Energy entrepreneur reveals just how tough it is to build a business
Five years ago Kenyan entrepreneur Edward Kinyanjui quit his well-paying job as chief operations officer at an international organisation to start his own renewable energy business. He had worked for 12 years, climbed the ladder and become accustomed to a good lifestyle. But Kinyanjui wanted more than “a good salary”, so he pumped his US$100,000 savings into Plexus Energy, a Nairobi-based company that provides clean power from solar and wind.
Its clients include organisations such as banks, hospitals and telco operators which need continuity during electricity outages, as well as homes and schools that require solar water heating and solar lighting. Plexus Energy analyses the energy needs of its clients and designs solutions which are manufactured abroad and imported into Kenya.
‘No exit strategy’
Although his is an established and sustainable business today, Kinyanjui says he wasn’t prepared for what life as an entrepreneur entailed. Those early years as a start-up came with many difficulties. Kinyanjui transitioned from having “a big salary” and savings to sometimes having an “empty” bank account.
“It was a real sacrifice,” says Kinyanjui. “I always say, I went into the plane without a parachute. I didn’t have an exit strategy. It just had to work because I had taken all my life savings and threw it into the business. At one point it was very tough, to the extent I was considering going to look for a job.”
“The first three years I actually lost a lot of money. I didn’t make any,” he recalls. “We didn’t have expertise, so we would sell a product, which would then fail to work and then we would have to buy another product to replace it. We made bad decisions also [and] sold to people who didn’t pay. So we had to do a number of write-offs. We had a lot of learnings.”
“The start-up process is very tough. I remember in my first year I used to wonder whether my email was working because nothing would come through a whole day, even a whole week. [But now] I am having problems keeping up to date with my emails. I have so many emails coming in and I am recruiting people every other month,” he says.
Within two years the $100,000 capital ran out. So Kinyanjui secured a small loan from a bank and leveraged the relationship he built with suppliers to get credit. He soldiered on through difficult times, motivated by the “thrill to win” and the unwavering support of his employees who stuck with him even when the company struggled.
“Things started to work out, we started getting orders and people were paying. I realised we just needed to be patient and consistent,” he says. “But it has been a great experience and I don’t regret the decision to go into business. [Entrepreneurship] is very fulfilling.”
Looking to the future
Having survived the difficult years of being a start-up, Kinyanjui says Plexus Energy is now focused on tapping the increasing opportunities for renewable energy in the region.
He believes opportunities are opening up in the industry. Numerous businesses are setting up to offer wind and solar energy solutions to the millions of households in Kenya that lack access to electricity. Government policy too is working in favour of renewable energy solution providers. Plexus Energy, for instance, is working with some county governments to light up streets using solar in off-grid areas.
“I can see… money is coming,” says Kinyanjui. “The government has made it mandatory for new residential buildings to have solar water heating. There is a big real estate boom in the country so that is good business for us. Also government has exempted solar products from duty and VAT to promote the industry. There is genuine growth.”