Taita Ngetich, the CEO of Synnefa, an agri-tech startup that provides farmers with smart sensor-installed greenhouses, has managed to attract six rounds of funding, raising to the tune of $1.6 million (Sh208 million).
What is his secret of survival as many tech start-ups struggle? "Re-invention, embracing failure, and resilience," he says.
Before Synnefa, an idea that was conceived in a hostel room at the University of Nairobi (UoN) grew to attract huge funding, Mr Ngetich went through many hitches.
First, he tried his luck in farming in Oloitotok and the land flooded, washing away his and his friend's investments.
Then he talked his mother into another business idea—to finance his dream of building a greenhouse from scratch and installing it on a piece of land in Kericho.
He had saved Sh40,000 and his mother gave him an additional Sh100,000. At the end of that season, his neighbours saw his harvest and asked him to build them similar greenhouses.
Birth of an idea
He later joined the UoN-based acceleration centre Fablab where the idea of starting Synnefa was birthed. Synnefa is a Greek word for cloud.
“Clouds are important to farmers for the rains and the data storage cloud that Synnefa has built is equally as important,” he says.
To raise funds, the textbook model, the Silicon Valley model for start-ups dictates you get an idea, pitch it to investors and if they like it, you get funding.
Some techpreneurs get the money, others do not. But Mr Ngetich says raising funds is not the most important thing in the circulatory system of tech start-ups.
“Start-ups are 90 percent failure and 10 percent success. What we—the brains behind start-ups—don’t tell you is that the build-p is laborious. It is not as glamorous as we make it appear. You will introduce a product or a service that looks good on paper but the implementation becomes problematic. So, you must refashion your product or service to suit the target as many times as demand dictates. Boardroom solutions do not at times reflect the solutions required by your target consumer,” he says.
Learning from the process
When Synnefa started, they had big ideas about installing greenhouses for farmers targeting the export market.
Soon, Mr Ngetich says, they learned that there was more to farming than just installing greenhouses: soil health, crop history traceability, and much more.
“We had to build co-tech hardware and software that went beyond the solutions of a greenhouse. The hardware is called smart farming irrigation, which doesn’t require on-site supervision. It is an automated irrigation system that saves the farmer on the cost of human supervision while creating efficiency and proper management of water resources.
It comes with soil health testing technology that informs the farmer on the needs of the soil for a better crop and a better harvest.
It’s called FarmCloud, a record-keeping mini-ERP [enterprise resource planning] solution that is linked to our agronomist for expert analysis of the crop data,” he adds.
Re-invent and embrace failure
Re-invention, he says, must be a tentpole that start-ups erect to ensure their initial ideas do not become obsolete or redundant.
The anchor idea has an affinity to mutate, sometimes even change completely. Looking at ways these ideas can be enhanced or adjusted to fit reality is key.
Embracing failure and learning from it is another of Mr Ngetich’s most priced secrets.
“The boldness you have in the ideas you put down in your proposals should be the same boldness you have in the face of failure. You must always remember that you can either learn from failure or you can fold up. Both choices come with their ramifications. But the mind of a start-up leader should be above giving up,” he says.
“You must be the cockroach that refuses to die. The start-up ecosystem is either a place of birth or a deathbed. You should promise yourself to push limits to the very end,” he adds.
His business has grown over the years. Mr Ngetich works with a team of 22 people, 15 of those based in Kenya and seven in India for software building support.
On how long a start-up should consider itself a start-up, Mr Ngetich has an interesting way of looking at it.
“Uber has been a start-up or is still called a start-up 19 years after it opened shop. They now have products such as Uber Eats, UberBoda Uber delivery, etc. Re-invention and resilience. These new products are smart creations of what the market demanded and not in their original vision. They are still a start-up because there is no cutline to how long you should identify as one,” he says.