While growing up within Mumias Sugar Company where his parents worked, Erick Bosire saw locals invest in sugarcane, a long-term low-value crop, and noted with pain their frustrations; delayed payments and low income after donkey work in their farms.
After graduating from Kenyatta University with a Bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory sciences, he thought of coming up with a tech-based solution to their predicament.
For Erick, it was a passion rather than expertise that led him to start Irri-Hub Ke Venture, a firm that supplies climate-smart irrigation materials like solar-powered pumps.
“I used my research knowledge to analyse exactly what these farmers were facing and realised they lacked information on the high-value crops they could venture into, proper irrigation equipment’ that could enable them to shift to high-value crops, and finances to help them invest in these technologies,” the managing director of Irri-Hub Ke says.
The medic who took to agriculture says the whole essence of setting up Irri-Hub was to help smallholder farmers increase productivity and build strong resilience towards climate change.
“In as much as we want them to make money, we are fully aware of the impact of climate change on the environment and food security, and we want the smallholder farmers to build muscle around it," Eric explains.
For him, transitioning from employment to running a company was made smooth by his passion for agriculture, having grown up surrounded by cane fields.
“I had all the knowledge I needed in terms of research, interrogating things from a different lens and using that third eye to analyse things critically,” he explains.
Capital and growth strategies
The entrepreneur says that in as much as he didn’t have adequate capital, he had the best asset in his clear vision and mission and knew exactly what they wanted to achieve.
“My partner, who has a finance background, and I started by bootstrapping – getting finances from family, and friends and using the initial investment of Sh 500,000 to get hold of first clients and inject all the profits back into the business,” Erick says.
Since 2017 when the company began operations, growth has been tremendous with 11 full-time employees and three on a part-time basis, having attended to more than 2,000 farmers across the country and helped them triple their productivity.
“There are giants who have been in this industry for more than 20 years and we realised that if we are not very strategic, then we may not penetrate, so we came up with different strategies, one being creating strategic partnerships with other SMEs within our age space that were yearning for growth,” says the medic.
The other strategy they employed was to take a customer-centric approach to get to know exactly what the farmers needed differently from what was in the market.
“One of the things they wanted was a flexible form of payment for products and we gave them a three installment plan. That flexibility was a plus for us,” recalls Erick.
They also had to be very innovative, so they incorporated Internet of Things (IoT) systems into their models, something which he says their competitors do not have.
They have scaled it down to even the smallest farmers, a smart system they can control using a phone. The hurdles
For the past six years he has been in business, Erick says that the biggest hurdle he faced from the start and in growth has been funding.
“Securing adequate funding to support our business, product development, research and general operations has been the biggest hindrance. We have seen a rise in impact investors, but the kind of work we do at Irri-Hub Ke needs very patient capital – don’t invest today and want your money back the next day,’ he points out.
However, some impact inventors with patient capital who understand their kind of business have been coming on board and are willing to extend credit for a long period of time.
“We had a challenge of funding but over time, that is improving because we are getting to interact with investors here and there.”
The other challenges they have had at Irri-Hub Ke are market penetration and changing the perception about technology adoption as most farmers are averse to new technologies.
“It’s tough to sit them down and explain the need for technology adoption in the face of climate change and its impact on food security as a country,” he adds.
Covid-19 pandemic had negative effects on local businesses and Irri-Hub was not an exception. According to Eric, most of the inventories they use are imported and the closure of borders in a bid to contain the pandemic greatly disrupted their supply.
“We leveraged on the partnerships we had built with our local suppliers to overcome the supply disruptions but the prices really changed and we had to transfer the cost to the farmers. We were still able to deliver but at an extra cost,” he recalls.
Erick explains that acquiring the right talent that aligns properly with the company’s vision and mission has been a daunting task that has left him with painful lessons.
“Getting the right talent on board is a key thing. It will either make or break your company, so that has been a big challenge for me,” he said, noting that his lack of a role model to guide him in running the venture meant that he had to learn most things the hard way until he joined accelerator programmes to help him understand business model, financial model and pricing.
In Eric's assessment, the need for durable, sustainable and affordable climate-smart irrigation equipment that Irri-Hub Ke has been supplying transcends Kenyan borders.
He believes he can go continental, but first, he seeks to spread the tentacles to East Africa starting from Rwanda and Ethiopia within the next three years and to Zambia or Ghana within the next five years.
"We are at a growth stage where we need more capital to accelerate growth. Already, we are in talks with two investors and will hopefully sign an agreement before the end of the year. Going forward, we are looking and bringing in more partners in the form of convertible debt, equity and grants from organisations that understand the kind of work that we do,” he concludes.