Stephen Machua’s entrepreneurial journey began with costly failure, but it turned out to be his biggest business lesson.
He invested 250,000 sh. of grant money on growing tomatoes. He, along with his partners, expected the investment to return no less than 1.2 million shillings.
The math was correct, the returns were not, and they had to deal with a measly Sh9,000.
For many employers, the costly setback would have been enough to persuade them to retire into job security and live a risk-free life. But not Stephen.
His wounds leaked and he woke up the next day to go to Kutus in Kirinyaga County, where he was researching a new product: plantain flour that did not make landfall.
The storm swept that ship away before it could dock. Because as he says, “banana flour is great on paper, but it doesn’t make any business sense. You have to dry a lot of bananas just to get a kilogram of flour.”
But he did not give up.
Then he had an idea. Why not create spices for what he calls the kadogo market? Spices needed to be well packaged for retail customers.
Thus began Piquant Spices, a spice manufacturing startup.
With the remaining part of the grant from the Kenyan government and the World Bank (together the grant was 3.6 million shillings), Stephen spiced up the idea and set up a small manufacturing plant to make spices.
In his words, he saw a gap that had been ignored.
“If you look at the market, you will hardly see spices that have the whole family in mind. They are either too spicy for children or too mild. I wanted to create something that the whole family could consume without needing to call a doctor.”
With fire in his bones, Stephen jumped into this at Mach speed and produced two products, masala tea and pilau masala, in the early phase of his newfound love.
It was a baptismal exercise for him as he dove into his first start-up attempt.
Is it easier to have two products in circulation?
“You don’t rest. You achieve one thing and the next idea keeps you up at night”, says the young entrepreneur.
And it has more products in preparation. “We have ten products in the certification stage with the Kenya Bureau of Standards. Ten products it says will have adhered to a similar script. A whole family of products for the whole family. Masala Beef, Masala Chicken, Cumin, Cinnamon, Cardamom among others.”
It sources its raw materials from aggregators, people who go to the farms from as far away as Zanzibar and Uganda to get them.
“We received some products from suppliers in Marikiti [Nairobi]. It’s important to get them from those places because they’re considerably cheaper since they’re straight from the farm. Our plant is located in a government facility where we also have storage.”
Hot spices go into production two to three times a month, depending on market demand. Most of your customers order from your website.
Is he making a profit? this writer wonders. He is an inveterate businessman and tries to philosophize the answer as all businessmen would when faced with this question.
Ponder a bit and then shoot straight from the hip to the target.
“Yes, we are making profit. But our start-up model is lean and so it’s easy to get the illusion of making a profit because overhead like rent and shrinking storage facilities has been taken away from us. We can pay salaries, cover any other general expenses and allow time for such an interview, ”he says.
Are the products in major stores across the country?
“We have run into headwinds in our attempts to get there. We have only been in operation for a year, I think that the stores have not trusted us as much. Then there is the challenge of credit terms. At this stage, it is important that we secure as much income as we can. Big box stores have long sales conversion rates and that may not work for us.”
To push their products, they have a strong sales team that seeks new markets at granular levels. Its target customers are convenience stores and kiosks in urbanizations.
Stephen wants to expand his reach into the larger East African region. Its products are already in Tanzania and Uganda. They are thinking of entering the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year.
“I’m looking for money! Or investors to buy shares in the company or a grant, or something like that.
He wants to set up a factory that he estimates would cost tens of millions of shillings. That’s what keeps you awake.
His biggest lesson so far is “never be afraid to try something new.”
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