The small signboard at the entrance to Patrick Wainaina’s firm in Thika summarises his passion: “Welcome to Jungle Nuts, where we are nuts about nuts.’’
For someone new to the firm, that can give the wrong impression that you are meeting a commoner trying out his luck in a remote area along Thika Light industries.
But Mr Wainaina is a successful entrepreneur behind Jungle Nuts Company, a Top 100 company that processes Macadamia nuts , cashew nuts and peanuts.
His first job in a foreign country was nursing the elderly, nothing to write home about. His entry into the business world was also not easy, having been faced with lack of capital to finance his dream.
But today, Mr Wainaina has turned around his fortunes to sit at the helm of a successful firm. He says it took lots of blind faith, hard work and optimism.
“My history starts from the Kenya Nuts Company where I worked as an engineer in 1996. I am a trained mechanical engineer,’’ he told the Business Daily.
“My boss was a Japanese who was very strict and he taught me a great deal on what the future expects from me,’’ he recalls.
After resigning from Kenya Nuts, Mr Wainaina headed to the US to study marketing, convinced that the trip would unlock his success.
“It was in the spirit of better life, but sometimes life gives you the unexpected,’’ he says, memories of yester-years written on his face.
In the US, he found himself chasing for success that seemed beyond his grasp. After completing his studies, Mr Wainaina embarked on seeking employment, but nothing was forthcoming.
The first job that presented itself was attending to the elderly and though it was not his preferred option, he took the job in order to make ends meet.
After working for years, he had not managed to make any enviable savings. Life was becoming unbearable and he was getting home-sick by the day.
“I had to cut down my spending and save something to take back home and this translated to Sh300,000,’’ he said.
Before leaving for the US, Mr Wainaina had studied the Macadamia market and seen its potential. He had made contact with numerous businessmen involved in the trade. This is where he wanted to work.
“When I arrived in Kenya, I rented a small room and bought second hand machinery and used the remaining amount to pay factory rent for six months. I was left with nothing and my dream of owning a business was plunged into darkness,’’ he recalls.
The future looked grim and his efforts to get capital from financial institutions were unsuccessful.
“The banks wanted a guarantor and no one wanted to take the liability in case I failed to repay,’’ says Mr Wainaina. Broke and depressed, he shut down the business and looked for employment. That was back in 2002.
Luckily, he got a job at mobile service provider Safaricom as a manager and this was his turning point. At Safaricom, he joined the company’s sacco where he saved Sh20,000 per month.
After five years, he felt his savings had translated to a substantial amount that would enable him reignite his business. He would double as a manager to his employer and as an entrepreneur before and after work.
Later, he approached his friends and together they formed a group that enabled him get a loan from micro-finance institution Faulu Kenya.
Mr Wainaina thus embarked on sourcing for Macadamia nuts from the central part of Kenya. The American dream was back with a bang. He had created a network while abroad and he was more than willing to get into successful entrepreneurship.
“We started small but the ideas were bigger than the capital,’’ he says.
Five years later, he resigned to concentrate on managing the business. His first client was a business mogul whom he had met while abroad, who gave him a deal worth Sh400,000. The deal gave his company a new impetus globally and what followed was immense referrals and endorsements that changed his life completely.
Today, Mr Wainaina is a self-made billionaire who prefers keeping a low profile despite his achievements. Interestingly, none of his products are consumed locally. The company exports its products to the US, China, and the UK.
“We have taken keen measures to have a respected brand both in Kenya and across the world. Both investors and customers are keen on associating with companies that have good repute.
“A good reputation in the market is the cornerstone of any business,’’ notes Wainaina who is an admirer of former Safaricom chief executive Michael Joseph.
He says the global market is immense and comes with many opportunities for sales and brand exposure. He advises businessmen to study the market and understand what the consumer needs.
Jungle Nuts sources Macadamia from small-scale farmers in Kiambu, Muranga, Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Embu, Meru, Kitale, Bungoma and Taita. One kilogramme retails at between Sh60 and Sh80.
Mr Wainaina says that globally, there are less than three hundred serious nuts processors, making the business lucrative due to lack of competition.
“The economy in nuts is cheap and easy. We normally meet annually and discuss the way to improve the industry,’’ he says.
Wainaina came into the limelight after he became the overall winner of the Top 100 mid-sized companies survey organised by Nation Media Group’s premier business publication the Business Daily in partnership with consultancy firm KPMG.
In 2009 when companies were grappling with the global economic crunch, Jungle Nuts posted more than $6 million in turn over.
Mr Wainaina is cagey about the company’s net worth: “I don’t have the actual figures but we are doing great.’’
On future prospects, he says: “We plan to expand our footprint to Middle East countries and come up with more products that will grace the local supermarkets soon.’’
Top of the list will include Macadamia butter and Mac Oil which will supplement salad oil. Also, the Macadamia shells are used to make charcoal that goes by the name Jungle Brickets.
“The charcoal is durable and relatively better and play an instrumental role in conserving the environment,’’ he explained
Jungle Nuts has a network of more than 80,000 farmers and 250 permanent staff.
The nuts are bought through a technology model dubbed e-buying where produce is weighed right in the field and the data sent to a portable device called a PDA machine, which sends the results to a printer.
“This technology has really improved our welfare with the farmers. We pay them through M-Pesa immediately we buy their produce. This was inspired after witnessing crime incidents in some of the areas we buy our raw materials where farmers were being robbed off,’’ explained Mr Wainaina.
Its other benefits are that farmers cannot be defrauded since the buying price is set from the factory. The company also supplies the farmers with Macadamia seeds at a fair price to enhance the quality of the produce.
Mr Wainaina has invested Sh40 million on these devices in all the Macadamia collection points. Running the business comes with a lot of challenges.
He cites the smuggling of the nuts from Kenya to China by middlemen as the biggest. This has robbed farmers of huge earnings and led to deteriorating quality of output. Another challenge involves the high cost of power as the firm’s monthly power bill is at around Sh1 million.
His background has taught him the potential of youth mentorship.
“We have been a bridge to help other people realise their dreams and aspirations in life. Success calls for teamwork,’’ he says. The company’s mentorship programme, Jungle Nuts Foundation, aims at driving change based on self-reliance and empowering the community.
Entrepreneurs present their business ideas to the company, which vets and decides whether the idea is to be commercialised or whether the applicant needs to be mentored.
If the idea is prime and viable the individual is offered seed capital after going through a short financial literacy programme. One is expected to repay once the idea bears fruit. One beneficiary of the foundation is Nicholas Njoroge, who runs an enterprise called Alanic Products that makes detergents.
He received Sh1.5 million, which has transformed his childhood dream of venturing into self-employment. Today, he supplies his products to supermarkets and shops across the country.
Mr Wainaina’s wife runs a non-governmental organisation called Steps of Mercy that offers rejected and poor elderly people basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing.
“It’s in the spirit of offering help no matter how small it is. My success came from people who saw the potential in me and offered their support. Empathy should be inseparable to humanity,’’ he said.
His advice to budding entrepreneurs: “Value teamwork, live within your means and come up with projects that create employment. “Sometimes it’s better to start small where you learn the ropes of successful businesses and work harder to make it bigger,’’ he says.