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From a shoestring start-up to leading supplier of tents

Shade Systems East Africa  proprietor and development manager Eric Kinoti. His firm makes and supplies shelters for outdoor events, including carshades and  tarpaulins top and bottom. Photos/SALATON NJAU/CORRESPONDENT
Shade Systems East Africa proprietor and development manager Eric Kinoti. His firm makes and supplies shelters for outdoor events, including carshades and tarpaulins top and bottom. Photos/SALATON NJAU/CORRESPONDENT 

Eric Kinoti has worked his way up to become one of Kenya’s youngest self-made millionaires.

Behind his success lies a story of youthful determination. At the age of 28, he is the proprietor of the now popular Shades System East Africa, a firm that manufactures and supplies luxury tents across the region.

“I started Shade System Company four years ago aged 24 with only five employees and a seed capital of Sh60,000. I saw a business gap because this sector was predominantly controlled by non-Kenyans,’’ said Mr Kinoti in an interview with the Business Daily at his office in Westlands, Nairobi.

He sold eggs in the coastal town of Mombasa to raise capital. He could source for the eggs and sell them at a profit to local hotels and save his earnings.

He says a friend approached him asking whether he could provide him with a tent for a function and after several dealings with him, Mr Kinoti noticed that the business was thriving and also decided to give it a try.

But the Sh60,000 he had saved was not enough, he says. The logistics was a big headache and more cash was needed to see his idea take off the ground.

Out of desperation, he approached a shylock who gave him Sh2 million that set him on the path to success.

“I immediately hit the road doing marketing, for my new business and was powered by zeal and passion for self-employment. After two years of poor returns, things started to look up’’ he says with pride.

His first deal involved school supplies followed by a military tender that saw him pocket over Sh15 million. Buoyed by the unexpected development, Mr Kinoti knew there was no looking back.

He says the tents business is popular in Kenya but that competition is stiff.

“Customers are receptive to new trends in the market which have made us to diversify our products,’’ he says.

Mr Kinoti notes Kenya’s economic growth in the last few years had positively impacted his business, with multi-national companies setting base in the country.

He cites the growth of the hospitality and the construction sectors which are his mainstay.

Shades System Company buys raw materials and customises them according to the project specification and customer choice. The firm imports raw materials from Turkey, South Korea and sometimes uses locally produced ones.

A social man who links up with his peers and mentees on Facebook to offer advice on entrepreneurship, his face lights up as he reads some comments from his admirers: “You always make my day with your words on entrepreneurship,’’ writes Linet Nteere. “If you were to be given Sh2m now, what will you do with it?’’ asks Johnny Rasco on the social network.

“When you inspire these young people you are creating self-employment because this gives them the drive to make their dreams come true. Hope is important no matter the challenges,’’ he quips.

But demand for tents is mostly from the corporate world. Individuals only come when there is a family or occasional outdoor function.
He says corporates take most of his products for branding in a world where quality is paramount.

To meet their demands, firms must invest in machines and employ technical experts, something which he says his company has achieved.

“We provide restaurant canopies, marquees, swimming pool shades, garden umbrellas, branded gazebos, bouncing castles, carpark shades among others,’’ he said, naming some of the products they offer.

His company is well known in East Africa, with clients coming from as far as Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi and Southern Sudan.

The company also gets tenders from non-governmental organisations offering humanitarian services in these countries.

“If you want to thrive in any sector, observe what successful people are doing and come up with a more unique structure and strategy that will sell you to the public as a brand. When you imitate what your role models are doing, you limit yourself, be different, ’’ he advises would-be entrepreneurs.

A marketer by profession, Mr Kinoti worked in a bank before he ventured into self-employment but insists that Rwanda is the best place to set a business in Africa.

“In Rwanda an entrepreneur can register a company within a day unlike in Kenya where there is a lot of bureaucracy when setting up and their business policies are also friendly,’’ said Mr Kinoti who has employed 50 people both directly and indirectly.

He maintains that brand awareness is a key factor that defines the success of an enterprise.

And he should know, for his company is now worth Sh150 million. His clients include East Africa Breweries, Toyota Kenya, the Department of Defence and Bata Company, among other respected institutions in the country.

His competitors include Kenya Tents Company, Kenya Canvas Company and Tarpo Industries.

What other secrets does he have for success?

“Be focused and keen to monitor emerging business trends both locally and internationally and compare how similar enterprises are performing in other countries,’’ he says. He cites strong teamwork and competent staff for lifting his company above the crowd.

It has certainly not been an easy walk for a man who was not lucky to be born with a silver-spoon in his mouth. Mr Kinoti has overcome a lot of challenges and adds that the memories of the past are still fresh in his mind. He recounts how he used to hawk eggs before he could go to work.

Highly demanding

“The manufacturing industry is highly demanding due to the capital required and I was forced to borrow from shylocks (informal lenders).

‘‘I cannot encourage any potential entrepreneur to borrow from these people because their repayment interests are too high and sometimes you can even lose your business to them.’’

Mr Kinoti maintains that Kenyan youths are innovative and that success comes from taking calculated risks. “Money is good but the idea comes first,’’ he says.

His role models include renowned business magnates Chris Kirubi and Donald Trump. According to him, the two have come up with strategies that do not necessarily seek to benefit themselves but to uplift the lives of people around them by creating job opportunities.

Apart from Shade Systems Company, Mr Kinoti owns Safi Sana Home Support Services Limited, a company that offers professional home and office cleaning services.

“We want to redefine the market and offer services that will take us to the next level based on quality,’’ he said Safisana trains and later employs the best performers.

Shade System is also set to open manufacturing plants in Rwanda and Malawi to widen its footprint in Africa.

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