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Reuben Kinuthia: I rose from a sales intern to running my own solar firm

Money & Market

The sun is slowly starting to rise on the solar industry and business is booming.

This growth in the solar energy sector is anchored on the Kenya National Electrification Strategy (KNES) which aims to achieve electricity access to all in the shortest time possible.

As a result, there is a growing number of solar companies looking to tap into this growing market. One such company is Benex Solar Company, a medium-sized enterprise that sells solar panels.

But there is more to the business than just solar panels. The firm has diversified to import borehole pumps, motors, solar accessories such as cables, surge protectors, DC circuit breakers, PV disconnect, solar PV combiner boxes, solar pumping inverters, water purifiers and solar flood lights, among others.

The secret, according to 32-year-old founder and chief executive Reuben Kinuthia, is setting yourself apart as the industry expert.

“Quality is my priority, whatever the price. I would rather have a few satisfied clients than attract many with low prices and poor quality,” says Reuben, who has been in the business for seven years.

The company had humble beginnings, starting with a capital of Sh300, 000 solicited from family and friends.

The idea for the company grew out of an assistant sales engineering job that he held for three years. Kinuthia is a Soil, Water and Environmental Engineering (SWEED) graduate from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT).

He landed his first job as a sales intern at Davis & Shirtliff but the entrepreneurship bug soon bit him.

“I thought I would be in employment till retirement age,” says Kinuthia who suffered increasing pressure from friends and customers to set up his own business.

And just like that, with little to no planning, he quit his job. All he knew was that he wanted to sell borehole and solar energy equipment.

At the time he had fallen prey to a land scam and lost some Sh2 million. He could not conceive how he would survive let alone start a business.

“I approached a friend who offered to invest half in the business as long as I put in the other half. I got Sh175,000 from my mother and that was meant to cover everything from licenses, office space rent, branding to registering,” says Kinuthia, but luckily the business soon took off. Within the first week of leaving employment, he had a customer who wanted borehole equipment. 

Core business

Now, three years on, his core business is literally in the name - Benax Solar and Boreholes Solutions Limited, doing everything related to solar and boreholes from selling products to installing them.

The company has grown steadily to a team of 11 employees and 12 contractors including plumbers, welders and technicians. They recently expanded to import borehole pumps, inverters, solar floodlights and more.

With plenty of untapped opportunities in the solar installation business in the market, Kinuthia is on the fast track to a great career in a growing and fulfilling industry.

In 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta made a commitment to generate 100 per cent of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020.

As at 2019, 86.8 per cent of the country’s energy mix came from renewable energy sources, two per cent of which is from the new 50 megawatt (MW) solar plant brought online in December 2019.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s office said the new solar plant, built by the state-run Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation (REREC), was the biggest in East and Central Africa.

The mass exodus from energy generated through fossil fuels to energy generated through renewable resources was surprisingly most evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. As more people stayed home for months, many made the move to switch to solar in an effort to save on high energy costs.

“People went to their rural homes for longer than the usual one or two weeks and realised they needed clean water to be comfortable. My business social media page before the pandemic had 389 followers, and right now I have 20,000 followers,” says Kinuthia. More people are considering the advantages of using solar to cut energy costs.

“The upfront, the out-of-pocket cost is usually the biggest thing. But you can connect solar to the critical loads alone. Say you have Sh150,000, that money can buy you two solar batteries, an inverter, two solar panels and on top of that, cover installation fees,” adds Kinuthia.

Improve efficiency

This sort of setup could last you a minimum of 25 years with little to no maintenance, making it a worthwhile investment. At the same time, you drastically improve energy efficiency.

Nevertheless, the business is not without its challenges.

“Stocking levels are my biggest obstacle. Suppliers will give us products but not on credit,” he says. As a result, his customers can make advanced payments or deposits but full payment is required before products are dispatched.

Having his overheads constantly low, with no idle staff helps maintain working capital.

The last question posed to Kinuthia: Why is Benaxsolar making it when the vast majority of businesses are struggling?

Customers, Kinuthia said, “want to know the products are genuine but affordable. We price it in such a way that even if we sell at double the price, we would still be cheaper.”

Having a competitive advantage is as important as providing good quality products and services.

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