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How a spat provoked a novel business idea

By | September 1st 2011

The headmaster designed an automatic bell after a parent tore into him for making her son a bell-ringer, writes Anthony Ngatia

They say that in the world of entrepreneurship, ideas can come from the most unlikely places and situations. But these ideas can be worthless unless one takes bold steps to actualise them into concrete enterprises.

For George Karitu, a spat with a parent ignited a spark that stayed with him for the next decade.

"One sunny morning in 1988 while serving as the deputy headmaster of Mwangeka Secondary School, in Wundanyi, a parent sauntered into my office spoiling for war. She demanded that I explain why the school had appointed her son to be a bell-ringer, a job she found to be discriminatory, punishing and abuse of human rights."

The parent demanded that the school relieves her son of the duties immediately. But the young teacher’s plea to the parent to be calm begot even louder insults.

"I pleaded with her to understand that we were teaching responsibility to the boy but she would hear none of that," he recalls.

As she left the compound, she snapped at the gatekeeper that "huyo mbara mmeweka hiyo ofisi yenu ni mjinga sana" ( that non-coasterian in your office is quite thick).

With his assailant gone, Karitu started thinking about the cause of the spat — the bell.

Gradually, he realised the parent had a valid point. Can one make an automatic bell?

Before he had fully crystallised his idea, the same parent came after two weeks — she wanted to withdraw her child from the school.

"I was haunted by this unfortunate turn of events," he says.

Soon after, the teacher was transferred to another school in Laikipia West district. It is while teaching physics there that a trigger to his automatic bell idea again came.

"Two of my best performing physics students came to me with a complaint. One boy was complaining that the other is defeating him because he is not a bell-ringer and so, he wanted they share or change roles," he says.

"I decided to pursue my old idea, and I started conducting my research in various schools," he says.

He spent his salary for the entire research in far-flung schools in Nyeri, Kirinyaga and Embu, researching how they handled the bell-situation. He found that some schools had hired bell-ringers, while others were using teachers. In others, the watchman doubled as the bell-ringer — with disastrous consequences to lesson timings.

Pursue idea

These findings gave him the conviction to fully pursue his entrepreneurship idea. He borrowed Sh1.2 million from a Sacco, and most of his time in his workshop.

The workshop was near his school, and this earned him a derisive moniker from his colleagues of a "rogue physics teacher".

"They predicted doom, especially once when my house almost burst into flames thanks to a faulty uninterrupted power supply system. But my family supported me all through," he says.

"I would hire technicians to assemble my designed circuits as I dashed to work, but countless times, the circuits couldn’t work and I piled lots of junk in my workshop," he says.

In 2009, they tested their first bell at G.G Kinamba secondary school, but it failed. This was a huge setback since Karitu had almost exhausted his financial resources. But this could not deter the ‘engineer’.

"I reworked the bell again and when we installed it, it has never failed since May, 2009," he said at his office-cum workshop in Nyahururu town.

After this, enquiries started trickling in before building up a momentum that has seen him install his automatic timetable tracking device each costing Sh60, 000 in 52 schools in Nyahururu, Laikipia, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Nakuru, Githunguri and Nakuru.

Some of the prominent schools using his bell include Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls, Karoti Girls, Maranda High, Kisumu High, Nyeri High, Njonjo Girls, St Aquinas High school, Nairobi School among others.

He has a backlog of orders totaling 66, and worth Sh4 million comes from various schools countrywide. Although he has easily recouped his initial seed money of Sh1.2 million from disparate supplies, his current challenge is finding the money to meet the orders.

Meeting orders

He says he would gladly welcome any serious financier who would enable him meet both the current and future orders, which are now overwhelming.

"We didn’t expect this much demand and for that reason, we find we require financing. We have approached several financial institutions but they seem not positive," he says.

"Most banks do not support start-ups in this country as the moment we approach them, they get jittery opting for existing and proven profitable businesses."

The lowest moment in his business, now named Kabethi Holdings Ltd, came in the initial days, when he would install a bell which would fail to work due to mis-programming. Unfortunately many customers thought the product was faulty.

"But we have sorted all the problems now, and what we have is a perfectly refined product," he says. His flagship product is an automatic timetable-tracking device trading, branded ATTDEV.

In his opinion, his products are better than imported bells, since his bells are repairable and can last a lifetime. Then there is the fact that the gadget works even without power, which makes it ideal for schools in rural areas. But the most impressive aspect of his Karitu’s bells is the fact they operate on sleep mode.

"In 100 years, it will have worked for only 25 minutes, making it a lifetime investment," he says

But are the bells bringing in any profit?

"I quit my teaching job early this year, and I am not complaining," he says, refusing to reveal more.

And unlike the traditional business models, this type (innovation type) is a real money making venture as you can easily recoup your capital and earn a profit within one year.

He advises innovators to be bold enough and actualise their ideas.

Karitu has also copyrighted his bells at the Kenya Industrial Protection Institute.

Karitu is currently researching how to make circuits for burglar alarms, a gadget to switch on and off lights in your house when you are far away.





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