody it. We’ve always had that philosophy, always put our customer first. We’ve always been very clear that we will not sacrifice quality and relevance for affordability. We will figure out ways to make things affordable with operational or manufacturing efficiencies or financial innovation. We’ve just really kept true to our core beliefs. And I think that the, you know, trust is consistency over time, right? So I think we’ve just built trust that we are consistently living our core values. And I think people like that, and people trust that no matter what, when shit hits the fan one day or when things get really tough, that we’re going to live our core values and we’re not going to sacrifice what our purpose is as an organization for anything. And I think that that’s what, how we’ve been able to attract the dream team and those people who believe that and embody that have been our most successful folks in the dream team.

Sam:                                      01:04:32               Yeah. So a few more questions. I realize Samir, we’re already on the longest interview I’ve ever done.

Samir:                                   01:04:37               I don’t know if that’s a thing to celebrate or not, but I’ll celebrate it right now.

Sam:                                      01:04:43               So six months to the, in the next six months to three years. Yeah. What does Sunculture…

Samir:                                   01:04:49               Six months to three years, come on, man. I’ll do both.

Sam:                                      01:04:56               Okay.

Samir:                                   01:04:56               But I won’t do, I’ll do both separately cause they’ll look different. So six months we’re raising around a funding right now.

Sam:                                      01:05:04               What type of funding?

Samir:                                   01:05:05               Equity.

Sam:                                      01:05:06               So this is people saying we’re going to take a percentage of Sunculture.

Samir:                                   01:05:10               Yeah. For capital with a belief that we’ll get paid back a lot more in time.

Sam:                                      01:05:18               How much are you promising them?

Samir:                                   01:05:20               We’re not, We’re not. We’re good. We don’t share. We won’t, so I won’t share how much we’re raising or what we promised them right now so just in case you have any more questions on that.

Sam:                                      01:05:32               It’s like this is a, people who are, they obviously will care about the impact.

Samir:                                   01:05:36               Yes.

Sam:                                      01:05:37               But they are also…

Samir:                                   01:05:37               Commercially minded impact investors who have a vision to, who have a vision that matches our vision. Yeah. So to scale this business across multiple markets to affect as many people as possible, to grow what we think could be the most meaningful sort of agriculture business on the continent. And then at some stage go to different continents. So raising that, so in the next six months, get that closed. The next six months looks very much like it does right now. Just more like the machines running in more areas in Kenya. So just more sales agents, more and more people that are customer facing. So just where we’ll grow in terms of people are feet in the street, foot soldiers serving our customers. So you know, that that’ll grow up quite a bit. We’re distributing in a few markets or we’ll distribute in a few more markets and just, it’s just growing our current operations. So nothing totally new, just kind of growing current operations. In three years time we might be operating in one or two new markets. So not only growing what we’re currently doing, but replicating what we’re doing in more markets. We’re working on some really good software stuff, some really cool software stuff. Where, we’ll be able to highlight risks that farmers face that are not in their control much more visibly in real time, which means that, you know, we can help course correct for farmers. So give hyper local recommendations on pest mitigation, how much fertilizer to use, irrigation recommendations. So we, we always talk about bringing the best in best in class precision agriculture, smallholder farmers, which we’re doing. This is just a huge extension on that on the software side. So in three years really, really commercializing that software piece to then crowd in more capital, more insurance companies. More input companies, more product companies to serve farmers. So building the most robust fin-tech platform and marketplace for smallholder farmers because we have all of this information.

Sam:                                      01:07:42               Yeah, and you built the trust with the farmer.

Samir:                                   01:07:43               We build trust with and we built trust with the market as well.

Sam:                                      01:07:46               Yeah.

Samir:                                   01:07:46               You know, I think the reason why people don’t invest in smallholder farmers is because they don’t understand the risks that are, that smallholder farmers have. If the risks are visible, then insurance companies can price the risk with the premium and then banks will insure and put an interest rate on it, which is pricing a risk as well. So if we can help make the risks visible and then help help give farmers advice that helps them make better decisions on how to mitigate against those risks, then they have access to more capital, which allow them to then go buy more products and services. But again, solar irrigation isn’t a silver bullet. They want stuff. They need stuff like pressure cookers TVs, more machinery, more inputs. But we can help serve as a platform to again, increase and protect the productivity of smallholder farmers and help them mitigate risks not in their control. And then highlight how we’re doing that so people are comfortable selling to those customers.

Sam:                                      01:08:41               Sounds very cool.

Samir:                                   01:08:42               Yeah. Thanks. I think so. Yeah.

Sam:                                      01:08:46               10 years?

Samir:                                   01:08:48               I don’t know if I’m going to be the right person run this in 10 years. Okay. I don’t know. I don’t know. I might be. I very well might be, but different size businesses need different personalities. I always tell the team what gets us from zero to one won’t get us from one to a hundred, which is the same. Won’t get us from 100 to a thousand. That means people, that means systems, that means processes. And maybe I can develop or maybe I had the skill set to manage the company where it’ll be in 10 years, which will be on multiple continents. But maybe I won’t be. Yeah, maybe I’ll be doing the next cool thing. Who knows? But Sunculture will survive that.

Sam:                                      01:09:29               Yeah.

Samir:                                   01:09:30               I’m building Sunculture to survive well beyond me and that’s, I keep telling everyone as well. Keep figuring out how to fire yourself out of a job.

Sam:                                      01:09:40               Yeah.

Samir:                                   01:09:41               So if you can fire yourself out of your job, it means we’re growing. So I continually, continually try to fire myself out of a job.

Sam:                                      01:09:45               What did you fire yourself off of?

Samir:                                   01:09:47               Operations. Kenya operations. Our COO now runs Kenny operations and we’re hiring a Kenya GM to take over his role. So he’s fired himself out of a job. And now, that gives us space to think about how can we best, how can we best be used to help Sunculture grow? So it’s a good thing to fire yourself out of a job because it gives you space to think about what’s next. In 10 years, maybe the job I fire myself off, myself out of and where I need to go. Maybe that doesn’t fit. Maybe we need to bring in someone external, but Sunculture will survive well beyond me.

Sam:                                      01:10:23               Very cool.

Samir:                                   01:10:24               And again, I’m, I might be the right person and I’ll be here and we’ll be doing this podcast interview again. But yeah, check back in 10 years.

Sam:                                      01:10:33               Very good. And, and people who are listening, how can they learn more about Sunculture in various different ways?

Samir:                                   01:10:40               So you can listen to this podcast, which you already have so well in. If you want to see how we interact with farmers and how farmers think and how farmers feel check out our Facebook.

Sam:                                      01:10:54               Is that just Sunculture?

Samir:                                   01:10:55               It’s Sunculture Kenya. Our website is my least favorite thing right now. Maybe when you publish this it’ll be better. We’ll see. So if you go to our website and it’s like, Eh, then just wait a little bit. You can find more information there. Type in Sunculture in whatever search platform you use. Lots of articles, lots of videos. If you want to join us in our mission, you can reach out to me directly, Samir, [email protected], we’re I was looking for really talented people to either work with or collaborate with now or in the future. So if anyone wants to join our mission and join our work, please, please reach out directly. If anyone has any questions on how to do this, how to start a business in East Africa West Africa as well, reach out as well. We’re always trying to crowd in more really smart driven people because it’s going to take more than Sunculture to solve all the problems we’re trying to solve. We think we’re an important piece, but again, we’re not a silver bullet either. There’s going to, there needs to be way more companies that are started that work together to solve all of these problems. And we, we look at some of the challenges that we’re solving for smallholder farmers and we’re just one, one of many solutions that are needed to improve the livelihoods of these folks. So yes, so join us, we welcome you. And yeah, I’m happy to help in any way that I can.

Sam:                                      01:12:26               Awesome. Well Samir. Thanks so much.

Samir:                                   01:12:28               Thanks man. This was fun.

East Africa’s first board game cafe, and why most Kenyans don’t know how to play, with Bao Box


There are certain business models or concepts which seem to be universally popular.

One big one recently has been creating a public space where friends can meet up for some food and drinks and play board games.

In this episode I speak with Sumit Dodhia who a few years ago had the realisation that Kenya was missing such an institution, and so, along with 5 friends, decided he would start one.

Two years later and Bao Box is a great success.

There are over 100 board games on offer, and the business can attract custom throughout the day, compared to other places which are concentrated solely on after work and evenings.

We talk about the costs and practicalities of getting the cafe set up, how they source their games from “board game dealers” operating in Kenya, and how his staff are paid to play board games in their downtime, as many never grew up playing them.

It’s a really interesting episode that, to me at least, highlights how different types of businesses can survive and thrive in this part of the world.


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Sam:                                      00:00                     Intro

Sam:                                      01:54                     Cool. So we’re here today with Sumit from Bao Box. Sumit welcome to the show.

Sumit:                                   01:58                     Thank you.

Sam:                                      01:59                     So to get us started, could you tell us a bit about you and a bit about Bao Box?

Sumit:                                   02:03                     So yeah, a bit about me. My childhood involved a lot of I like to believe a lot of outdoor activities and all. And in terms of education, I always enjoyed mathematics as a subject. I did make sure I took it further to university as well where I studied economics at Northumbria university in the UK and then just like everyone else, did not use that knowledge from the degree ever again. So after uni I left the UK, came back to Kenya and joined the family business. We do plastics manufacturing. So, was part of that business, I guess learnt how trade is done in Nairobi in a way. And two years back a random conversation with a friend of mine led to the creation of Bao Box. Now, of course, I guess with this friend of mine we’ve had we discussed many times about how generations have changed or how the upbringing of generations has changed in Nairobi. And this time we we’re talking about a whole generation of Nairobians where they were only exposed to food, alcohol and Shisha. And we felt it was such a shame because when we were being brought up in the same Nairobi, we were exposed to a lot more outdoor activities, a lot more activities that promoted socializing, that promoted a different Kind of bonding with friends. So this same conversation led to my friend asking me, do you think a board-game cafe can work in Nairobi? And, yeah, from that point I said, why not? We can’t be the only ones who think that Nairobi needs something more from your evening out or a timeout at friends that doesn’t just involve food and alcohol. It needs something more. And it’s not the entertainment only, it’s just that fulfillment from your timeout. And that was the birth of Bao Box As an idea. Then from that, luckily, speaking to the right people at the right time. February was inception of the idea and…

Sam:                                      04:22                     This is February, 2017?

Sumit:                                   04:24                     2017 yes. And by December, 2017 we managed to open the place.

Sam:                                      04:30                     So Bao Box is a board game cafe, is it Nairobi’s only board game cafe, Kenya’s only?

Sumit:                                   04:39                     So we are lucky enough to have the claim of being East Africa’s premium board game cafe. So again, it’s a shocker that no one else. And we are grateful, I guess at the same time, perplexed. Why hasn’t this been questioned by someone else before? About Creating a space where people can do more than just eat and drink.

Sam:                                      05:04                     Okay. So you’ve other than university, you’ve lived in Nairobi?

Sumit:                                   05:11                     Yeah. Okay. I grew up in Nairobi, went to the UK for the uni for higher education. Finished that, back here.

Sam:                                      05:18                     Okay. Have you, Or before starting Bao Box, had you ever been to a board game cafe?

Sumit:                                   05:25                     Never.

Sam:                                      05:25                     Really?

Sumit:                                   05:29                     No. Never. Never knew what it would look like. Never knew what is the expected and never knew how it would be run. Just…

Sam:                                      05:38                     Alright. Well, I mean, how did you figure it out.

Sumit:                                   05:42                     So as I said, meeting right people at the right time is of course a big help. And a lot of so we’re six partners in this.

Sam:                                      05:52                     Six of you.

Sumit:                                   05:53                     Six of us, yes.

Sam:                                      05:54                     Equal partners? In terms of people who have put in the same…

Sumit:                                   05:58                     Yeah. In terms of effort and all, in terms of what we bring to the table. It’s quite different. I think that’s what helps. And so, in terms of from inception to actually creating a place and opening and running, it really helped to have six friends as well. Five other friends of mine. And it’s in a way, at the same time people advise against opening a business with friends. But these are friends I knew I can work with. So that made it slightly easier to get confidence to take off the idea. And everyone brought something very different to the table, to the word that when it comes to board games, perhaps there’s a personality of associated people who play board games to be universally upped with technology. And that’s where I fall. So technology was never my strong point or the other friend who had this conversation with. So we have another partner who is very good with technology. Someone else who’s very good with technical systems and all.

Sam:                                      07:14                     What technology do you need to run a board game cafe?

Sumit:                                   07:18                     Well I mean in terms of even social media, that itself to me is part of technology. It’s a very, to me technology is a lot, it’s a broad spectrum. In terms of software technology, then I have another friend who is very technically able and understands back-end systems very well. So he normally handles that aspect of the business. But at the same time, in terms of setup, that ability of his really helped us in terms of choosing the right POS system in terms of making sure that that POS system leads to…

Sam:                                      07:55                     POS is point of sale? Point of sale. Where basically the cash register…

Sumit:                                   08:02                     Exactly. So the cash register of the business, the… But its, It’s about more than that. It’s, for the waiters, it’s the point of entry in terms of orders. But which also defined them order per table. At the back end, it also allows us to link our sales to the consumption of raw materials as well. So the system does link the sale to the usage as well. And you can input your buying, your purchasing as well and all. It’s a good guidance in terms of your position as an establishment.

Sam:                                      08:41                     Yeah. Very cool. Okay. So we’ll sort of talk about a few of those, a few of the different aspects, but just to sort of paint a picture Bao Box, can you sort of explain, so it’s in Westlands in Nairobi. How would you describe Westlands to someone who’s never been to Nairobi?

Sumit:                                   09:01                     So Westlands is the upcoming part of the city. We have what we call the Wall Street of Nairobi is on Westlands road, which is the road we are based on where most of the investment banks are placed in the area. The Stock Exchange for Nairobi is just across us, so, so to speak, we are the heart of the financial district of Nairobi and that’s the best way to describe Westlands. The location we’re in. However, to point out. Also it’s, it’s an area which has a lot of, it’s got a high intensity of restaurants and restaurants, clubs as well as cafes. So one way is to say that that’s competition, but on the other hand it’s to say that there’s a lot of spending in the area. And hence why one of the decisions to choose Westlands as a starting location. Although we would say we are slightly off the heart of Westlands, and initially we were actually looking at a place down the road in the heart of Westlands luckily didn’t work out. And so we got the space we have now and the network of roads and all and accessibility has helped us still be in the picture and be considered part of the main Westlands.

Sam:                                      10:33                     And you basically, it’s a, how many stories are in this building?

Sumit:                                   10:37                     So it’s an 11 story building.

Sam:                                      10:38                     And you basically got the eighth floor.

Sumit:                                   10:40                     We’ve got the full eighth floor, which has got a nice balcony, with Nairobi weather, made a lot of sense because we have like 11 months of the year where we can actually sit outside and one month of rain that really hinders everything. But apart from that, yeah. So we chose the floor with the balcony and it came to us as more obvious choice than otherwise.

Sam:                                      11:05                     And was it completely bare when you got it?

Sumit:                                   11:08                     Yes, we got a shell. So as in when someone walks in to the cafe, we had to construct our we had to construct certain walls, the kitchens. We actually created, we had to create and construct walls inside for our storage and everything. We literally got a square box.

Sam:                                      11:30                     Okay. All right. How did you think about like the start up costs of doing something like this?

Sumit:                           11:41                     So we’ve got big help because we’re involved with someone who is, whose job was to install kitchen equipment into restaurants.

Sam:                                      11:53                     One of the six?

Sumit:                                   11:54                     One of the six.

Sam:                                      11:54                     That’s very helpful, isn’t it?

Sumit:                                   11:55                     Exactly. So he, that is, and that margin is, was the largest cost for starting of a project like this. So as soon as you understand your largest cost, and it’s very simple nowadays you have experts in the industry who can give you a rough quote from day one to say, look, if you’re looking to do something like this, with woodwork and this much cement work and all, it will cost you within a range of x and y. But if you’re looking to do a bit more high end where you only use tiles and this and this, then your cost will go up to this amount. And yeah, it works with, it all works with estimated costs and taking it from there. Of course, projections are a lot lower than the end cost that we faced, but we had a rough idea of how far it would go.

Sam:                                      12:50                     Okay. And when you were sort of deciding, did you basically say, okay, it’s going to take us, it’s going to cost x to start it up. Did you sort of factor in how long it might take to pay back?

Sumit:                                   13:06                     Yes and no. Yes, because like every other business you want to know in how long the return to a project. Like this would be, but at the same time we had accepted that, look we are diving into this. It can go either way. So if we dive in with two feet, you know, you just accept that perhaps it might not work out. Perhaps it will. There might be, we might not hit the targets we want to, whether the return of investment would be three years up to even three years. We are very okay with it, but the more important thing was to set up a well established, well running cafe. The biggest aim was that once we can do that, once we can control all the loopholes, we know that eventually it would be something that would pay back. So again, these are things you realize much after you get through to open the place as opposed to when you think about the idea itself.

Sam:                                      14:10                     Good. And you don’t need to go into specifics, but roughly what’s, what was the range you were given of the upfront capital that it would take to set up a cafe?

Sumit:                                   14:23                     It was varied but can go because the space was a lot bigger than what we initially planned as well or the initial space we’re looking at. So yeah, given quotes from roughly 30 to 60 million, shillings easily.

Sam:                                      14:39                     Okay, so that’s like 300,000 to 600,000 USD?

Sumit:                                   14:42                     Roughly yes.

Sam:                                      14:44                     Okay. So it’s not very…

Sumit:                                   14:47                     Because it’s very varied. Again, what you want to do from the place, what, how you want to serve. Even like in terms of the glass as well, you go for the industrial look with metal glasses cost you a hundred shilling, like a dollar for a glass, you go for a nice finished, branded glasses, it can cost you up to $7, $8. Now I can’t put a budget on that, but I can tell you that there’s, it depends on what you want to, how you want to do it, what you want to do, what’s available, what’s not. Yeah. Yeah.

Sam:                                      15:24                     Okay. And how did you come to a decision? The six of of you. Was it sort of one person was responsible for the interior? Or if there was any big decisions you’d have to, all six of you, do it or was it…

Sumit:                                   15:39                     Yeah, I guess it works. Initially it took all of us. So with any idea it would take all six of us to pitch in the ideas, then one person will be allocated to carry it through and then make a up to a final decision. Then presented back to the team and say, okay, look, I’m going with this. And generally there’s a good understanding between the six that these are six very able, very capable, very smart individuals. So then you have, like for me, I know the people i’m partners with they’re brilliant people. So if they make a judgment, it’s not, it’s not a rash decision. It’s after they’ve given it good thought. And having a thought process in mind is how they came up with choice A over choice B and C, when we had presented choice A to Z, they filtered out four and from that they chose one. So why did they choose that? They will be able to justify it and we support that. And that’s how decisions are made and that’s how work was carried forward. So, if some certain people are in charge of certain decisions. They would filter out, make the decision present to the team and say, look, I’m going with this. If there is no major objection, let’s do it. And Yeah, and then the follow through depends on where they in charge of the follow through as well or was another department in charge of that then that person takes over and support the decision made by everyone now.

Sam:                                      17:07                     Yeah. So were you like having a weekly meeting for these sorts of things or was it just kind of a bit ad hoc?

Sumit:                                   17:14                     Those when needed would meet up based on the activity or event, but there would be a compulsory of course weekly meeting to summarize, to set timelines, to set dates to set well just to get all sorts of details on progress. And on during the week I would perhaps meet with the relevant people or if we had to meet our contractor, then all six of us would turn up to the place to decide. Maybe because of the pallet furniture we have got involved in the place. This was designed specific for us, it’s not readily available furniture. So even the six of us had to sit down and decide what’s going to be the length and the width and the height of the table. So stuff like that, we’d sit down and say, look, if you are seated here, if you’re a customer, this it’s going to be, you’re playing a board game. Is this height okay? Is it too low or too high? So we’d have a practical discussion with a sample or a model and then decide, okay, this works, this doesn’t, yeah, no, we should go higher in this lower than this, sometimes if it comes to it, majority vote to like if majority decide this is the right height you take it.

Sam:                                      18:32                     Yeah. We’ve not yet spoken about board games despite being a board game cafe. How, so when you, when anyone walks into Bao Box in the center, is this sort of almost a tower, almost sort of middle shelfing almost like a tower of board games. Where do you source board games from?

Sumit:                                   18:54                     Anywhere and everywhere. We have had limitation in terms of Kenya itself, but there are lots of agents nowadays who do source from everywhere in the world. And it’s, it’s available for you. Yeah.

Sam:                                      19:10                     What was, did you have like a minimum number of board games you felt you had to have before you could open the doors?

Sumit:                                   19:17                     So as opposed to saying we needed a minimum number, what we did is we all did research and shortlisted that look, these are the games we need in our place. So some of the Games are the ones we have played before. Some of them you go YouTube and you go to Facebook, you just go look at the games, are they practical, what’s the response of people and every kind of research is possible.

Sam:                                      19:42                     You had, you would go on YouTube and you’d watch videos of people playing board games and think, is this the type of game I want in Bao Box?

Sumit:                                   19:52                     As part of the research. Anything is research.

Sam:                                      19:57                     Yeah. That’s cool. I had no idea that, yeah, haven’t really thought about it actually. Okay. And then there’s, then there’s someone’s job to go out and say, right, we want to get connect 4 or cards against humanity. You then just go out and well go to a few go to shops and stuff.

Sumit:                                   20:16                     Yeah. So then we have then we look, then we ask the people who are sourcing these things and ask them listen, these are the game they want.

Sam:                                      20:24                     When you say somebody who sources them, that means there’s someone who, someone’s job…

Sumit:                                   20:31                     Correct. There are companies here that already selling board games in shops. So you would ask them and they wouldn’t know. Some of these games cannot do well commercially. So they’ve never stocked them or some of these games have never been heard of in Nairobi, so they wouldn’t stock them. Yeah. But then we would request them that look we are looking for these games please get them for us. They would have of course the links with the international suppliers and all that about board games. So they will make sure they get it for us.

Sam:                                      21:02                     Alright, so there are some games in Bao Box that can’t be found elsewhere in Kenya?

Sumit:                                   21:07                     Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Sam:                                      21:09                     Do you know what any of those are?

Sumit:                                   21:11                     Well, interesting. Carcassonne is one of them. I have not seen it here before. Le Havre is another one that I’ve not seen here before. There are variations of Jenga which I’ve not seen in Nairobi before cause only, the standardized Jenga is common. Everyone knows about it, but there’s only variations and twists to the game. So those are difficult to come by because I can imagine even for any commercial toys outlet, they would never know if that would sell or not. And I guess it sounds, it’s one of those games as well. You wouldn’t pick it up everyday to play. So it’s one of, you can’t, they’re not family friendly. Some of the games are adulterated so I don’t believe many families would buy into the game then in that case. Yeah. So stuff like that I guess. Yeah.

Sam:                                      22:09                     Yeah, alright. How many board games do you have?

Sumit:                                   22:13                     We started off with, just above a hundred. Right now we are almost hitting 200 different board games. Yes.

Sam:                                      22:20                     Do you have any repeats?

Sumit:                                   22:22                     From the 200? No. We make sure that for every game we have we have at least two to three copies to allow those many different people to play the same game at the same time. Yeah.

Sam:                                      22:31                     Do your board games sit as an assets on your balance sheet?

Sumit:                                   22:39                     Yes they do.

Sam:                                      22:41                     I can’t imagine there are many businesses that have got a line…

Sumit:                                   22:45                     It’s very tricky for even the accountant because there’s, it’s a very unique situation for them as well.

Sam:                    22:52                     And how do you place a value on a second hand board game?

Sumit:                                   22:55                     And it’s, because if you even use it as a raw material for the generating of income, how do we phase it? Because it is a sitting asset that is generating income. So is it rental income or is it actually…

Sam:                                      23:09                     You have to like charge it back to the company or something.

Sumit:                                   23:13                     It’s a very tricky situation as well for us. Yeah,

Sam:                                      23:17                     I guess that’s a problem for accounting. Yeah. Yeah. What’s your favorite board game?

Sumit:                                   23:25                     Good question. It’s, it’s, it can’t, it can’t be just one.

Sam:                           23:31                     Yeah, as soon as I said It, I thought it’s like asking what’s your favorite book or what’s your favorite film? Cause it depends on the mood.

Sumit:                                   23:39                     Exactly. Depends on the mood, who you’re with, what do you want to achieve out of it?

Sam:                                      23:42                     Okay. What are some things you want to achieve?

Sumit:                                   23:48                     So let me explain when I say what do you want to achieve out of it? Sometimes if I go there with one or two friends, yeah, you want to play, and it’s a Sunday afternoon or something. You don’t want to play a drinking oriented game. You want to play something that involves a lot more strategy or thinking so to speak. So you want to achieve a bit more engagement from your brain in a way or engaging yourself thinking, the thinking aspect of it. So then I would choose a game that is strategically oriented for simple example for that would be monopoly.

Sam:                                      24:27                     Okay.

Sumit:                                   24:28                     But let’s say it’s a Saturday night, i’m there with some friends, we’re having a few drinks, then I’ll not go from monopoly, I would go for something like Jenga or drink Jenga or cards against humanity where the fun is or there’s a lot more, it’s a lot more lighthearted fun. It’s a lot easier to play. It doesn’t involve your thinking too much and it contributes or it works well with the noise around you as well. Yeah. It depends on time, day, mood, who you’re with, certain friends would not like to engage in games that involved thinking, then you, even if it’s a Sunday afternoon, you’d rather play a little more relaxed, easy going game. Some people enjoy reading rules, making sure they learn a new game. People who are adventurous with board games, then you pick up a game that none of you have played before and try learn the whole game from scratch. So even that has its own kind of joy and sometimes those kinds of games become your most favorite game as well for the moment. So yeah, it depends what you want to achieve and when. So yeah.

Sam:                                      25:41                     And then when people come to Bao Box, they’ve got, obviously they’ve got the board games. They can also get a nice drink. They can get some food. What do you, what percentage of people are you seeing coming to Bao Box will be playing a game on that visit or will people just be using it as, it’s like quite a nice space to, to hang out.

Sumit:                                   26:02                     So I’ve seen, I can’t put percentages on this, but I’ve seen if its someone after work, they’re not coming there for board games. They’ll come for a nice drink or a quick meal with their colleagues and then they’re off back home. But any other crowd that comes up generally, they’re here to play board games or rather interact with friends. And the easiest way to do that mostly is board games. So yeah, that’s what we have seen. Or we’ll find a lot of groups coming in. Part of the group is playing the game. The other part just wants to chill and talk, cause a lot of places in Nairobi, perhaps are not offering that ambiance which promote people to think or promote people to talk.

Sam:                                      26:52                     Okay. And so that means, okay, so what, what hours of the day is Bao Box open?

Sumit:                                   27:00                     We open from seven in the morning till midnight. Yes. Yeah. Being a cafe and being in business central area, it helps to be open from seven in the morning because then at least you do encourage a coffee the breakfast crowd coming in for a quick coffee, a croissant or something and anyway, we have to be there quite early in the morning for supplies and prep, cleaning and everything anyway, so if you are going to be there, might as well open doors and allow people to come in for a quick fix of a coffee.

Sam:                                      27:38                     Great. Okay. So it seems though, I don’t know actually I kind of wonder whether the utilization, I’m not sure if utilization is the right word, but the, the times at which people are coming to Bao Box and engaging, spending money and buying things, whether you have an advantage over a normal “normal cafe” is the fact that you’ve got the board game attraction. Does that mean that you feel more and more people are able to sort of utilize the, the space about the day?

Sumit:                                   28:13                     I’d like to believe so. But then again, we are never, or we aren’t the biggest cafe, in Nairobi or the busiest cafe or busiest restaurant as well. I think as long as you give people a unique experience or a different experience or rather even a good experience, you’re going to get a crowd because you can’t do board games everyday. The same way, you cannot eat Italian everyday, you’d want to change. So I cannot say that I am, board games is what’s making me better than others, but at the same time there are good Italian restaurants in Nairobi that…

Sam:                                      28:57                     People, I don’t think, would go for an Italian restaurant at 4:00 PM whereas they might come to Bao Box.

Sumit:                                   29:02                     If they have a nice bar. People just want to relax, they want ambiance, they want service that as long as they get that I don’t have, I don’t have the biggest after-work crowd as well. There are other places which definitely pull a bigger crowd than us.I guess as long as you provide what people are looking for, then that crowd will come to you.

Sam:                                      29:27                     Okay. Is this, do people have to be over the age of 18 to come into Bao Box?

Sumit:                                   29:33                     No, it’s board games. Board games…

Sam:                                      29:36                     It’s not like a licensed premises or a bit, there’s no, for example, in some countries well like in the UK at least. I think if you go to a particular bar they will say because they serve alcohol then you won’t be allowed in because of that, is that a thing?

Sumit:                                   29:52                     No, there’s a bigger responsibility on us as Bao Box to ensure that we are not serving minors drinks, but here generally most cafes, bars and all, operate with the bar, food and cafe. So on that basis it’s some, there’s, something they have for people of all ages. There is no legislation here that if you are serving alcohol, you can’t have minors in the premises. But if in your premises you are caught serving, a minor alcohol, then it’s a problem. So for us it’s a bigger responsibility. And if we have any doubt on someone not looking the right age, to approach them and tell them do note that we’ll have to ask for an ID from you to confirm your age. And if you cannot present it, then unfortunately we cannot serve you any alcoholic drink. Yeah. So we make sure that we don’t, we do not serve alcohol or if we aren’t sure we make sure that this information has been conveyed and the customer has been able to provide proof, then only we move forward. Otherwise the managers have been strict. There’s no two ways about it.

Sam:                                      31:08                     Why is it called Bao Box?

Sumit:                                   31:10                     So ‘bao’ is a traditional Swahili game, a board game, more formally known as Mancala in the rest of the world. And being a board game cafe in Kenya, and we could have called it all kinds of weird names or different names, but then we thought a sense of originality and a touch of the local aspect had to be there. And bao is a game we have played as well, many times growing up. And so we thought, how else can you link what we have something brilliant that is this Kenyan culture and touch with us and incorporate it in our name. And so we had to ensure ‘bao’ had to appear in the name to make sure that the local board game has been taken into account and given its respect, you know.

Sam:                                      32:06                     And what was the second choice?

Sumit:                                   32:09                     They’d come up with some very funny names. One was the social box because in essence I think what we were looking at is more than just saying it’s a business which is, which is going to attract people by having board games and food and drinks. It was more of us, the whole idea evolved, started with the board games and the cafe was built around it to say that no, the core of the business was board games and why board games? Because we believe that we wanted to promote and encourage this socializing and bonding, which existed, it existed 10, 15 years ago. But at that time, it wasn’t something that had to be pushed or encouraged it was such a normal thing. Now to bring back such kind of nostalgic sort of socializing, nostalgic feeling, board games. So every other name we thought of was linking to that.

Sam:                                      33:16                     Understood, okay.

Sumit:                                   33:17                     Yeah. So we went quite far, came back and settled with Bao Box, For the reason that we can’t, as much as we’d like to use all the different puns around the world and all that regarding board games and this and that. But it made more sense to us to simply go with a board game we all know and a board game we all relate to and a board game that is very Kenyan, very us. And that’s why.

Sam:                                      33:44                     Very cool. So we’ll just do a few more questions.

Sumit:                                   33:46                     Sure.

Sam:                                      33:46                     What have been some of the, so the inception for Bao Box came just over two years ago. What have been, if you sort of compare today with two years ago, what have been some of the surprises or surprises that have that have happened?

Sumit:                                   34:12                     Good surprises. Bad surprises. Start with the bad, I guess. Again, not being from the industry gave us surprises or gave us challenges that we did not foresee or we did not think would have been a problem. And so service is one of them. Always trying to ensure that we are giving top notch service. We are ensuring that board games itself, we have a lot of people taking souvenirs from the board games.

Sam:                                      34:46                     Really. So people would like to steal a piece of…

Sumit:                                   34:48                     Yeah. So we don’t know why, but when they do, unfortunately what it does is it breaks or it spoils the experience for the next person that picks up the game. And so many of these board games you take one piece away, the whole game is ruined. So those are the kinds of challenges. We did not expect it to be at the scale it was.

Sam:                                      35:08                     How do you stop?

Sumit:                                   35:13                     I don’t know if…

Sam:                                      35:17                     Just get a bouncer.

Sumit:                                   35:17                     His job would be very interesting.

Sam:                                      35:20                     A lot of these pieces are quite small.

Sumit:                                   35:24                     But yeah, the only way to prevent I guess is, it’s difficult to control and prevent the stealing or the, I guess, the people taking souvenirs. I don’t like to use the word stealing Yeah. So the only way to curb it is look at the bigger picture that you don’t want to spoil the experience for any other customer who comes in. They don’t want to know why someone else took a piece. They would’t want to understand that. So just to me surely have enough buffer stock for the games. We have to ensure that we have a regular audit of the games going on. So my mornings the staff team that comes in in the morning, they do the cleaning duties and they’re blue zone plus for the day is actually to ensure they can go to as many board games as they can and check if everything is in order.

Sam:                                      36:17                     Right. So you’ve got like a little less of in monopoly. We need to make sure that all these cards exist.

Sumit:                                   36:24                     Correct.

Sam:                                      36:25                     Really.

Sumit:                                   36:27                     It really helps as well. So being in Kenya, unfortunately, and, or rather fortunately being in Kenya, but unfortunately with the staff we get here, they’ve not been exposed to board games before. So as opposed to being in the UK or Canada perhaps where they have the largest board game cafe in the world, they will have access to people who can be naturally considered to be game masters. Here we didn’t have this luxury and a lot of my staff, the first time they’ve ever played a board game was at Bao Box. So it was really good. Some of them are very excited as well. A couple of my staff are actually, they know how to play roughly 80 to 90 games now, which is impressive because I am learning games from them now and so it works two ways as well. For us, it’s nice that we gave our staff a chance to experience this whole wave of culture. That to them was completely new. It’s again, being a low income economy, you have people who have, waiter jobs here are not fillers for students and on it is more of a life time career for many of my staff, they’ve been doing it for 10, 15 years and this is it for them. They’re trying to grow in this field as much as they can. But that’s. So the problem, the problem is because of their background, they’ve not been exposed to this. So we feel that perhaps it’s never too late. So we give them a chance.

Sam:                                      37:59                     It really is. Is that part of people’s schedule almost is if they’ve got some downtime they are kind of expected to play board games, well expected sounds a bit harsh but you know what I mean?

Sumit:                                   38:13                     Earlier when we met today I don’t know if you noticed because we are not too busy and I had a big team off stuff. I had my manager…

Sam:                                      38:22                     I did see. I thought they were having like a team meeting but they’re just out playing board games.

Sumit:                                   38:25                     Carcassonne actually

Sam:                                      38:25                     The one which can’t be found nowhere else.

Sumit:                                   38:31                     And Yeah, so they were playing that game because all the staff were not needed on service. And to me I would like them to learn the game as well because it provides me an added benefit as opposed to getting someone else from outside to check on the games. My own staff can look after the games, they can know when something is missing, something is damaged because if they have played the game, they know what’s needed in it. And at the same time, to me, another aspect that I get covered when I teach them board games is that they can give my customers a better experience as well. So when someone knows roughly 80 to 90 board games, they can teach a customer walks in a game they’ve never played before. So that itself really is really helpful for us as well because we tell the customer that, look here, we have very capable staff who are going to teach you a game you have not played before to give you a different experience in your evening tonight. And that can allow us to take a step back and as opposed to, as opposed to different customers waiting for one of us to go teach games to them. So yeah, it’s Killing like three birds with one stone.

Sam:                                      39:43                     That’s great. And what’s been like a positive surprise or another…

Sumit:                                   39:48                     Another positive surprise would be how much people have been wanting to do things like this. So this is not just board games. I’m talking Nairobi in general. There’s a lot of places that different experiences have been created. Like, what’s the name? Like mystery rooms.

Sam:                                      40:12                     Escape rooms,

Sumit:                                   40:13                     Escape rooms. Yeah. So a lot of people have, I think that two company that actually set up escape rooms in Nairobi as well. So that means that people are looking for new experiences. There’s a bowling alley that reopened in Nairobi again and it’s been quite busy. So again, it’s just that generally it’s a good surprise to see that people actually, were not happy with just the option of food and drinks. They wanted more from it. It’s just that the market, was not giving it to them and now and all these places are coming up. It’s good to see that people are exploring and making the most of them. Cause otherwise the o to places would always be clubbing. And with the go to lace being clubbing, it doesn’t in the long run, I feel that that generation that comes through clubbing will not be challenged very differently or their thinking will be very monotonous over a long period of time. But when people go off on new experiences is when they start growing and they start seeing the world differently. We have a zip line in place that’s opened up in Nairobi, an hour drive from Nairobi as well. Accessible, professionally run experience. So I think that all contributes to allowing Nairobi to create a culture for people who want more out of their timeout or…

Sam:                                      41:41                     Yeah, the experience economy, is that what they called it?

Sumit:                                   41:48                     So I guess a lot of people, when we came back to Nairobi as well, that we had a, had a lot of friends we had left back in the UK and people from Kenya as well. And they would always say that Nairobi is very dull. In Nairobi, what, the only thing going for us was being a small city, everything was accessible. So what was the everything that was our friends, so there’d be a lot of opportunities to meet up friends very easily. I don’t have to plan like, to me London is a good example because I’ve been there, I’ve visited and I can tell you like people working in London had to plan that after work we’ll meet in the city and then you go your way, I’ll go my way. In Nairobi, I could go to work, get home, have dinner and then plan to meet up with friends and still be home at a good time to get a good night’s sleep and be back to work the next day cause everything was accessible. Whereas in London what they were enjoying was when they do meet up, there’s a lot more for them to do, they don’t have to repeat the same activity again. While they can still get a bite to eat, they can get a drink. So think Nairobi was missing that and that is a good surprise to see that as opposed to looking at other entertainment places as competition. It’s to say that look together we are all responsible for creating a culture and that culture itself will change a generation which will be so used to just being out and about and getting more from their evening or day basically.

Sam:                                      43:21                     Fantastic. And so Sumit, people listening at home, how can they learn more about Bao Box?

Sumit:                                   43:28                     So we have a website, we have a Facebook page Bao Box cafe. We have an Instagram page as well. They are the best sources I guess to just get a brief on what we are up to, who we are in a way and what I normally say is the best place because what we’re doing with Bao Box, being a passion project with friends, we’re always trying to create events that we would personally enjoy. So if people want to try a different experience from a night out or an evening we have random events coming up, which have been very, varied to what you see in Nairobi normally. But just things because these events we are creating because of of the fun of it more than what is the return if I do this, the time I spent on it for that reason, like recently we had a dirty bingo night,

Sam:                                      44:29                     Dirty bingo night.

Sumit:                                   44:30                     Exactly.

Sam:                                      44:31                     What is dirty bingo?

Sumit:                                   44:33                     That’s a brilliant question. It’s Bingo for adults and yes that night we had to have age limit, you know? But yeah, it just bingo played with dirty words, but it is absolutely brilliant. It’s just funny like, you know, when someone can comfortably shout out the dirty words because it’s part of a game, it’s a very different atmosphere in a place. Recently we had start-stop night probably known as animal kingdom. It was in different parts of the world. We put our own twist to it to allow it to be a group game. And that’s that. These are games people haven’t played for years since childhood, just getting a piece of paperback in the day, it was simple, getting a piece of paper, writing, name, place, animal, thing and someone chooses a letter and they start filling it in. Here we created a twist to it and all but more importantly it was a way for us to take people back in time, to get them to start thinking about those memories again. And that’s what we’re trying to do again and again. So hopefully yeah we’re hoping more people would buy into more of what we are trying to achieve more than just say come play board games.

Sam:                                      46:01                     Yeah. Very cool. Well, I’ll link to all of those in the show notes as well as a link to where the cafe is. So if anyone’s in Nairobi, they can see

Sumit:                                   46:10                     Thank you.

Sam:                                      46:11                     But yeah, Sumit, thanks so much.

Sumit:                                   46:13                     Thank you very much man. I appreciate it.

Move over Tesla, Opibus has a better way to get electric vehicles on African roads


We’ve got a very interesting interview this week, one that brings together using modern technology with a compelling market need.

It’s all about electric vehicles.

Now, you’ve probably heard about Tesla and some other companies building cars that don’t run on petrol.

It turns out that, for now at least, these vehicles don’t work in the East Africa context.

Opibus is a Swedish company founded by a group of engineers looking at how to get more electric cars on the road.

One route is the Tesla approach of building an electric car from scratch.

The approach of Opibus is to take existing vehicles, rip out the petrol engine, and put in an electric engine instead.

What that leaves you with is a much quicker and more flexible way to get electric cars being driven in different conditions.

Interestingly, despite being a Swedish company, other than a few prototypes the company’s operations have been almost entirely in Kenya.

Several factors, such as the presence of lions and elephants, have made it the ideal place for the company to start.

Mikael, the head of the commercial side of the business, and I discuss this, and all manner of things in this episode which I hope will leave you feeling positive on the role and room for innovation in the region.


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Starting with safari

The big challenge with electric vehicles is the charging infrastructure. Battery-powered vehicles have a range they can manage and, especially if you’re making unpredictable trips, it’s unclear where your next charge is coming from. Safari lodges don’t face this issue. It’s typically a relatively short trip that begins and ends at the same point. It’s also a market where customers are willing to pay a premium for an environmentally friendly experience.

International cars not fit for African roads

The quality of roads in Kenya mean that many international car companies don’t want to have their cars being driven here. These cars are made for smooth roads, and things such as the suspension, bearings etc. will break more frequently on East African roads. This is a bad image, as well as affecting things like the length and depth of warranties that are given. Anyway, all this means that many modern electric cars can’t be put on Kenyan roads. The solution that Opibus have decided on is to take cars that are already built for Kenyan roads (e.g. suped up Land Cruisers) and fit them with an electric motor.

Pay back in 1-6 years

Beyond environmental concerns a big selling point is lower operational costs. This comes mostly from not needing to buy petrol, but also ongoing maintenance. Petrol engines have innumerate parts, cogs and pistons that need fixing. Electric engines are just one. All this means that the upfront price of buying the engine can be recouped in saved costs. The savings are greater the more the engine is used (i.e. saved petrol) and this varies from 6 years, all the way down to a year.

The engineering

Electric engines have better torque (power) than petrol engines as well as being lighter in weight. There’s therefore no issue with them being deployed in tough environments (i.e. the savannah)

The road from assembly

Right now parts are imported into Kenya and put together by Kenyan welders and engineers. In time Opibus is looking for more of the manufacturing to be done in Kenya.

Hiring engineers from university

The CTO has been training up smart engineers on the particulars of electric engines. Kenyan universities produce good engineers, it’s now a case of finding those excited by electric vehicle engines, and training them.

Fixed points for charging

As Opibus (and indeed the electric vehicle market in general) looks to expand it’s offering the fixed points of charging are important. As such, public buses are being viewed as the next step, as they typically transport people back and forth from regular spots. There’s not technical reason why trucks can’t be fitted with electric engines too.

Corruption is frustrating

It’s real. There have been instances where Opibus have had cargo shipments stuck at the port for six months. Apparently regulation changes mean that the battery components can’t be allowed into Kenya and the only way out of the predicament is to pay an official $8,000. Opibus have taken the stance to never engage in corruption, though this has definitely slowed business.

Financing expansion from grants and elsewhere

A company like Opibus will need capital to scale. Right now they’ve been largely self-financed adopting the approach of selling the solution before it’s been made, and then making sure the design fits what the customer wants. As such, they have decent cash flow. When it comes to getting grant money for, say, promoting environmentally friendly solutions they’ve not quite got the track record that donors want yet, but that should come soon.

Social Media Links



Twitter: @opibus1



Sam:                                      00:00                     Intro

Sam:                                      02:02                     Cool. So we’re here today with Mikael From Opibus. Mikael, welcome to the show.

Mikael:                                 02:06                     Thank you very much Sam. It’s lovely to meet you.

Sam:                                      02:08                     Yeah. So just to get started, could you tell us a bit about you and a bit about Opibus?

Mikael:                                 02:13                     So I’m one of the co-founders of Opibus and we’re a company working with energy solutions and electric mobility here in east Africa. And our vision all along was to bring electric vehicles down to Africa. So we started this company back in Sweden about three years ago. And then today we deal with everything from electric vehicle conversions without which I would probably talk more in detail with you later. And then making solar panel installations and also working with lithium battery technology.

Sam:                                      02:43                     Got It. Okay. So you’re a Swedish company, you, Mikael, you’re from Sweden? Right. Is the company operating in Sweden as well or is it just operating here in Kenya?

Mikael:                                 02:52                     So we did all the developments and started the company back in Sweden three years ago, but right now we’re only operational in Kenya. We do have plans though because, as I’ll tell you more abit later, this technology is very versatile and scalable. So we’re probably looking at opening up businesses in Sweden. And all around the world as well. Yeah.

Sam:                                      03:13                     Very cool. Very cool. So we’ve actually just come from your workshop. Would you call it a workshop would you call it a factory? An assembly plants an probably, yeah, but it’s kind of like a, a factory unit is, how would you, how big, how big is it? I can’t really gauge its about 6,000 square foot, 6000 square foot. So it’s kind of like, it feels like you could fit a small airplane in there, I guess you can. Yeah, it’s sort of that sort of a…

Mikael:                                 03:36                     we fit about eight to 10 vehicles, where we do these electric conversions instead, and then of course keeping stock of everything and yeah, it’s a, we, we recently moved there from a smaller place and I think we’re going to move in the next upcoming six months again, actually.

Sam:                                      03:51                     Very cool. And the core business that you do at the moment is, and which I think is fascinating. So you take vehicles and you take out the petrol motors and you put in an electric motor and that then makes the car an electric car.

Mikael:                                 04:05                     Correct. So the sort of technology or the process, it’s called conversion technology. So the idea is to utilize vehicles that already are running on diesel or petrol. And then instead of of designing something from scratch where you make a new chassis, a new car, you can simply take those vehicles and you make the drive chain electric instead. So that means removing the petrol engine, diesel engine, fuel tanks, gearbox. And then we utilize that space to put in battery boxes and electric motors. So with this technology, you can actually turn any vehicle into electric. And the idea from the beginning was to, to have a strategy where we can quite, you know, quick implement electric vehicles into Africa. And the problem is that, you know, there’s not many vehicles that we have in the European market or American market that actually works here because the road ratings are different.

Sam:                                      04:58                     So would we say the car doesn’t work here?

Mikael:                                 05:01                     I would say that many of these big companies, they, they feel it’s a risk to deploy these vehicles here because of the, the bad roads, for example. So one of the most popular models is called Nissan Leaf. It’s a, it’s a Japanese company and they will not simply deploy these vehicles here because the roads are too bad. Right? So that in that way we can take vehicles that are designed for this terrain, for this area, and we can make them electric instead.

Sam:                                      05:25                     Okay. So Nissan Leaf is a electric car, which is on the roads in Japan.

Mikael:                                 05:32                     Right. And all around the world even in Europe, America…

Sam:                                      05:35                     But the quality of the road, is there like an indices or an index for roads, how’s that measured.

Sam:                                      05:46                     So yes, a lot of these automobile companies, you know, they look at how would the vehicles perform and how much problems would there be with the you know the bearings and the suspension and everything. And if they, if they find, you know, a country where the roads aren’t good enough, they simply won’t take the risk at the moment.

Sam:                                      06:01                     Cause, like in Japan for example, they might say we’ve got a three year warranty and assuming that the roads are smooth, one in 10,000 cars is gonna need to go in or whatever, whatever…

Mikael:                                 06:11                     If all the cars break down in one year, that’s a bad image for, Nissan leaf as well. Right? Yeah. So I think the important is that, you know, we want to design and build something here for the African market. We work with transfer technology. So we bring the technology of electric vehicles and electric drive chains, but we want to incorporate the, the African design. So we make a vehicle for Africa.

Sam:                                      06:31                     Okay. So why didn’t you design, did you, I’ll rephrase it. Did you ever consider designing an electric car for Africa or for, for bad roads from scratch?

Mikael:                                 06:42                     So, as I told you, the idea was to bring something quite quick to the market and that’s why we start with this conversion technology, but obviously, the idea in the future is to maybe go from an assembly plant to more actually production. So maybe five years down the road and we can actually produce, you know, complete new electric vehicles here in Kenya, perhaps as an OEM solution to Nissan for example. Maybe they don’t want to touch this market because they don’t know how it works. Maybe we can be the guys they work with for electric drive chains for example. But yeah, so if I just roll back a little bit. So right now we deal with electric safari vehicles. Oh, okay. So there’s different markets for everything. But, why we started with this market is because, there’s no electric vehicles in Kenya at all and there’s no charging infrastructure and those two goes hand in hand. You can’t have the other one without having the other one. Right. But there’s a foreign industry, they drive short distances less than a hundred kilometers a day, which sort of reduces the range exciting that we have in Europe and everywhere else. And then they also start from one point in the, there’s a foreign lodge, so to speak, and they drive out with these tourists and then they come back to the same point. So we only need one charger. So it’s an easy investment in a car, in one charger, and then it fills the whole application. Right? Yeah. So that’s where we start to showcase. And then also, yeah, show people that, you know, this works. And then this year we’re also moving towards other types of vehicles, which we might speak about more today.

Sam:                                      08:20                     Yeah. I mean, the safari thing, that sounds like quite a smart idea. Was that like a light bulb moment or was that a, okay, we need to find parts of the industry which have these particular characteristics.

Mikael:                                 08:32                     Yeah. We, when we assessed it, the market back in Sweden, we realized we need to find a market where it makes sense today. And when it comes to city cars, you need to make huge investments in charging infrastructure to make it, you know, possible. So, yeah, we simply identified this market as an entry market where we can, you know, start doing this business, we can showcase the products and get all the experience that we need for the next several months.

Sam:                                      08:57                     So Opibus is operating in Kenya. Like if, if Kenya didn’t have lions or elephants, you probably wouldn’t be here. Yeah. And so you’ve gone to the safari lodges and I take, you’ve got to pitch to them and say we can turn your current vehicles into electric vehicles.

Mikael:                                 09:21                     Definitely. So I’m the sales chief, right? So I mean, the, the main part is that, you know, they want to be able to attract tourists, right? And now we see a trend in the tourist industry in East Africa for ecotourism. So it’s simply customers that have a little bit more understanding of, of the, you know, the conditions of the world and in how we can make it a better place. So think more about, you know, environmental choices where we might not, you know, put more emissions in there. So many of these camps have already started installing solar panels to show customers that they really care about this and they care about the wildlife and the environment. And the next step for all of these, these camps is to bring, bring the vehicle electric, make it make it electric. So one of the main points when I sell these vehicles is, of course, pushing on, on the environmental aspect. You know you can market this as an ECO solution for tourists. But then, the important thing is also that this terrain is quite demanding. You know the Maasai Mara during the rain period, they get the black cotton mud, which is one of the worst one in the whole world. And you need to have a vehicle with a lot of torque and performance. Maybe many people don’t know about it, but electric vehicles are actually more powerful than normal conventional vehicles. And I, we can go into depth later about the technical specifications, but that’s actually the truth. So it’s about the environmental, you know, advantage. And then also about the performance. And then they actually reduce their running costs as well because electricity is cheaper than diesel, especially if you were generated through a solar panel system. So our customers today have a payoff time of about six years, four to six years, depending on how much they drive. So, you know it’s a cocktail of all of these different advantages, but of course the incentive for, for using the running costs is a big one as well. So I think they get hooked by the, by the vision and the idea, but then practicality when they actually look at the model and the they see the, they save money, that’s when they go for it. Yeah.

Sam:                                      11:31                     Okay. So if we can, can we just sort of talk a bit about the economics of, of how it works. So how much does a Petrol safari, cause these are kind of like big land rovers…

Mikael:                                 11:46                     Land Cruiser and Land Rovers can work with right now.

Sam:                                      11:49                     And it’s kind of like eight or nine people who sit in the back.

Mikael:                                 11:53                     Yeah, its nine people. Yeah.

Sam:                                      11:54                     Um, so how, how much does one of those cost if you were to have yourself a petrol motor?

Mikael:                                 11:57                     So is it just to, to buy or to operate?

Sam:                                      12:00                     To buy. Upfront.

Mikael:                                 12:01                     So right now with the, with the local assembly plant, order cars here in Kenya, it’s maybe an end price of about 60, $70,000.

Sam:                                      12:10                     Okay. And then what sort of the, the rough on ongoing costs with that per year?

Mikael:                                 12:16                     So when there’s two things, one of course is the, is the petrol or diesel. And one of the problem is that these camps, they’re quite secured. They’re in the middle of nowhere. So first they need to transport all these few out in the middle of nowhere, which costs, you know, an extra extra costs on the diesel. But then, with the conventional, because you also have a maintenance needs, you need to change the oil filters, you need to work with the, with those maintenance on the gearbox and the engine. And there’s a lot of moving parts that can go wrong, right? But when it comes to electric vehicles, you only have one moving part. And that’s the electric drive shaft. So, the different things that, that make them, you know, save money and it’s a, it’s quite a lot. We usually have a reference saving costs of about 80% of the normal running costs. Yeah.

Sam:                                      13:06                     Okay. Cool. Okay. Um, and so roughly is it like when you do the calculations, when you say, when you add up petrol and calling out a mechanic and all that stuff, do you say it’s like, what, $10,000 a year or something? What’s

Mikael:                                 13:19                     so the service we usually, eh, we calculate, I think it’s about, um, yeah, about $5,000 a year probably. And then petrol, it’s, it’s, it’s probably about eight to $10,000. Yeah.

Sam:                                      13:35                     Cool. And so you can go to them and say, we’ve got this, yeah. This kit, this solution. So if you don’t mind, like how much is it, how much does it cost to?

Mikael:                                 13:42                     Yeah. So for us, we, we would like to offer our customers you know different options, right? Because some of these camps, they might have a, a big, a bigger demand for range. There might go longer distances. So we have options where we can put in more battery packs. We can put in faster charging, but the, the main idea, a normal conversion starts at about $37,000 today. Yeah. And that’s when they bring their vehicle and we converted to electric. So that’s not the whole card service of making it electric. Yeah.

Sam:                                      14:15                     Yup. And cash up front duty financing.

Mikael:                                 14:20                     So we have a verity of different options, but, it’s a mix of deposits to be able to secure all the components and then, you know, loan or we’re actually working on PPA solutions as well.

Sam:                                      14:32                     whose PPA?

Mikael:                                 14:32                     So it’s a, you know, when you, when you pay for and the distances you drive. So imagine if a finance company, they take investment and then, they have, a contract with the customer. So if they drive a hundred kilometers, they pay for those a hundred kilometers. Right. So they pay off as. They go. Yup. Yup. And this model has been, it’s been very popular in Europe, in other regions of the world. But I think in Africa it’s really picking up the PPA to actually be able to, to pay it off as you go.

Sam:                                      15:05                     So what does PPA Stand for?

Mikael:                                 15:07                     So it’s power purchase agreement,.

Sam:                                      15:09                     Power purchase agreement, and it basically means pay as you go.

Mikael:                                 15:12                     Right. Correct.

Sam:                                      15:12                     Very cool. Okay, has it been a tough sell?

Mikael:                                 15:18                     Um, so I’m the sales chief and it’s been going great. I mean the idea of bringing, you know, fully carbon neutral vehicles to this foreign industry, everyone loves it. It’s, it’s been, it’s been very, very good support. And…

Sam:                                      15:35                     How do your meetings, you just call people up?

Sam:                                      15:37                     Yes, it’s a mix of, you know, in every sales organization it’s about, you know, reaching out, doing all the cold calls and then you try to market and network as much as you can. And then right now it’s been, it’s been mostly trying to meet up, bring them to the workshop to show them everything. We do perhaps have a small demo where we show the car, we drive it around a little bit, but yeah, it’s been very successful so far. Yeah.

Sam:                                      16:02                     Nice. How many safari lodges are there in Kenya?

Mikael:                                 16:05                     So when there’s a lot of them. I would say it’s a, it’s more than a hundred in Kenya. And so every lodge has everything between five to 50 vehicles. Right. And there’s also some companies doing only the tours. So some companies have their own camp where they offer accommodation for the tourists, but some other companies, they only offer the drive. So they, they start from maybe Nairobi and then they go out to the national parks and they, they come back to Nairobi. Right. Yeah. So in total, there is a, as probably a, you know, several hundred thousands of these land cruisers and Land rovers out there. Yeah, it is. And I mean, this, this sort of model with, with Land Cruiser, it’s been very popular, not only for the safari industry, but for any type of purpose because the roads are bad. Right. Then when you, for example KPLC, the, big power generation company in Kenya, you know, they do a lot of utility rounds where they go out to the, you know, the off-grid systems they have and all these power stations where they need to have vehicles where they can, you know, get through the terrain. So these types of vehicles are very popular in Kenya

Sam:                                      17:19                     Is part of the set, I’ll rephrase. I remember hearing that one of the things about electric cars is they hardly make any noise. Right. Do vehicles that have been converted, do they also not make much noise or is that, do they still sound quite quite loud?

Mikael:                                 17:35                     Yeah. So it’s actually funny that I missed this point because it’s also a, you know, a big advantage for the safari industry because I mean, you know, having a ride where you don’t have to listen to the rumbling engine, but you can, just be close to the nature and experience everything. That’s also a very, very good selling point. Yeah, some, I’m surprised I missed it. But yeah, and obviously electric vehicles, they don’t have any, any pistons that move in the engine. And then there’s a lot less things moving so there’s less noise, but there is a humming noise. So when you exert energy from the motor, you get a humming noise, but yeah, it’s much less than a normal convention vehicle and it’s very good for the safari industry. Yes.

Sam:                                      18:12                     Yeah. Very cool. And so the vehicle that’s being converted, it sounds just like a Tesla, for example, when that’s been built from scratch.

Mikael:                                 18:22                     Yeah. So obviously when you convert, there are some things that you can’t… You can’t design everything because there’s already a, you know, an existing drive axles and differentials and everything that we can’t touch because that’s the part of the original solution. So of course there’s a lot of mechanical sounds that can come from our solution that doesn’t come from Tesla. But in general, it’s silent and it’s much less than a conventional vehicle. But yeah, that’s the picture. Yeah.

Sam:                                      18:50                     Very cool. Now I’m not an engineer, right. But, I’m interested in sort of some of the mechanics of how this works. I mean, how, how technically complex is it? Cause we were in the workshop, like the Bonnet was open and it was just, it had been gutted out completely, putting in a new one and it looked like, I’m going to simplify, you were just connecting up the wires, like what’s actually going on there?

Mikael:                                 19:13                     Yeah. So right now, as I told you in the beginning, we’re more of an assembly plant. So we work with the different suppliers all over the world. We buy batteries from China, like everyone else. We have motor suppliers from Switzerland, really high quality. We’ve got Palestinian units from America, but all these units, we make sure that they fit together and they fit with our design. So we simply, we disassemble vehicles, you know, removing the combustion engine, the fuel tanks and everything. And then we use that space to design and put in our drive chain. So, of course there’s a lot of electrical work. You know we need to make all the cables and the wiring of a battery management systems and high voltage cables for the motors, but then there’s also some productions that we do. We do, for example, the battery boxes here in Kenya and also mounting points for the motor. So there are some elements of production and metal work that we do as well, but yeah, right now we’re more of an assembly company, but I think more years down the line we would like to move some of the production of some of these components to Kenya. So maybe doing partly assemble, assembly of the motor, the electric model and maybe some other, yeah, PCB boards and BMS systems as well. So yeah.

Sam:                                      20:34                     Cool. I’ll be honest, this again, it might be because I’m quite inexperienced, but it didn’t look that, it looked quite complex, still. It’s, you know, the’re people there that were welding, there was like pretty high spec stuff going on.

Mikael:                                 20:48                     Yep.

Sam:                                      20:48                     How easy is it to find people to do that? Like, is this a completely new skill set? As I said, it’s an existing skill set that you’ve had to tweak it. Like…

Mikael:                                 20:59                     Right. Definitely. It’s a new skillset. There’s a lot of good engineers here in Kenya, right? Yeah. Electrical and mechanical engineers. But when it comes to the electric vehicle side, we’ve simply had to, you know, teach everyone from the start, you know, what is a battery, what is electric motors? How do they work together? So when it comes to sort of recruitment of all our employees, it’s been a lot of interviews. It’s the only way to do it. You reach out to the, to a lot of different engineers.

Sam:                                      21:31                     How do you do that? Is it going…

Mikael:                                 21:33                     Right. So one of our strategies from the beginning was to have collaborations with universities here in Kenya because they have a great knowledge pool of engineers and you know, these young guys, young people, young girls that are really excited to do things. So, this is sort of where we started. We started targeting these sort of engineers in the beginning. We had a lot of different interviews and we ended u, with a few people, the people that started with an internship with us. And then these people, they get more, you know, knowledge and more experience in the, in the company and they go towards smarter than employment and then, you know, maybe even a, a management position as well. So yeah, it’s been, it’s been fairly easy to find people that are excited and really good at engineering stuff and, and just us giving them some pointers and teaching them about electric vehicles has been more than enough. So we’re very happy with the people that we looked at. Yeah.

Sam:                                      22:31                     How do you have to like, give them a practical thing as in like, here’s some metal and some wire and like, can you make it into something or is it, you know…

Mikael:                                 22:42                     It’s more of hands on practical things You know, doing all the connections for the battery cells, making sure that they don’t connect two of the terminals at the same time because then it goes, you know, a small spark and stuff like that, but yeah, it’s, it’s a, it’s been… One of our co-founders is called Phillip and he’s our CTO. So he’s sort of the mastermind behind the whole design and all these different components. So He’s been taking a lot of different classes so to speak with our engineers in the workshop and teaching them how to do everything. Yeah.

Sam:                                      23:13                     That’s good. Does Phillip, does he have a background in cars?

Mikael:                                 23:16                     Yeah. So actually all of us in the management team that started this company back in Sweden. We have a background in engineering and it’s engineering with less physics, but a little bit more energy cause it’s an engineer, energy engineer. But Philip has even more experience from the electric vehicle side, he’s been doing hobby projects since he was a little boy, converting an old Porsche and stuff like that. So he’s really, really good with these type of components, yeah.

Sam:                                      23:46                     I hope there’s a picture of Little Philip in your pitch deck.

Mikael:                                 23:49                     Huh?

Sam:                                      23:49                     I hope there’s a picture of Little Philip with his porche in the pitch deck. Are there other people doing this at this sort of thing around the world?

Mikael:                                 23:59                     Yeah. So I think this sort of technology and processes is picking up in you know, Europe, America all over the place, but it’s been mostly on a, on a hobby level. So people wanting to convert their vehicle into electric and they’re doing it as a hobby project at home. But the commercial businesses hasn’t been around for that long. So in Europe it’s starting to pick up and we actually have some collaborations with other European companies doing it on a commercial scale for city cars, but in Africa it’s quite new. It’s very new and we know of two or three other people doing it in Africa, but it’s been also on more of a hobby level. So we’re actually one of the first one in Africa to do this on a commercial scale for converting vehicles to electric. Yeah.

Sam:                                      24:49                     As you sad, one of the limiting factors seems to be this infrastructure of charging points. And so I guess it’s a case of, you know, one can’t put one before the other. And if you’ve got these instances where there’s this fixed location where people basically do round trips, right, that works out quite well. Have you begun thinking about what your next market is going to be?

Mikael:                                 25:13                     Yeah, I don’t know if I mentioned it yet, but there’s a foreign industry at the entry market. And then today and this year we will move towards electric motorcycles and also electric public transport buses, which is called ‘Matatus’ down here in east Africa. And the reason why is because their vision all along was to bring the solution to Kenyans. Right. And actually when you think about it, the safari vehicles, the electric safari vehicles, It might affect more the tourists than actually Kenyans. So it had to be our entry market because of all the reasons I’ve been discussing about before. But we really want to move towards, you know, the cities and give a solution that everyone can benefit from. And as you probably know, it’s, it’s quite struggling for many people in Kenya working with, you know, Taxify and all these taxi services and also a motorcycle taxi service. And if we can give them a solution where they can save, you know, $3 or $4 extra everyday, that just massive for them. So I think, um, we really want to bring this to Kenyans. That’s the goal. Yeah.

Sam:                                      26:18                     Cool. What’s the pitch going to be to motorbike taxis? So say for context, like a very common way to get around Nairobi is to hail a motorbike and then you’ll sit on the back and the driver will give you a helmet and you’re going to drive around, but you’ll be sort of sat on the back of this motorbike.

Mikael:                                 26:38                     Correct. Yeah.

Sam:                                      26:38                     That’s a very common way of moving about. So you’re saying that you’re going off to that market or all the personal people who own motor bikes for their personal…

Mikael:                                 26:45                     No. So it’s the, it’s a commuter, the commuter business. Yeah.

Sam:                                      26:48                     Okay.

Mikael:                                 26:48                     So, um, yeah, as you, as you said there, there is a lot of motorcycles or ‘boda bodas’ as we call them down here, that you know, makes the transport industry work in Kenya because they drive people all over the place. It’s very cheap form of transport. And as I said as well, there’s a very big group of, you know, low wage people that do these services and I think if we target that market, it’s partly, you know, the volumes. There’s a lot of these ‘boda boda’ businesses and then also targeting a group that really can benefit from this. So it’s important for us to make a social impact, right? Yeah. But I can tell you more about the motorcycles if you want. So the idea is to target this market and make an electric motorcycle, they can go about 50 to 80 kilometers on one charge. But the difference is that we want to have a battery swap system. So you can, you can actually, when you charge the vehicle, you remove the entire battery from the motorcycle you’re putting into our charging rack. And you take a new one and putting into that motorcycle and this means that we effectively charged the vehicle in 10 seconds instead of waiting hours. Right. So by having this system, it’s really good for us because we can sort of implement the new charging infrastructure that works for our bikes and it also good for the consumer because they can quickly charge and just continue with their services everyday services instead of waiting.

Sam:                                      28:16                     Consumer here being the motorbike driver?

Mikael:                                 28:18                     Yeah, correct.

Sam:                                      28:19                     Yeah. Okay. And so what’s you pitch to the motorbike drivers?

Mikael:                                 28:23                     So it’s a, it’s simply, we want to offer them a solution where they can lower their operational costs because for these guys, they don’t care that much about the environmental aspect, but they do care a lot about their finances and everything they spend on fuel every day. So we offer them a solution where they lower their running cost from day one because we will work with financing options and leasing and everything and asset finance companies and then offer them a solution where they can go with electric motorcycles and swap them with battery sale.

Sam:                                      28:56                     So will this also be a conversion? Will this be getting a motorbike if it’s built specifically for this?

Mikael:                                 29:04                     Right. So in the beginning it will be a sort of converted bike. So we will take frames that are already assembled here in Kenya and then putting our electric motor and controller and batteries, but a few more months down the line, it’s going to be a completely new design that we manufacture from scratch. Cause this is a, it’s, it’s easy to design and produce a motorcycle than a whole car. It takes in less money in development and it’s more easy to do it here

Sam:                                      29:34                     Cool so if I’m a, an existing motorbike taxi driver, if I come to Opibus, I will be basically, will I be still using the same motorbike I’m driving in?

Mikael:                                 29:46                     So, no, what I’m saying is that the first customers that we have right now will not be the, the battery sub system. It will be targeted more towards maybe commercial businesses to do logistics, specifically for their own company. And that’s where we’re going to get all the pilots out or the first products. And we’ve already have an order of about 50 motorcycles going out now in October. But the next sort of the big phase for the, all the commuter bikes will be a complete new solution with a battery subsystem. Yes.

Sam:                                      30:17                     Okay. So if, if I’m, if I’m a motorbike driver and I’m wanting to be part of the Opibus system, I will have to get a, a bike specifically made for the Opibus?

Mikael:                                 30:28                     Yes, correct. And the idea is that already today there’s asset finance companies that finances these motorcycles on the market. So an asset finance companies takes the risk of investing in the motorcycle and then the, driver pays it off daily. Everyday. He pays a little bit every day. And since these financial solutions already exist and these drivers are used to it, we can just tap into the same system. Right. So we can then offer a motorcycle, within asset finance companies. So they don’t have to pay anything upfront. Yes.

Sam:                                      31:01                     How much does the motorbike cost?

Mikael:                                 31:03                     So if we were to sell it as a one off to maybe these logistic companies that I talked about in the, in the beginning, it’s probably about 2000 to $2,500 for the most.

Sam:                                      31:14                     This is not.

Mikael:                                 31:15                     No. And a new, a new really cheap TVS that is imported from India. It’s about $1,300 today on the market. Okay. But then they would pay quite a lot in petrol and the maintenance cost, right?

Sam:                                      31:30                     Yeah. Do you like, I can’t get the economic argument. Do you foresee any or has it been any resistance in just the notion of an electric vehicle and like what if it rains or like what if we run out of power every, those sorts of like other challenges or things that you’ve come up against?

Mikael:                                 31:51                     Yeah, I mean we always get the same question about, you know, if it rains, what if the, what if there is night, there is no sun can they, can it operate. Yeah. There’s a lot of these questions and obviously it’s about teaching people how it works, show them how it works as well. But the main, the main idea for this market is that they want to save money and if they see a solution that you know, brings down their operational cost, they will jump on it. They love it. Yeah.

Sam:                                      32:16                     Very cool. Okay, so you’ve got actually, the safari cars, we’ve got ‘bodas’ are the motorbikes. Did you say something after that?

Mikael:                                 32:25                     Yeah. The, the last, or the next market would also be public transport buses.

Sam:                                      32:30                     Yep.

Mikael:                                 32:31                     Yep. So it’s very interesting because the more you drive every day, the more you actually save because that’s, you know, more kilometers that you don’t have to put petrol into your car and you put electricity instead and it’s cheaper. And these Matatu so the, the public transport buses, they drive long distances every day. It’s up to 500 to 700 kilometers a day.

Sam:                                      32:55                     Really?

Mikael:                                 32:55                     Yeah. Which is insane. Some of them operate inside the city, but some of them operate, you know, into connection between cities. So maybe Nairobi up to Machakos or Nairobi to Narok or, or stuff like that. So since they drive so long distances, the economic model for them is, it’s crazy. And if we offer a solution today to these, public transport buses companies or a Sacco as they’re called, they would have a pay off time in one year.

Sam:                                      33:25                     Wow. Okay. And the battery engine is able to move up to 500, 600 kilometers a day.

Mikael:                                 33:35                     So there’s a few things we need to do to make this, you know, application work for them. I think the range for one of these public transport buses would probably be maximum 250 to 350 kilometers. But the good thing is that they don’t drive 700 kilometers in one go. The drive may be 150 or 200 in one go, and then they stop, they wait for people to get on the bus and then they go back. So while they do these routes in total, they make about 700 kilometers a day. And this means every time they, they stop at one of these end stations, they have time for charging. And when we’ve been talking to these companies today, they wait about one hour before they fill the vehicle for the next round. And this hour is perfect for full charging.

Sam:                                      34:22                     Okay. And I guess, yeah, so I suppose again, this is another example of you don’t need the full network of charging stations. You’ve got the, in this case, just the two points.

Mikael:                                 34:31                     Correct. And this is so interesting because usually if we want to implement charging infrastructure in Kenya, we need to have huge governmental support. You know, a lot of grants and money and investments and right now the market isn’t that mature. So I think the Kenyan government, which we might talk about later as well, they are not ready to do, you know, these sorts of investments. So this means we have to do it ourselves. And the ‘Matatu’ or the public transport bus industry is quite interesting for this because we don’t have to have chargers everywhere because we have to have one charger at one station and one charger at the other end station. So it’s two charges for one route and that can can make, you know, one route be operational on electricity instead of diesel or petrol. And if we do that for the other lines, right, we can organically build the charging infrastructure of Kenya and maybe opening up these charging stations for other types of vehicles in the future as well. So actually the public transport bus industry is one of the solutions to lock up the, to unlock the, the infrastructure of charging. Yeah.

Sam:                                      35:42                     So you see I’ve never, yeah, I’ve never sort of quite thought about the little steps you can take before actually sort of building up. I’m trying. What’s, what kind of comes after a ‘matatu,’ what’s between a ‘Matatu’ and a private car?

Mikael:                                 35:55                     Yeah. So I think the end result is to do any vehicle like, you know, comes into our workshop and if it’s city cars, if it’s a big year, 50 seat bus or a, you know, even an airplane in the future as we talked about in the workshop. But, these are the natural steps to, approach the market today.

Sam:                                      36:12                     Can you trucks?

Mikael:                                 36:13                     Yeah. Everything. Yeah. But right now we can’t do it because every time there’s a new model we need to develop, you know, battery boxes, the right design for the Moultrie power and, everything.

Sam:                                      36:24                     But is there like an upper limit as to how much power a battery engine can like produce?

Mikael:                                 36:34                     No. I’ve, I would say today with all the different components and, you know, companies that produce these components, there’s no, there’s no limits. I mean you can buy an engine with 3000 horsepowers that is perfect for a truck or you can buy a small electric motor for only a motorcycle. So these components definitely exists.

Sam:                                      36:53                     And the 3000 horsepower one, it’s not so big that it can’t be fitted into a truck.?

Mikael:                                 37:00                     No, it’s actually the opposite. Electric vehicle components are much more power dense. So, for example, when we, when we retrofit or convert the safari vehicles, we remove about 400 kilos and we add about maybe 300 kilos. So actually when we’re done, we actually reduced the weight of the vehicle and this is going to be the same for trucks, because they have huge fuel tanks. Right. And every lead during that fuel tank weighs a lot of, yeah, it weighs a lot.

Sam:                                      37:29                     Yeah. Wow. Okay. So you say trucks is a plausible next step, cause that’s another one where you have a start point and end point.

Mikael:                                 37:35                     Correct. Yeah. Yeah, so trucks and the city cars will definitely be the next step.

Sam:                                      37:39                     Very cool. So far it’s quite expensive. How, how have you sort of financed the business so far?

Mikael:                                 37:44                     So, yeah, it’s incredible. We’ve actually managed to do a lot with a little, and I think that’s one of our companies, you know, models to do as much as possible with as little as possible because not always, you can, you know, you can have support of a big grant funds and all this. And so our sort of main thing has been to work with sales because we want to sell first and then develop. This is very important for entrepreneurs in every business because if you develop something first and then you show it to the customer and try to sell it and they say, no, you need to go back and redevelop and redesign and everything. But if you sell an idea to someone and they buy it right and they need develop what you say, what you’ve sold to them, it’s already done right. The sort of downside is that it might be a, you know, issues with delays and also, there might be some design steps that we need to do, you know, while we’re delivering the vehicle to the customer, but this has been one of our approach because we can very quick, you know, show the proof of concept, start getting, getting revenue into the company and yeah. And show people that it works.

Sam:                                      39:04                     Okay. So have you been self-financed the whole way?

Mikael:                                 39:08                     It’s, it’s almost, we’ve taken loans from different Swedish banks and we haven’t done any equity round at all so far. And right now we sell about six of these vehicles a month, and we sell ’em perhaps about a thousand solar panels every month. And we’ve been awarded a big project of 300 lithium battery storage systems going to be installed all over Kenya with the auto valuable but $1 million. So everything is really picking up. But yeah, it’s been a, it’s been almost only self funded from the start.

Sam:                                      39:43                     Is it, is this a sort of business that needs to have investment to kind of take it to the next level or is it something where you can kind of grow…

Mikael:                                 39:55                     Investments are definitely needed. Yeah. So this is sort of the, you know, the proof of concept showing everyone that we can do this. We know what we do, we also get experienced in the market, but we, yeah, in the near future we will do some big equity rounds to bring in the capital needed to, scale up and also to scale up to other countries. Cause it’s very interesting that the markets in Kenya are very similar to markets in Tanzania, in Uganda. You know, they have the same sort of public bus system with the Matatu, they had the same motorcycles and everyone is in need of, you know, reducing their running costs. And they also have a lot of sun four for charging of, you know, through solar panels. So I think, yeah, definitely in order to scale up, we need to have investments. Yeah. Okay.

Sam:                                      40:41                     Okay. Now, to me, this seems like a good use case for like grant money.

Mikael:                                 40:49                     Definitely.

Sam:                                      40:50                     If you, I don’t know anything about it, but I can imagine there’s, a big fund or report money somewhere, which is saying we need to promote, energy efficient or like environmentally friendly solutions in developing parts of the world. Are they, do those things exist?

Mikael:                                 41:07                     Yeah, definitely. And we thought the same from the beginning that, you know, this is the perfect, the perfect project for grants and funding to, to put their money on. But I think we’ve been applying for probably, you know, five or 10 of these applications and some of them are still in progress and I think we’re probably gonna get a few of them quite soon. But so far we haven’t got that much. And I think the reason is that everyone talks about bankable projects, how you can find projects that actually, you know, make a profit and are a good investment in some way. And these are the projects that they tried to find. And when we have is sort of, you know, destructive and very innovative idea that is quite risky because we bring in a product to Africa that has never been here before, even though even though it sounds really good, you know, some of these institution and the, and funding might not like the risk. Yeah.

Sam:                                      42:05                     Oh, it’s a shame isn’t it?

Mikael:                                 42:06                     It’s such a shame. Yeah. We’re really close to getting a few of these. I think so, yeah.

Sam:                                      42:10                     I’m sure if you can, you’ll get some good use cases. It becomes more bankable

Mikael:                                 42:13                     definitely then. And that’s the way, because we need to, we need to show the proof of concepts so they know that, you know, the grant will actually do some impact socially and environmentally. So we need to show the proof of concept, which you’ve done now and then, you know, have a scalable idea of, how to proceed. Yeah.

Sam:                                      42:30                     How does, like how technical do you need to be in terms of the efficiency gains in terms of, from an environmental perspective? Is it, can you just kind of just say like a petrol engine emits this amount of fuel fumes? We don’t, here’s this, here’s a calculation, we’re better, or do you need to like actually take readings of stuff like this?

Mikael:                                 42:54                     Yeah, it depends on how you want to do it. But what’s really important if you want to get the whole picture is to look there, look at the design life of the product. So, for example, when we put in batteries and electric models, these batteries and motors needs to be produced somewhere, right? And in the manufacturing process and even in the resource process where we get all these resources out from the, from the ground, because some motors in some batteries requires some really rare earth metals, which are quite difficult to, to get. So if you look at the whole picture, you know, it’s, it’s definitely, it’s not, you know, it’s not the, the miraculous solution to everything, but, it still makes sense. And I think it’s very important to build the infrastructure. And the, how should I say it? The mindset of, you know, we shouldn’t put petrol or diesel anymore in our cars, which use electricity because you know, years down the line it will get more efficient, the batteries will be, will be more efficient as well, and we’ll get everything to be more and more environmentally friendly. So yeah, even though if you look at the whole picture, it still looks really good in comparison to continuing using petrol. But obviously I would say electric vehicles has a little bit more carbon footprint in the manufacturing process. But then in the use, it’s almost nothing except when you, when you change the batteries. So it is definitely much better than conventional vehicles. But when you look at the whole picture, you need to take some things into account. Yeah.

Sam:                                      44:25                     Correct. Okay. So with this all being said, even when you’ve been able to demonstrate that this is a, a bank or like already bankable investment, is that, do you feel there’s an, is there enough grant money out there where you can just kind of keep it up and not give away too much of your business? Or do you think you are going to have to go behind? What type of investor are you going to sort of go around?

Mikael:                                 44:51                     it’s going to be a mix of, you know, impact investment and just, you know, when we look at the investment that we really want to work with the investors in the region, we just, we don’t want to bring in someone that only comes with money. We want to have someone that brings, you know, maybe some knowledge or experience or in our business perspective on everything. So we’re very picky when it comes investments and I can say that, you know, we’ve had a lot of different opportunities but we’re very picky to choose the right ones. And I think you shouldn’t, if you have enough Cash flow and you know, everything works well, you shouldn’t stress it out too much. Obviously everyone wants to bring in the money to make the big expansion of the scalable project. But I think as long as you, as the other viable product that brings some revenue, I think you can, you can take it a little bit slower. And then other VC companies usually say, they always say, you know, if you don’t bring in us now for 50% of your company, you’re screwed. You can’t do anything. But, I think that’s wrong.

Sam:                                      45:52                     Okay. Weird question. As grants involve getting money into the company, is that your responsibility or… Cause you’re head of sales?

Mikael:                                 46:01                     Yeah, so…

Sam:                                      46:02                     Cause it’s because it’s to do with like bringing in money, right? You have to do it or can someone else do that?

Mikael:                                 46:06                     So first of all, to define the company properly, we are sort of in the, the, you know, the, in between being a startup and a really, you know, established company in Kenya. So obviously in a startup, you know, there’s a, there’s a lot of different things to do. So usually, you know, we have our responsibilities and our departments, but you know, if something needs to be done, you know, everyone helps out. So yeah, I’d be working, I’ve been working on these grants as well, but it’s not, it’s not my, my only only thing, my main purpose. Yeah.

Sam:                                      46:33                     Yeah, yeah. Okay. And why is it called Ou Bus?

Mikael:                                 46:36                     So Opibus means resources in Latin.

Sam:                                      46:40                     Okay.

Mikael:                                 46:40                     And I think the idea is that we, you know, we like to work with the resources and how we can, how we can make the most of out of the, you know, the smallest things.

Sam:                                      46:50                     Yeah.

Mikael:                                 46:51                     And, yeah, that said. Yeah. I guess, yeah.

Sam:                                      46:55                     What was the, was it easy to come up with that name? What did you have like a big selection and your like, cool…

Mikael:                                 47:00                     It’s the same in every startup, but you know, it’s, it’s like you almost agree on everything with the business idea and the concept, but like, when it come to the name, it’s always, you know, it’s difficult to, to choose. But yeah, we, we stuck with this one and then, we haven’t had time to, you know, pause and actually think about, and maybe there’s a better name or something. And so, yeah. It stuck with us?

Sam:                                      47:21                     What were some of the other names you considering?

Mikael:                                 47:24                     You know, I can’t really remember, but you know, some of the really classic ones, like, you know, electric safari vehicles practical ones, but yeah. We really like the name now and I think whatever, whatever name you choose and when you, when you become an established company and more people get to know you and the company and the image, it just sticks and everyone likes it. So I think, I think Opibus is quite, quite established now in Kenya.

Sam:                                      47:55                     Um, cool. So we’ll just do a few more questions.

Mikael:                                 47:57                     Yeah, sure, sure.

Sam:                                      47:58                     So company is going for a few years now, you’ve been in Kenya for 12 months per se. What have been some of the surprises, both positive and negative you’ve had? So if you compare, roll back the clock 12 months, if you were to say, yeah, in a year’s time, this is what Opibus will look like. What are some of the surprises you’ve, you’ve had in terms of positive and negative?

Mikael:                                 48:21                     Yeah. So, positively, I mean, the market has responded really well. There might be, we haven’t, you know, we haven’t got that big yet, but there might be a push in the future from, you know, oil companies that have connections. Maybe some, some ministers or someone up in the government that might, you know, want to, you know, quiet us down or maybe want to push us in another direction. So there’s a lot of these forces that we thought could be an issue, but it hasn’t been so far. And I think we’ve had sort of a stealth strategy where we, you know, we develop and then we just go big. So no one has time to, really, you know, put us in place so to speak. But yeah, positively, the market has responded really well and it’s actually, it’s been, it’s been quite, quite good having a company in East Africa and obviously we didn’t know that much about it from the beginning because there’s so many, you know, different things, both the cultural and financially. And then, you know, the rates, interest rates in Kenya is like, you know, eight to 12%. And in Sweden it’s 2%. So there’s a lot of things that they’re really differs from Sweden for example and Europe, but negatively. There’s so many things that don’t work out in the same way as in Sweden for example, logistics, you know, the Kenyan government, when they impose these new customs rules, for example, they can do it overnight and it can, it can just screw up the whole, you know, logistics chain. And we’ve had batteries. There’s been stuck in the port for six months. Like, no one can clear them because they changed the regulations on which papers they need, but the parks has already been sent before they changed it. So there’s just these nightmares that are so difficult to, you know, foresee. And then obviously corruption. Is a, very, it’s a big problem in Kenya and Africa as a whole.

Sam:                                      50:20                     How much have you faced it?

Mikael:                                 50:21                     Yeah, so, you know, you face it every day almost. It’s everything from, you know, traffic police officers to, at the customs or stuff like that. But, we have a policy where we don’t do anything that has to do with corruption. So for example, this example when we had to wait six months, you know, we could probably, you know, pay someone off or stuff like that to make it happen faster. But we just simply said no, like we we’re not going to do it. And finally it worked out, but it takes longer time and it really, it screws up the whole plan. But, corruption has been a really, really negative thing for, yeah, for operations down here. And, I think we’d been managing it so far. But you know, they, they can be a time when just other companies would pay off the government and they get all the products and projects, you know, a Chinese company coming in and doing exactly the same thing, but they give a, you know, $200,000 to the top minister and then maybe we will be out of business. And these things are so difficult to foresee. Also the elections, I don’t know how much you are informed about the elections. Last time it was quite aggressive and it really affected the tourist ministry in all the businesses in Kenya. And this happens every four years, if I’m not mistaken. Yeah. And that’s also a risk, you know, every fourth year maybe you just shake the market completely and you can’t do business anymore. So there’s a lot of risks. But we’ve been managing everything so far and we’re really happy to work here and really, you know, put these new solutions to to Kenya and East Africa.

Sam:                                      52:00                     Fantastic. And people who are listening who might be interested, you know, in Opibus, either for themselves, let’s say they own a Safari lodge, or they’re interested in just learning more about the company. What are the best ways in which people can sort of learn?

Mikael:                                 52:12                     So I think, going into our website, the as in Sweden, we are going to get a, yeah, we’re probably gonna get a Kenyan as soon as, well, I’m actually the guy designing the website and I’m doing all the design work for the brochures and everything. But sometimes it’s difficult doing the big deals and doing the design at the same time. So we’re probably gonna kind of improve that? But going into the website, you know, sending us an email, there’s contact details to all of us in the, in the management team. So if you’re interested in sales, you can contact me if you’re interested in something about the, you know, the technical stuff, you can probably talk to our CTO. But yeah, in general, send us an email or call us. That’s the best way.

Sam:                                      52:49                     Very good. Awesome.

Mikael:                                 52:50                     Cool.

Sam:                                      52:50                     Mikael, thanks so much.

Mikael:                                 52:52                     Perfect Sam, thank you very much.

Video Games: Africa prepares for the $bn gaming market, with Nathan Masyuko from Ludique Works


Gaming is something that a lot of people may not consider as a business industry.

I, for one, know or rather knew very little about it, though this interview with Nathan Masyuko from Ludique Works was one of the most insightful interviews I’ve ever had.

We speak about the international, multi-billion dollar business in video games and Africa’s place in it.

It turns out that South Korea is the mecca for gaming, and that individual players are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from playing video games.

How? Well, the key has been to transform video games as a sport.

For sports to get popular it can’t just appeal to the players, it needs to be turned into a spectator sport.

This is the part which, as someone who has never watched another person play a video game as a form of entertainment, I found the critical piece to unlock how the industry is put together.

Nathan and I also discuss the current state of the East Africa gaming community, the kinship between other nations building games, and Ludique Works vision for building the ecosystem.

The simple message is that the industry in Africa has made it once creatives have the financial backing to focus on making and marketing games.

There’s tons of interesting content in this interview, including links to Nathan’s best recommendations on African games to play.


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Have a history in gaming

Nathan ran companies around building games and running events.

Ludique Works

A blend of French for “playful” and a store in an anime business.
It’s being built to be Africa’s biggest player in the gaming business.

The ecosystem is so nascent…

The Ludique Works is building the ecosystem because there aren’t the individual components to rely on.

Professional game players

This is called “e-sports”. There are people who get paid to play in tournaments. They can also earn money by streaming themselves playing video games.

South Korea is the mecca of gaming

For a sport to become popular it needs to become a spectator sport. South Korea cracked this.

Games are followed avidly

For an international tournament, $2m was crowdfunded by fans to the prize pool of who wins the tournament.

It rests on people watching video games for entertainment

Nathan’s pitch on why this should be done is getting to watch someone honing their craft to high level.

Juggling other jobs to pay the bills

African developers need to earn money elsewhere in order to make their games. This distracts people from their ability to make games. Capital investment is the missing piece.

There’s hunger for African-made games

The wider market is looking for authentic African stories (see Black Panther). Africa also has a number of stories that haven’t yet been told through the format of games.

In Africa, most popular games are mobile or PC

They are mostly downloaded via Play Store or Steam.

Popular African games

Legend of Oron (Cameroon), NairobiX (defending the city against zombies), Bungo Hangman (a guy hanging on to a politician’s helicopter).

Cyber cafes

Are how most people are playing games (around $1/ hour to play). Others play games on their phones.

Middle class consumes PC games

The processing power of the machine is the barrier to people consuming games in that way.

International games feature Africa

Resident Evil 5 was based on Kibera (one of the slums in Nairobi). Unclear whether royalty rights were paid.

When has the African gaming industry made it?

When creatives can thrive from just focusing on the gaming industry.

Genders in gaming

Women bring storytelling capabilities that men can’t. Men prefer to just shoot each other.

Lessons & Insights

Biggest insight: for video games to become popular it needs to become a spectator sport

Memorable quotes: gaming should be considered an INDUSTRY, not just programmers

The appeal is watching highly skilled individuals honing their craft. People are paid $50k to play video games. People didn’t know they’d enjoy a gaming expo before we made one.

Links etc


Twitter: (Nathan Masyuko); Douglas; Lillian


Best African gamesAurian: Legacy of the Kori -Odan (Cameroon)Semblance: Puzzle Platformer Game (South Africa)  , Boda-Boda Madness Kenya )

Relocating top African software developers to European tech teams, with Caspar Coding


An interesting heuristic you can think about when considering companies operating in East Africa is where the demand comes from.

There are lots of businesses you can see where the product or service is developed in the region and ultimately is consumed in East Africa.

Through the lens of this podcast, just look to some recent episodes on Tissue PaperBottled Water Franchises, and Surveys.

Whilst there is certainly a strategy in serving the growing local market, there is certainly a limitation on its size.

There’s a whole different set of companies, operating from East Africa but whose end customer is outside the region.

Caspar Coding is one of them.

They work with European clients to place East African senior software developers directly in their teams.

It’s one area where there’s a huge imbalance. In Western Europe alone there are 5 million openings for senior software developer jobs and lacks the supply of local talent to fill them.

Caspar started off solving this with developers working remotely but now relocate ambitious developers directly to the European country.

Sebastiaan, the CEO, is Dutch and so the early clients have been from there.

This is a really great episode that touches on various themes in the region, such as demographics, finding product-market fit, and ultimately the power of gaining a modern skillset to grow your career.


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Dutch digital nomad

Did marketing automation for a FinTech company, then built a startup called [Tempr] until he lost interest/ challenge.

What struck me about Kenya?

1. Demographics: so many young people
2. English: everyone speaks it
3. Time difference: very similar to Europe

The company has evolved

Started off as building remote teams for tech teams, however, pivoted into relocating developers directly into relocating experienced developers directly into European tech teams.

NGOs train people in tech

Caspar doesn’t focus on generating the skills (there are enough doing that). Instead, it’s about connecting experienced developers with end roles.

Working remotely didn’t work out

Experienced developers were used to working remotely. They were often tasked with bug fixing/ testing which was further from the cutting edge of innovation that they could do. There were also instances of developers being oversold.

Focus group is mid-20s

Not people with families. Instead, those who have a couple of years experience but are at the limits of what Nairobi can offer.

Incentivize people to return

The idea is that with experience, people will then return with more knowledge to start their own work back in Kenya. The finder’s fee for the placing a developer would become the seed funding for their idea.

Who is the buyer?

Remote teams: CTO/ co-founder. Relocation: still figuring it out!

Caspar represents the developer community

There’s a huge demand for senior software developers, but Europe can’t supply it. Caspar helps with unlocking this pool of talent in East Africa.

Why is it called Caspar Coding?

The name of the brother of my co-founder. It was originally InterCode but there’s a company in Kenya called that already.

Corporates are into outsourcing already

The tech teams often work with firms in India etc. Though they’re struggling to compete with innovate startups taking a more agile approach.

Adopting the Spotify agile approach

Caspar’s client (ING Bank) is adopting a more modern approach. More information here

A Dutch candy is our secret weapon

Stroopwafels“Would you like to come to the land of this candy?”

Key lesson

Remote work? Experienced developers have more growth opportunities from relocating to the Netherlands.

Key insight

Western Europe has 5 million job openings for senior software developers. We have to think about where this is going to come from.

Links etc

LinkedIn: Sebastiaan Tan
Access their Telegram group for the developers through their Instagram: