Most entrepreneurs know that they’ll never get a handle on all things business.
The system changes on an almost daily basis, and just when you think you’ve finally understood one aspect of your business, something happens that throws you for a loop and you’re having to figure things out again.
It’s on this understanding that 48 entrepreneurs from across East Africa went through a Business Skills Immersion (BSI) programme. It’s supported by Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative, and implemented by the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF) in partnership with the YALI Regional Leadership Centre at Kenyatta University.
The programme aims to enhance entrepreneurs’ skills in business planning, financial management, peer learning and networking, as well as offer linkages to funding.
Hustle spoke to some of the young business owners who went through the training to understand what took them to BSI, and what they took away from it.
1. Have a grasp on time
Rhoda Irakiza, 25, started Mr Gift, a gift-delivery business, in 2015.
There weren’t any businesses providing such services at the time, with the idea behind Mr Gift coming from Rhoda’s own struggle to find a company that would get a gift to a loved one by a specific date.
With a grant of Sh1 million from the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Rhoda started her business and hired five employees.
“Business had been good,” she says, adding that she’s had virtually no competition. But when she joined the BSI training a year ago, she hoped to find the spark she needed to take Mr Gift to greater heights. She felt it was approaching a plateau.
“I could continue being comfortable with how the business was progressing and risk future competitors surpassing us, or do something to jolt us out of our comfort zone and work towards being industry leaders, no matter what happens in the future,” Rhoda says.
Together with a business mentor, she got the opportunity to look over Mr Gift’s progress.
“I sort of leaned back and observed what we were doing and how we could get better.”
And in the process, she made a startling discovery: Mr Gift staff (herself included) tended to come to work late, which meant some gift deliveries weren’t being made on time.
“The more deliveries aren’t made on time, the more clients lose trust in us. Yet, timely delivery not only guaranteed a client’s loyalty but also increased the chances of our being referred. Through the BSI process, I internalised the fact that for a business like Mr Gift, time is part of the service we offer. If it’s compromised, we risk losing business altogether,” says Rhoda.
2. Walk the journey with a mentor
Running a successful business, Stella Sigana learnt, takes more than sheer force of will. The graduate of fashion and design started her business, Alternative Waste Technologies, while working in Kibera, Nairobi.
“Part of my work was around health and environment,” Stella says. A lot of the families she ended up working with in Kibera suffered from respiratory conditions, which were the result of long-term inhalation of smoke from using charcoal for their heating needs.
Wasn’t there a safer and cheaper alternative for these families, she asked herself. Her search for a solution led to the creation of Alternative Waste Technologies, a company through which she’d make and sell briquettes.
She applied for a grant of Sh500,000, which she got through YALI, and got into business. While her product was addressing a real need, her business could do with a little guidance. Through BSI, Stella was linked to a mentor running a similar business.
“That’s when I realised the importance of having someone to guide you,” she says. “The benefits of a mentor include having someone who can point out the pitfalls ahead of time.”
Chris Gumbe, one of BSI’s mentors, says a mentor has walked the path of nurturing a business and is, therefore, suited to help budding entrepreneurs avoid mistakes.
“Most of us weren’t lucky enough to have such a person; one who can give you good advice on what to expect and the best ways to handle a problem. As a result, we lost investments. Having a mentor increases the chances of a business achieving success.”
Chris, who’s a successful businessman who started out in Tanzania before expanding across East Africa, believes some of the ideas he had earlier on would have survived if he’d had a mentor holding his hand and helping him navigate the rough spots.
3. Focus on the solution you’re offering
Imagine having an idea you think could change your community, but having no clue on how to turn it into a business. That’s the position Felicia Masaki found herself in two years ago in Dar es Salaam.
“I grew up in an informal settlement where life was generally difficult. I saw my peers get themselves into drug abuse, early pregnancy and other similar challenges,” Felicia says. She was lucky to avoid a similar fate “because my parents made sure that I went to school in spite of the hardship”.
Felicia eventually attained a university education and ended up working for the government, as well as teaching economics at a university in Dar.
“I escaped a life of misery because of my mind, because of what I learnt and how I put my brain to use.”
She came to value an independent, daring and focused attitude, learning first-hand that it was vital to success.
“I started looking at people’s minds as powerful tools that many haven’t harnessed, and I knew that if they did, their lives would be different,” Felicia says.
But converting this understanding into a business idea was not easy. Through what she learnt at BSI, she knew that to find success, she knew she had to solve someone’s problem. So she narrowed down on the problem she believed she could offer a solution to.
“What I wanted to do was to cultivate success qualities into our thinking as Africans, so I started Mimi ni Nani?, a business that provides training to help people construct their own sense of self-understanding.”
Mimi ni Nani? takes in students aged 12 and above through a 12-week training curriculum aimed at transforming the way they think and view themselves.
4. Innovate at every stage
In today’s fast-paced world, if your business is to have any hope of survival, you must innovate. Without this, you’re likely to be outcompeted. As a result, innovation is a key teaching point at BSI.
“If you want your business to be here in the next 10 years, you have to pay attention to technology,” Silvere Mantz, a trainer in the programme, says.
Justine Abuga, a university graduate and the proprietor of Eco Bora, a clean energy business, understood that his company needed to look beyond what was already available in the market to make its mark.
He came up with the idea of manufacturing cooking pellets – compressed six-centimetre rods from organic waste – as a source of fuel.
“Our innovation primarily makes use of rice husks, which are readily available from Mwea. However, cooking pellets can be made from virtually any organic matter,” he says.
The pellets are dried to a moisture content of less than 1 per cent, and can then burn hotter than charcoal.
“Pellets are a clean way of dealing with organic waste, as well as offering an alternative to cutting down trees for charcoal or firewood,” Justine says.
When he started Eco Bora, he’d buy organic waste from farmers. He, however, discovered a simple, more cost-effective way of getting raw materials.
“I have entered into an agreement with some farmers who give me organic waste for free. In return, I give them pellets. It’s cut down on costs, providing savings that I can pass on to the consumer.”
5. Be patient and eliminate mistakes
If there’s a trait young entrepreneurs need to train themselves out of, it’s impatience, says Silvere, “the belief that returns must be instant”.
But according to the trainer, what young entrepreneurs lack in patience, they make up for in passion. Unfortunately, passion alone seldom leads to success in running a business.
“It takes a while for a business to break even,” he says, adding that rushing towards profits leads to disappointment and premature decisions.
Chris, the mentor, adds: “Ask yourself ‘what am I doing wrong?’ And then ask yourself what you could do differently to solve a problem.”
What Chris does with his business, and what he advises the entrepreneurs he mentors to do, is to systematically eliminate mistakes until there are none left.
“Every now and then, get rid of the mistakes. It’s sort of like starting the same business, but this time minus the mistakes. Only fold when you’ve eliminated all the mistakes and you still aren’t making progress,” he says.
6. Market yourself at every opportunity
A business thrives on the wings of extensive marketing. Every new venture has to make itself known to potential clients.
For a start-up, the stakes are even higher – you often don’t have enough to buffer you from the business environment chewing you up and spitting you out.
“But while traditional channels of marketing may be out of reach due to cost factors, all’s not lost. We find ourselves in the middle of a digital revolution that has brought forth social media opportunities,” says Sharon Olang, a BSI project manager with KCDF.
Social media, Sharon explains, has presented a cheap, effective avenue through which entrepreneurs can market their products and services.
Beyond social media, entrepreneurs also need to market their businesses to friends and the people they meet in their daily interactions. There’s no room for shyness.
7. Get the right staff
Employees are the people business owners entrust with service or product delivery. The success of every start-up, says Rhoda, depends on people getting the job done.
“I have learnt through growing Mr Gift that if one is going to hire staff, they need to get people who believe in the idea in the first place,” she says.
On her part, Stella’s experience with Alternative Waste Technologies taught her to make sure her employees had the necessary skills.
“I had met and worked with these young men in Kibera before hiring them. But beyond equipping them with the skills to run my machines, which was critical to avoid wastage and keep costs low, I also needed to sell them on the vision I had. They’ve since demonstrated a passion for what they’re doing.”