Rise of Oracle Chemicals from the dirt

Murtaza Shabbir Founder and Director of Oracle Chemicals. (Jenipher Wachie, Standard)

Murtaza Shabbir had been on and off college, sometimes for lack of school fees, but mostly because he thought schooling wasn’t necessary for him. And when he was in school, he saved money from whatever business he was engaged in.

 “I was never the type who would work for someone else, for whatever pay and allowances. And while being in university I felt like the information I was gathering would only be applicable if I were to search for a job, something I never saw myself doing,” says Murtaza. 

He started saving at a tender age. By the time he left school, he had about Sh300,000. His only undoing, he admits, was not having a specific business in mind before he quit school.

When he started spending his savings, he pushed himself to do something he had despised all his life.

“I decided to look for a job to make ends meet. I got a salesman job at a company,” he says, adding that he quit after a day.

Later, he accepted to work with a friend who had established a detergent brand in Zanzibar. 

It only took Murtaza three months working with his friend in the hotel industry to realize that he had found a niche in detergent making. “I learnt all about making good quality detergents, the structure of hotels, decision making process in the industry and marketing of the products,” says Murtaza.

He learnt that marketing detergents in the hotel industry requires first seeking audience with the hotel’s procurement officer. After a successful pitch, one is introduced to the hotel’s head steward, laundry manager and the executive housekeeper who decides whether or not the product is worth buying.

After research, he had realized that one of the problems that hotels face is dealing with hard water. The problem is compounded by the fact that available detergents are unable to solve most common problems.

In September 2016, Murtaza came back to Nairobi and started Oracle Chemicals in November 2016, a company that makes swimming pool chemicals and detergents for housekeeping, kitchen and laundry. The company has risen to enlist some of the biggest names in the hotel industry in Nairobi, Mombasa and Zanzibar and is still growing to establish foot in Naivasha, Nakuru, Kericho and other major towns in the region.

But it wasn’t all rosy for the 26-year-old daring entrepreneur who had to fight his way through one of the most crowded markets. It has been a journey of sacrifice, resilience and hard work.

Rocky start

Murtaza started detergent making at a space on his veranda. “I worked 12 hours a day because I was alone at the company. It wasn’t easy in the beginning,” he says.

It took Oracle Chemicals months to make the first sale. This had taken a lot of going around major hotels in Nairobi, pitching the product and being turned away.

At first, it was frustrating for Murtaza who had done everything necessary to make quality products. But it appeared the market was more complicated than he had projected.

“It was months of intense work with zero sales. My first ever sale came in Januaruy 2017 after pursuing the hotel for months,” says Murtaza.

“The most difficult task in the hotel industry is gaining trust from hotels that already have suppliers. Everyone out there fears change and they would rather stick to a supplier who raises prices than try something better that they haven’t used before. This is the biggest challenge I faced starting out.”

“I picked just a few hotels and kept going to them. No startup can afford to make such a mistake. In business, if you need 10 customers, you must be willing to market your product to at least 40,” he says.

But the biggest task, he warns, is maintaining the customers.

“It takes a lot more effort to maintain a customer than to win one. We are glad that for years, we have tried to come up with one innovation after the other to satisfy our clients,” he says.

Nearly three years later, the company has about 20 hotels that buy Oracle chemicals products in Nairobi and in other places in the country. The company sells its products to about 50 big and medium-size hotels in the region.

“We have aligned our product to the model of global leaders. We provide technologies such as automated pumps and programming machines to automate consumption of soap and to ensure that our product is economical for our clients,” he says, adding that the staff at the company provides free demonstrations to clients on incorporation of these technologies in their hotels.

Lessons on savings

“Savings take a lot of self-discipline and resilience. Everyone has capacity to save,” says Murtaza.

“I saved as little as Sh20 every day. For every shilling I got, I kept aside at least 50% of it. I knew I needed capital if I was to start my business someday.”

He adds: “To make money you need money. You must be willing to set aside something from the little you have and with time, your savings grow. No one has an excuse for not saving and no money is too little to save from.”