If there is one lesson that has carried Nelly Gesare Oteki, the founder of Greenthing Kenya, through her three-year entrepreneurial journey is accepting failure.
“Failure hurts, but if you give it time, it makes sense,” she says.
Ms Oteki turned her passion and love for the environment into a thriving business that now serves five East African countries with eco-friendly homecare products.
Greenthing Kenya was started in 2019 after two false starts. In 2010, she wanted to tell more inclusive climate change stories from the African perspective.
She curated the stories into television programmes but they were never aired due to a lack of funding. She moved to YouTube. But that too never took off.
“In a conversation with one of my friends, he asked me to start the business since I had talked about it for years. I told him that I couldn’t because I didn’t have enough capital. He sarcastically responded by telling me to abandon the idea forever then,” she says.
“That was a push I needed to start. That same year, I started Greenthing Kenya with Sh8,000. We started selling metallic drinking straws to restaurants and friends on social media with the message that they were less harmful to the environment because they were reusable unlike plastic straws,” she says.
Her first stumbling block was marketing the product. With a zero-marketing budget, she was forced to embrace social media, especially Instagram.
The results were instant except they attracted a lot of doubts from potential clients, a phenomenon she says is common with SMEs that ply their trade on social platforms.
She started a website to improve trustworthiness and efficiency.
The next challenge was expansion. The straws were moving fast, which meant she needed to have a bigger inventory to satisfy the growing demand, but she did not have the capital.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic happened and with it came the opportunity for her to make washable cotton masks as they were in high demand then. The sales gave her business the boost she desired.
“For us, the pandemic presented a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was the interruption in the manufacturing of our products which we imported then. The opportunity came when we started stitching masks from our home to sell to the mass market. I sourced the material from a shop on Nairobi's Biashara Street. We sold the masks in large volumes, so much so that we had to involve three more people in production,” she says.
Ninety percent of their raw materials are sourced locally.
“We want all our raw materials to come from Kenya,” she says.
Greenthing Kenya’s growth has been gradual and organic. They have increased their portfolio to more than 25 products.
The business has moved from a room in their house to two physical shops in Nairobi and a warehouse in Kiambu which also serves as their stitching station for their fabric-based products.
At the start, she was alone. Then she hired one tailor, then two and the trajectory has been on an upwards trend.
She now has seven employees and also relies on contractual staff as demand increases.
The company works with nine stockists across the country. They have increased their turnover to Sh10 million annually.
To expand networks and sales further, they collaborate with tour companies to push their eco-kit that Ms Oteki says helps in remaining true to their vision of environmental conservation, even as it improves their volumes.
As many startups would admit, failure is part of the growth process. For Ms Oteki, it has taught her to go back to the drawing desk as many times as she can, to come up with a tool to carry their vision further.
Her warehouse is a reminder of one failure.
There is a pile of deadstock for a product she created that did not do well. She admits that she made the items out of her love and not because of any market research or demand patterns.
“My biggest failure must be a product that did not take off and has left us with a big deadstock in the warehouse. The good thing is that as an entrepreneur, I am very innovative so I know that I can repurpose a product to suit another need,” she says.
What valuable lessons she has learned in the process?
“I am not my target market. When I create a product, I must have the buyer on the other end in mind. I have learned to separate what I want and how I feel about a product from what the market wants. What use is having a warehouse full of products that the market is not ready to buy?” she says.
She has also learned that in business, one does not sell everything at a go. Patience is not just a virtue when running a business, it is a way of operation.
When Ms Oteki looks back, she is proud of contributing to the climate change conversation through Greenthing Kenya’s products.
“That I can make not just profit but also create an impact that may outlive me. That is my greatest source of pride,” she says.