From teacher to manufacturer: Tutor thrives on manhole covers

Resintuff composite Managing Director Noah Ochola, during an interview on March 13, 2022 at Industrial area in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

After five years in the teaching profession, classroom walls could no longer contain Noah Ochola. He had to give up the chalk to pursue his entrepreneurship dream.

Mr Ochola was teaching English at Mbita High School, Homa Bay County, but felt restless and yearned for something more.  

“I wasn’t happy, I kept doing the same thing over and over again. I looked at myself, the house I was living in and asked God if this was all,” he told Enterprise.

Mr Ochola is a director at Resintuff Industries, one of the first companies in Kenya to introduce the use of composite materials for making manhole covers.

He provided a solution for sanitation firms whose metallic manhole covers kept being vandalised by scrap metal dealers.

This writer tracked him to his factory on No 45 Enterprise Road, Industrial Area, to hear his business journey.

The firm is now a medium-sized enterprise with a turnover of over Sh50 million annually.

It designs and manufactures composite manhole covers for water, sewerage, drainage, petroleum utility networks serving the infrastructure of neighbourhoods, cities and industries.

Mr Ochola studied linguistics and literature at university but the business bug had bitten him early. As a schoolboy he would sell sugarcane to classmates and even when working as a teacher he was doing retail on the side, and also running a transport business.

It was time to move on. “I felt and thought I wasn’t heading anywhere,” he said. Then an opportunity to teach English abroad came his way.

First in Italy and after a few months there was another chance for a similar assignment in Bulgaria or China. A visionary, he chose China. “I had always been fascinated by China. Most people have this romantic view of the Chinese, you know things like Kung Fu ...I decided to give it a try,” Mr Ochola said.

In 2002, he landed in China and after a three-day trip in a sleeper coach train, he arrived in Chongqing, located southwest of the country.

“My predicament was that I was the only black person there and I couldn’t speak the language. For three days I hadn’t eaten because I didn’t know how to ask for food,” he said.

Business antennae

Starving when he arrived, he went into the first restaurant he saw and pointed to something on the menu. They brought him a bowl of pig leg. 

Ochala at Industrial area in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

But soon enough the culture shock ended and his dalliance with China grew stronger as he understood the strange cuisine and learnt the language.

“I’ve since eaten snails, frogs and snakes. I lived in China for a long time training foreign teachers and learnt the language by mixing with people,” he said.

Mr Ochola’s business antennae kept going up while in China, a country known for its range of manufactured products.

He settled on motorbike engines and was part of the wave of bicycles fitted with small engines.  “I started importing motorbike engines that were fixed on bicycles, this gave me money.”

His big dream was to have a motorcycle assembly plant locally. However, richer competitors including Chinese firms beat him to it.

The influx of motorcycle taxis (boda boda) also ended his vision to motorise bicycles. At the time he was selling his products in Kisumu.

There are estimated to be about 1.7 million boda boda operating in Kenya, according to the United Boda Boda Welfare Association.

“I thought instead of Kenyans importing motorbikes, why not assemble them locally? If we have over one million motorbikes you can imagine the amount of money spent to import them including spares such as tyres and headlamps,” said Mr Ochola.

The idea emerged to import manhole covers and see the market reaction. He returned to Kenya in 2006.

“In China there are no metallic manhole covers, these guys have moved ahead. I said to myself, if this is working in China it’s just a matter of time before it catches on in the rest of the world.” 

Further, there were always gaping manholes in Nairobi streets after the metallic ones kept being stolen. The metal was thick and heavy and fetched a good price.

Mr Ochola approached Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company with a proposal on composite manhole covers.  

They agreed it was a good idea, but since it was a new concept they ordered only 200 pieces. This was in 2007 and the order was worth Sh1.5 million.“I was very excited seeing profits,” he said.

He then went to China to bring in the covers, where a manufacturer told him it would cost Sh1 million for the moulding. With the order worth Sh1.5 million, plus the clearing costs to land them in Kenya, it was not making business sense.

In those early days of his business, financing was a big headache. Mr Ochola, however, approached a local lender with an LPO looking for credit.

This time all the sewerage and water firms in the counties were moving in a new direction and were placing orders with him. Mr Ochola looked at the next phase of his business, which was to manufacture locally. This would create jobs and transfer skills locally.

By 2015, he had saved enough money to buy a manhole covers manufacturing machine. It cost him about Sh12 million to buy and install.

Each manhole cover is uniquely shaped and must have its own mould to shape it, whether triangular or square. Each mould costs between Sh500,000 and Sh1 million.

His machine would lie idle for a long time owing to lack of financing.

He landed an order of Sh12 million to supply Narok Water and Sanitation Company but was unable to complete it due to lack of funds.

“It was a long and tedious journey but once I started production the pain and disappointment wasn’t in vain. I now supply almost all the big sanitation companies in Kenya in all the counties,” Mr Ochola said.

Hardware shops

He also supplied manhole covers for the Nairobi Expressway.

The next phase is to scale up his business by expanding his production capacity with additional machinery.

“We need at least four machines to make about 400 to 800 manhole covers daily. We are not supplying hardware shops because of lack of capacity. We’ll further branch out with the right capacity.”

The firm also supplies other countries including Rwanda and Uganda.  

Financing is still a challenge, he admits.

“Even in that expansion, banks still want security such as land or a building. Banks have been reluctant to support enterprises even if the account is solid,” Mr Ochola said.

Government, he said, has also not been favourable to small manufacturers with harassment on tax and compliance.

This is why many investors have shifted to other sectors, he added.

“If they (investors) have money they’d rather put up a residential building. In Kenya, once you start (a business) instead of getting encouragement from the government, it is like you are setting yourself up,” said Mr Ochola.

He called for targeted interventions to save the manufacturing sector.

These include zero-rating of machinery and raw materials to bring down costs.

“Right now, for example, resin prices have gone up by 80 per cent and we can’t increase our prices,” he said.

The businessman is looking to diversify and bring more composite products into the market including water tanks and street lighting poles.

To boost local manufacturing, Mr Ochola said Kenya needs to focus more on cottage industries, or small-scale manufacturing. “We should move to informal manufacturing. We are so stuck with the idea of standardisation.” Industrialisation, he said, should not be thought of as a big corporation churning out products.

Government policy should also favour local manufacturing, which has a multiplier effect in improving people’s lives, he said.

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