BY JEVANS NYABIAGE
South African President Thabo Mbeki with Joel Mwale
The name Joel Mwale may not be familiar to many people in Kenya, but he has gained quite a fan base internationally.
And not just because he made more than Sh40 million at 19.
At 16, Mwale changed the lives of more than 5,000 people in a community in Kitale when he helped them access clean drinking water.
He also made good money in the process.
Now Mwale is 20 and on a mission to transform the continent, this time not through water, but technology.
“I’m now using technology to transform the education landscape in the continent and combining that with social media and a mentorship platform,” Mwale told Business Beat.
Last year, he sold his 60 per cent share in SkyDrop Enterprises — a rainwater harvesting and purification project that he started at 16 — to an Israeli-owned firm for $500,000 (Sh42.5 million).
This is the social enterprise that has earned him global accolades.
In addition to providing clean water to his village, he skillfully converted the idea into a booming venture by bottling the water for sale across western Kenya and into Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Sudan.
At the time he sold it, the company had annual revenues of $515,000 (Sh43.9 million).
“The reason I started SkyDrop was basically to raise school fees, and I felt the company had reached its potential. All along, my interest has always been in technology and education. I figured out that was the best time to move on,” he said.
“We had put mechanisms in place that meant that whether I was there or not, SkyDrop would still be successful. We had a CEO, board of directors and people who were good in management. And since I was living in South Africa at that time, my input here was very small, so I decided to exit.”
He had also just won a Google award (Zeitgeist Young Minds 2012) for being one of the Top 10 Brightest Young Minds in the World. The award saw him spend a lot of time in USA’s Silicon Valley. He spent time with people like Larry Page, the co-founder and chief executive of Internet search engine giant Google, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, best known for inventing the world wide web.
At Silicon Valley, Mwale’s aim was to try and understand how to create a technology product. He also visited Stanford University.
Mwale is among a crop of young entrepreneurs who have overcome tremendous odds, and instead of crying foul over the unemployment crisis in Kenya, have gone the extra mile to create jobs.
Unemployment has gone up progressively from 6.7 per cent in 1978 to 40 per cent today.
The rate of job creation, however, has been abysmal. In 1988, it was at a high of 6 per cent, the highest it has ever been; by 2008, it had gone down to 1.8 per cent.
There is a proverb that says: “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man be perfected without trials”, and at16, Mwale personified it.
He had contracted dysentery from contaminated water during a particularly dry season in Kitale. And when lying on his hospital bed recovering from the very serious bout of diarrhoea, the health risk in his community sparked an idea.
That idea later blossomed into a company that, by the time he sold it at the end of 2012, was employing about 70 people.
With savings of about Sh8,000, the knowledge of physics acquired at Friends School Kamusinga and some help from volunteers, Mwale built a borehole on some community farmland.
He installed a pump that would allow extraction of the water, providing clean, drinking water to hundreds of households in his village.
The success of this project and the unfortunate turn of events that occurred afterwards ultimately led to the creation of SkyDrop Enterprises.
He was forced to drop out of Friends School since his family was unable to pay for his tuition. But this did not dampen his spirits.
He set out to find tuition fees and earn a little extra to support his family.
Coincidently, the idea for SkyDrop came to maturation when Mwale was caught in a rainstorm.
“I remember it was in April during one of the heavy rain seasons in Kitale. I was just walking as the rain poured and happened to spot a closed yoghurt shop. Next to it was a water tank that was storing the rainwater from the gutters of the roof.
“I thought to myself: can’t I trap this rainwater, store it in a reservoir, purify it and then sell it to the public?”
After convincing the owner of the yoghurt shop to lease him the location, Mwale set out to find a purifying machine to filter the rainwater. He soon discovered that this piece of equipment was quite expensive.
The next three and half months saw Mwale knock on the doors of local banks and NGOs for funding, but they declined.
He turned to his 20-acre piece of family land, which had been lying fallow for years. He approached his mother about selling it, an idea she was initially opposed to. Eventually, however, he convinced her.
With the proceeds from the sale, Mwale bought a water purification machine for Sh430,000, and paid for the cost of operation to produce drinking water.
“We used to harvest rain water and focus on production during wet season. During the dry spells, we would market our product.”
Half a litre of water retailed at Sh17, and a litre at Sh31.
Initially, SkyDrop was only able at sell about 10 bottles a day as a result of significant competition from already established drinking water bottlers.
But after persistent campaigns, sales climbed, with the company making Sh25.6 million in profits last year, Mwale said.
He added that he used some of the cash he made to replace the family land he sold to fund his business.
In 2011, Mwale won the Anzisha Prize for youth leadership, which provided him with a two-year scholarship to the African Leadership Academy in South Africa as well as $30,000 (Sh2.6 million) to support his business.
He is now on a journey to building an African Google, Apple or Facebook. With other partners, he has founded Gigavia.com, a company that he says will likely offer solutions for how institutions can deliver education materials and also provide a platform for veteran entrepreneurs to mentor youngsters.
The company has offices in Kenya, South Africa and in Silicon Valley. It currently employees tens of programmers and administrative staff.
Mwale’s story reads like that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, a man he admires.
Jobs, now deceased, dropped out of Reed College after the first six months.
An extract of a speech that Jobs gave at Stanford University, reads in part: “I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK.”
Jobs went on to build one of the world’s most innovative firms.
Two years after dropping out of Friends School, Mwale won the prestigious IB Inaugural Scholarship to the International School of Kenya, but later that year, he had to terminate the programme to join ALA. ALA has a unique curriculum through which it aims to raise the next generation of African leaders. But he soon dropped out.
“The only certificate I have is my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE). Sometimes I sit down and think. I employ graduates who design software. It is not that I don’t have the education, but it is only that I don’t have the papers,” Mwale said.
“No one asks me if I have papers. I have met Presidents Obama and Clinton, and no one asked whether I have the papers.
“I dropped out of ALA last year. It is a two-year programme. I stayed there for one year and I figured that if I was going to stay there for another year, it was not going to change anything.”
Early this year, Mwale was recognised by Forbes magazine for being among the top 30 under 30 young entrepreneurs in Africa.
He hopes that his success will inspire others to act upon their ideas.
”I think there are many more youths who are sitting on their potential,” he said. “But the most important thing is that for Africa to realise its goals … the youth and everyone else will need to embrace the true spirit of entrepreneurship. Only then can young people influence thousands of lives.”