Brothers write family legacy with pencil making start-up

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Mohamed Fadhili, the co-founder of Momo Pencils. FILE PHOTO | POOL 

Their need to start a business was founded on two ideas, one very specific and the other largely general. The first; to build a family legacy out of the whole cloth, and the second; to change the world.

The first brushstroke was to get a business idea. A specific trade they would build their founding principles on.

Mahamud Omar and Mohamed Fadhil went into research both chafing at the bit. They had agreed that manufacturing was what would outlive them.

The elephant in the room hence became, what to manufacture. Mohamed came up with the idea of manufacturing pencils from recycled newspapers.

They furthered their research on the feasibility of their idea and when they were satisfied with their findings, came up with Mo & Mo Company the parent company of Momo pencils.

At the concept stage of the business, they were just the two, Muhamud being the leader. The name Momo was coined from Mahamud Omar’s initials MO and the abbreviation of Mohamed Fadhil’s first name Mo.

It wasn’t automatic that they would call the pencils that. They tried different names that didn’t cut it as trademarks due to their generic nature. Momo, therefore, became the lowly hanging fruit that they picked.

They got incorporated in 2017 and spent the next two years “getting it right,” as Mahamud puts it. “We had challenges in getting the right pencil. The first prototypes we had were not sharpenable or durable enough. We failed so many times at achieving the right blend, firmness and consistency. We got it right finally in 2019, and shortly after we got KEBS certification. A solid two years in the trenches,” he quips.

Shortly after getting into the market, the Covid-19 pandemic happened. Most of the end users of their products are school-going children and with schools closed indefinitely, their production was badly affected.

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Momo Pencils made from old newspapers at Athi River. FILE PHOTO | POOL

In Mahamud’s words, 2021 was the year they started business properly as most of 2020 they couldn’t sell.

Mo & Mo Company is a self-funded start-up. Mahamud and Mohamed put together Sh17 million to set up their manufacturing plant in Athi River, Machakos and their head office on Mombasa Road in Nairobi.

“We went scouting for space in the city’s Industrial Area. The rent quoted to us was punitive and in our projections, in two years we would have spent more money on rent than on buying and setting up. We moved further to Machakos, and the rent kept increasing as we moved away from the city. We settled on building our own premises and setting up our plant,” Mahamud explains.

They use locally sourced raw materials save for graphite, which Mahamud says they import as it is not readily available in the country.

They work with women and youth groups from city slums who supply them with the core raw material in the manufacturing process; old newspapers.

To succeed in the whole process they have a team of 15 members of staff at the plant on full time.

The number increases from time to time according to demand. Collectively, they have made over 1 million pencils in their four years of production.

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MomoPencils2

“We currently are making pencils in four varieties,” Mahamud says. “We have the Kids Trending, meant for school-going children, colourfully made to suit the targeted user. We have the Sentimental Pencils, designed for gifting to express one's feelings to another. We also produce for the mass market, for light users, say in offices and workshops. We have the 2B pencils that are darker in shade and ideal for sketching and drawing.”

How do they successfully run a family business seeing that family businesses have had bad history and at times catastrophic ends? Mahamud acknowledges this fact pithily when met with the question.

“It is not obvious that just because people are family, they have a similar vision or share the same outlook on life and business. The challenge you see in many a family business and views is the divergent visions in the course or running them. As founders we have grown up in the same areas, faced the same challenges and share a common vision. It is not hard for us to run the company alongside each other."

"But this may not be true and applicable to the next generation of business leaders. What we have tried to do is to set up structures in the business that define roles to avoid conflicts. We are currently incorporating other family members to teach them not just business, but also how to run our business. As founders we do our part and hope that those that come after us will uphold the structures we have put in place,” he adds.

Social impact is the other tenet on which Momo Pencils is built. Changing the world was the other reason they started the company.

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MomoPencils3

They achieve this by planting fruit trees in schools. These trees achieve everything other trees achieve in the environment plus a little extra—the fruits.

They have a programme they call Hope for literacy, which donates pencils to underprivileged school children.

“We realised that in some areas in the country, the price of pencils is equivalent to the price of food. Most families would choose to put food on the table more than buying pencils, And the overall effect of this is that the children stop learning. This far we have reached 144,000 children with the programme, and we look forward to more.”

His biggest lesson in business is, anyone can achieve what they set their eyes on.

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