“One of the most repulsive things about a public space is a stench coming from the toilets,” says Frida Mcharo as she leads us to three empty seats at Sagret Hotel along Milimani Road in Nairobi.
No matter how good the food and drinks are in a restaurant, or how great the music is at a club, a smelly toilet ruins everything, she adds.
“In some restaurants, the stench of the toilets is the first thing that hits you even before you take a seat. Sometimes the stench is so repulsive that no one wants the seats near the washroom, which can lead to significant business losses.”
In an attempt to solve this problem, Frida got together with two other women to launch a business: selling waterless urinals.
These units don’t need to be flushed, saving businesses a significant chunk on their water bills, nor do they allow for the emission of unpleasant smells.
Frida, 50, and her partners saw the potential in these toilets and were confident they’d find a market in hotels, restaurants, hospitals, churches and corporate offices.
Frida and her two partners did their market research, approached companies to sell them on the idea and on realising they had their attention, they set up Toll Global in April last year. The company sells and distributes imported waterless urinals.
How it works
Just a table away from where we’re seated are the Sagret’s washrooms where Frida has fitted her waterless urinals.
She explains that these units are made from a special kind of plastic that’s attached to the toilet wall. They have a glossy surface that allows urine to glide through an airtight valve that only opens to let in urine, and then shuts itself completely so that smells don’t leech out.
The valve has a sensor that detects when drops of liquid hit the surface of the urinal, which is when the valve opens.
The urinals need to be cleaned just once a day with a drop of a special detergent. No water is used in this process.
So, what inspired Frida to go into business aged 50, and especially to sell something that the market is not familiar with?
“There couldn’t have been a better time for me to cut out a niche for myself,” she tells Hustle.
“I started my career in a popular media house and earned a great salary. I later got a scholarship to further my education and on my return, resigned and went to Tanzania to carry out missionary work. This eventually led to a job at an NGO.”
However, delays in salary payments eventually forced Frida to rethink her options.
She decided to move to Geneva, Switzerland, to look for a job as she stayed with a relative. After several failed job applications, however, she flew back to Kenya and got a sales job at an insurance firm.
“Selling insurance was the toughest job I’d ever done. Insurance is not the kind of job where I can perform satisfactorily. I’m good at talking to people and advising them, but I’m not pushy. Yet in insurance, you have to convince someone to actually buy your product. That wasn’t me.”
One day, as Frida lay on her bed broke and frustrated, she received a call from a Kenyan friend living in Korea.
“My friend came through when I was in one of my lowest moments. She informed me that the Korean government was planning a trade fair where innovative products were to be showcased. She advised me to attend to see if there’d be anything that would be appreciated in Kenya.”
With no money for a ticket to Korea, Frida told two of her friends about the fair and sent them on her behalf. They brought back two samples of the waterless urinals.
“Koreans invest in intensive research and work before they release a product. That is what convinced me that the waterless urinals would be a welcome idea in Kenya,” Frida says.
And Toll Global was born.
“At Sagret, for instance, we’ve installed 16 waterless urinals. Each costs Sh35,000. We’ve worked with at least 10 other companies in Nairobi. We’re also targeting hospitals, where hygiene is of paramount importance.”
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
“There are always disagreements while working with other people on a start-up. There are many good ideas floated, but not everyone listens to suggestions. This is the biggest challenge we’ve faced with my partners,” says Frida, who’s the company’s marketing manager.
“Business, however, is about working with people. At my age, I’ve learnt how to deal with different kinds of temperaments. I’ve also mastered the virtue of patience and this is what will steer the business to the bright future it has. The future is bright because we have a product that no one else sells.”
Her partners have taken up the roles of communications and operations, which includes the trainings conducted once the urinals are installed.
“Another challenge we faced was getting the capital to start. We raised Sh4 million from family contributions, which went towards company registration and making our first imports. The business, however, has yet to break even.”
To keep it running, the women all run other lines of business. Frida has an investment training firm, while her partners are in business with their husbands.