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Start-up snapshot: Talking business with solar irrigation company

SunCulture founders Charles Nichols (left) and Samir Ibrahim

SunCulture is a Kenya-based solar-powered irrigation company. Its irrigation systems are designed to pump water from a variety of sources – including lakes, rivers, streams, wells and boreholes – using solar energy.

The company answered our questions, highlighting the biggest risks it is facing and its most successful marketing initiative to date.

1. How did you finance your start-up?

Samir and Charles started SunCulture by borrowing money from friends and family, which allowed them to get the company through the feasibility stage. After piloting the first solar-powered irrigation product, being in constant dialogue with the pilot farmers and making product improvements, they were able to raise more money for the commercialisation of the product.

2. If you were given US$1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?

Our aim for 2017 is to make our products and services exportable. Consequently, we are planning to increase our geographic reach starting in East Africa. However, each country across Africa has its own challenges, ranging from differing market conditions to laws and logistics. Identifying and addressing these challenges is essential for SunCulture’s growth beyond Kenya.

As a result, we have decided to increase our country learnings through strategic partnerships in target countries. These partnerships enable us not only to collect country-specific data, but also assess both market potential and challenges. In order to make every farmer in the world successful, no matter where she/he is located, we need to ensure that our products and services are tailored to the country-­specific realities (i.e. developing payment methods not tied to mobile money in less-developed countries). With additional funding, we’re tailoring our new country-launch strategies for success.

3. What risks does your business face?

A potential risk for our growth is the market being flooded with products that aren’t relevant for our farmers. If no informed policies are implemented and no specific standards are established for the solar-powered irrigation market, customers might lose trust in the products when cheap and low-quality products enter the market.

4. So far, what has proven to be the most successful form of marketing?

Selling solar-powered irrigation in a nascent agtech market has its challenges, but educating the market has been the most successful form of marketing. Educating farmers on good agricultural practices has been core to our business since we started.

5. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

Visiting a farmer after her first harvest and seeing what she did with her additional income. That will always be the most exciting part about running this business.

6. Tell us about your biggest mistake, and what you’ve learnt from it.

Our first pilot was a four hours away from Nairobi, which made it difficult to bring people to see it. We’ve learnt to make your pilot easily accessible to others.

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