Turning a fresh water supply problem into a business: Lessons from two entrepreneurs in Kenya

Yvonne Nkatha and Wangui Kagera

The early challenges of not having fresh drinking water in their homes in Kenya gave way to an idea that would lead Yvonne Nkatha, Wangui Kagera and their three business partners to set up Gambino Bottling, a water processing business.

How did this all start?

“Back in the day there was limited access to bottled drinking water. It was for the elite. Most people used to boil water for drinking. With time it became a bit hectic, even for us,” Nkatha says. “And it is the girl’s duty in the family,” Kagera quips. Once the water had boiled, it had to be cooled to be suitable for drinking.

This rudimentary but annoying chore led them to do some research on how to get clean, drinking water without boiling. They started learning about water purification and in 2008 the business was born.

In the beginning, it wasn’t a serious indulgence.

“We did not actually know about the market and how our business could work. We just did not want to boil water for drinking and we wanted an affordable option. We started small but over the years we have been growing,” Nkatha says. “No one had planned it to be a full venture. It was just a business that would be run by someone else,” Kagera adds.

Nkatha had finished her law studies while Kagera’s background was business administration and finance, setting their career path away from business ownership.

“But with time you realise there is so much to be done, so you compromise and say, ‘let me get this company to this level then I will leave’. And before you know it time has passed, you are in love with this company and you want to take it to the next level,” Kagera states.

How did they grow the company into the business it is today?

Being recent graduates, they brought a high level of excitement to their new venture. Initially, their first clients were friends and close family members. The duo did not mind getting their hands dirty, dealing with production, marketing and delivery.

“Since it was a new venture, we were very proud of ourselves and we didn’t care that it was hectic. We used to buy the bottles, then go back to our small factory, fill them, go look for clients and deliver,” Nkatha says proudly. They sublet the factory space from their parents.

Bootstrapping and reinvesting profits back into the company has ensured that the company grew over the years.

The company started producing smaller 500ml bottles. Although they were fast moving, there were many other companies in the market producing the same type of product. Later, they decided to diversify and differentiate their offering.

Their large 18.9 litre refillable bottles is a leading revenue-generator. The company also introduced purification on-site services, where customers can have their water purified at the premises. According to Nkatha, this eliminates the need for plastic bottles.

“Acquiring clients has been gradual. When we got our first delivery van things got easier, because we were more in control of our time and we could get more clients and deliver well. Our clients proved to be very loyal and the business growth has been through referrals,” Nkatha says.

Their future plans are big as they hope to not only grow their current employee team of 10, but also expand their market outside Nairobi and eventually nationwide.

Surely it couldn’t have been that easy. They must have faced some challenges?

Kagera is quick to point out that being young women, not many people took their venture seriously.

“Once you prove yourself, however,  people are quick to support and give you referrals. We have been fortunate to have people who believe in us and propel our vision,” Kagera explains.

Apart from that, getting loyal workers has become increasingly challenging over time.

“In terms of manpower there were more people (when we began), and people had (a better) work ethic. These days the youth are very entitled and they don’t want to work hard,” she adds.

Access to credit from banking institutions has been a challenge for their business. The requirements to get access to funds are not favourable for small businesses, they say. At the moment, the still hope that the government would offer better options for businesses run by young people.

Anything we can learn from their experiences?

Nkatha explains that lack of information on business processes can lay the path to an early grave for new ventures.

“Business people should take more time to read,” Kagera says. She explains that there was little information from institutions on how to set up a business, let alone a water-bottling business.

The newly created Water Bottlers Association has helped them to get their business in line with rules and regulations. The duo also cautions new businesses not to overlook intellectual property rights. The company had to change the name of their flagship brand after they failed to trademark the product and then another entity registered it.

“Entrepreneurship is hard, but I don’t think that anything good comes easy. If you feel a burning desire to do something, go for it. At the end of the day, you try and fail and it is a learning experience,” Nkatha says.

“People need to read more; I wish we read more. At some point as entrepreneurs we are busy in the day-to-day running of the business but it is equally important to sit back, read and grow,” Kagera concludes.