At 30, Forbes Africa are on Eric Kinoti‘s trail, he runs a regional company and mentors young entrepreneurs nationally... yet less than eight years ago, he was taking up any job he could find.
Your guy at the front desk says you have been out of the country for some time. If we are to take him at his word, was it business or pleasure, and which countries were you visiting?
He is right. I have been out of the country. Travelling around; I went to Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, India and China. The purpose was business, I had gone to check out possible new sources for my raw materials - PVC and canvas.
What happened to your local raw material suppliers?
They are still here. I have been thinking of importing from abroad due to cost and quality concerns.
How long did your journey take?
And your assessment of the possibility of doing business with them?
I’m sticking to the local suppliers. The cost is nearly the same, so no point really.
Let’s get back to the beginning. How did you start?
I was born in Mombasa 30 years ago but was raised in Meru. I started my business at 22 but by then, I had completed my Business Administration diploma at Tsavo Park Hotel Institute. I worked at a hotel in Malindi as a cashier for three years but my side hustle then was to deliver eggs and such things.
Is this the worst job you ever held?
No. I did nicer things like hawking, being a car washer, being a porter and hotel house keeper. I never chose jobs. I did what I found.
What spurred you into entrepreneurship...?
I have liked to be in charge of the things I do. The same was to be with my work. So I saved and borrowed almost Sh2 million from a shylock and in 2009, I set up Shade Systems.
Yes, Shylock. I ended up paying back the money with a million shillings as the interest. The worst decision I have ever made.
Why do you say so?
That interest was outrageous. And they can cart off your stuff to be auctioned if you can’t pay-up. If you can partner with people, do it. This is not the best form of financing.
It has been five years since you set up Shade Systems. At the moment you operate in East and Central Africa and run three other companies - Safi-Sana (home support services), Bag Base Kenya (manufacturing bags), and Alma tents (providing events equipment/services). Do you manage all of them?
No. Each of those companies have their own managers. My work is to come up with ideas and see the opportunities available, table it to the teams and step back to oversee.
Is that your management style...step back and oversee?
I’m not a boss. I deal with young people. You can’t boss them. I’m approachable, at least that’s what I think. I sort of just mentor them in entrepreneurship and also impart life skills into them. Something that in my younger/starting years, I had no one to do to me.
To grow your company into a regional leader must have taken a lot. How do you approach a market?
I’m not those big market survey, big data and graphs presentation kind of CEO. The way we have moved is more of our name and work preceding us. People approach us. Calls and emails from out of the country. We have never gone all graphs and plans on how to get into a new market. Mostly, it is the market that comes to us.
No wonder Forbes Africa has been sniffing around you...
Must be. In April, I was among the 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa Forbes Africa list.
They also said that you make annual sales of about USD1 million, were they right?
On the most promising part, I think so. I’m working hard on my stuff. The million dollars part...I’m not a millionaire. Millionaires are the likes of Jimnha Mbaru or SK Macharia or Chris Kirubi. I’m working on my path to that title.
You seem to be getting a lot of recognition of late...
Not really. But, I have been on the Top 40 Under 40 twice and I was named the Most Influential SME personality at the recent OLX Social Media Awards (SOMA) beating the likes of Sunny Bindra and Ally Khan Satchu, among others.
Why exactly did you get the SOMA Award - what exactly does your influence entail?
You can’t quantify influence, but I have a Facebook page with about 38,000 followers, a Twitter handle and a website. All those revolve around entrepreneurship; advice, mentoring, sharing of inspiration, you know; ‘Yes you can’ kind of approach.
You talk so much about mentorship. What does it mean to you?
It is the one area where we fail our young. No one guides them. No one tells them what to look out for and what to embrace. I told you that I had no mentor in my starting years. Now I do, but I think things would have been easier if I had one.
Are you like those Twitter activists who sit in the comfort of their homes while tweeting about how things should change but can’t take part in the change process?
No. I do things. If I want things to change, I try change them in my own way. I talk to young people, interact with them; here in the office and online. But since this is a big issue, I have organised an entrepreneurs boot camp in Maasai Mara in mid-December. With business leaders and entrepreneurs from all over Africa.
If a young person were to walk up to you right now and ask you three things needed in an entrepreneur, what will you tell her?
Focus, consistency and persistence.
You said that you studied Business Administration, has the knowledge gathered in college helped?
I’ve never applied any of those things in business. School and the entrepreneurship world are two different things.
More about Eric Kinoti
• His Primary School is Abothuguchi and Secondary School is Nkubu High School both in Meru
• He is married and has a daughter
• He is a Christian; puts God first in all his dealings
• He does not believe in name dropping. Thinks that this is where young people get it wrong. Thinking that they know someone up high in the ranks.
• Says if he were to sell Shade Systems, it would go for anything between Sh100-150 million.
• He was appointed a patron at the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry for his efforts in working with young entrepreneurs.