Think big, start small and start now, says Kenyan entrepreneur

Eric Kinoti is the 27-year-old founder and managing director of Shade Systems East Africa. He talks to How we made it in Africa’s Regina Ekiru about his journey from cashier to successful businessman.

Eric Kinoti

Eric Kinoti

How did you get into business?

I got into business in 2004 while working as a cashier in Kenya’s coastal town of Malindi. I would travel across the country to source for eggs, which I supplied to tourist hotels. After the post-election violence at the end of 2007, I relocated to Nairobi and took up the job of sales representative at a local bank. I noticed the high demand for milk and began distributing milk to hotels in the morning before I reported to work.

It is during this time that I met someone who wanted a tent. I made the supply and was shocked at the high margins involved in the business. I decided to raise approximately US$670 as capital and started Shade Systems East Africa to manufacture and supply tents. This has been very successful. Currently we employ 18 permanent staff and 12 others on contractual and part-time basis. Our target is to double our current monthly turnover. It is no easy task, but it is doable.

What products does Shade Systems East Africa offer?

We manufacture and supply military and relief tents, branded gazebos, restaurant canopies, car parking shades, marquees, luxury tents, wedding party tents canvas seats and bouncing castles across the region. We have made supplies to Sudan, Somalia, Congo and Rwanda, mostly to non-governmental and humanitarian organisations purchasing relief tents for personnel and refugees. We have overcome competition from Asian-owned enterprises founded decades ago to carve a niche for ourselves in the industry. We are ridding on innovation, quality and customer-friendly prices.

What challenges have you faced?

Being in the manufacturing industry, which is highly capital intensive, we have encountered cash flow problems. As a small start-up, earning the trust of potential clients was not easy. We have proved wrong the sceptics who felt we were not up to the task. We have been able to deliver beyond their expectations and ultimately won their trust

As a successful entrepreneur, what is your advice to other aspiring business people?

On entrepreneurship, I think today’s youths are highly innovative but have been inhibited by, among other things, the lack of capital. Ignorance and the usual ‘thinking-inside-the-box’ have crippled the entrepreneurial desires of many youths. Most have succumbed to pressure from family and friends to go for job opportunities and have a stable life as opposed to taking the rough terrain of entrepreneurship. Education should foster innovation. To succeed they should take the risk. Youths should not wait to have a lot of money before they can venture into business. They should think big, start small and start now.

What’s next for the company?

We will soon be establishing manufacturing plants in Kigali (Rwanda) and Blantyre (Malawi) in a bid to widen our regional reach. In five years’ time we will be among the top ten mid-sized firms Kenya. In our projections we should have an annual turnover of around $5.5 million and have set footprints across the entire region. We have also recently registered another firm, Multi-Trading Limited, which will deal with supplies for the military, hotels and restaurants, schools and relief agencies. This will help expand our portfolio.