In 2016, Mercy Wanjiru walked into a Nairobi-based supermarket to buy a bar of chocolate. She was to come out of the supermarket with more than the chocolate.
She discovered a business idea that would turn her life around. Her curiosity was piqued when she strolled to a corner marked ‘charcoal,’ in the supermarket.
“I wondered how a supermarket could sell charcoal…I mean it looked weird. To my amazement, I realised they were not your ordinary charcoal,” she says of the fuel that was selling for Sh200 per 10 pieces.
Her inquiries with a sales assistant revealed that the 'charcoal’ on display were called briquettes. These are small compact blocks used as fuel. She later discovered that they are made from recycled sawdust, wood shavings, waste papers, husks from nuts and cereals, grass, leaves and charcoal dust, among other wastes. Thanks to their low levels of carbon emission, they are gaining currency in domestic and industrial use.
“By the time I left the supermarket, I was resolute that I would abandon job hunting and venture into this business. It was a nagging urge and I was already strategising by the time I reached home,” she says. Ms Wanjiru,21, who has trained in information technology, hospitality and printing, had failed to get a meaningful job for four years. The highest pay she had ever earned was a paltry Sh8,000 a month in a medium-sized hotel in Nairobi. This was far from meeting her needs.
Having hit some sort of Eureka moment in the supermarket, she retreated into her Kambi village in Murang’a County and commenced research on how to actualise her newfound idea. “In my research, I found contacts of a community-based organisation in Kiambu that was training self-help groups about briquettes. It was charging Sh5,000 per 12-member group. I was not in a group and I opted to train as an individual and pay the same amount,” she says. The one-day training was enough to set her going after mobilising a Sh200,000 capital. She established Mwashime Creative Enterprise. “I started with a sack of char that I collected from a charcoal selling site in Kabati town. I had bought a Sh145 000 kiln to burn and mould the briquettes,” she says, adding that her neighbours were her first customers.
“It was my breakthrough,” Ms Wanjiru says. She went on to market her products in nearby hotels and by early this year, she had carved out a niche in the market.
“Sale of my products was helped by the fact that charcoal burning has been banned in forests. Also, the cost of briquettes is half that of charcoal,” she says.
The entrepreneur notes that she is currently making Sh50,000 net profit a month., but she is betting on aggressive marketing to grow her business. She also plans to start offering training on briquette making. She has great dreams for the venture. “By 2025, I will be running a mid-sized cottage industry with a projected daily turnover of a million shillings and a monthly net profit of Sh10 million,” she says. To realise that ambition, the mother of two is looking for Sh8 million to establish a small plant. "I will get it," she says of the cash she is hunting for.