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Profiles

‘How We Pulled It Off’

Samir Ibrahim
Samir Ibrahim, CEO and co-founder Sunculture. PHOTO | COURTESY 

You could trace Samir Ibrahim’s family history by the coordinates tattooed under his arm; 0609 16.31 S, 3911 34.08 E. That’s where his great-great-great grandfather landed at the tip of the port in Zanzibar in 1850 after following the trade winds from North-West India.

Eight years ago, after graduating from New York University’s Stern School of Business, and quitting his job at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Samir ended up in Kenya where, together with a partner, cofounded SunCulture.

Their company does solar irrigation in Africa.

Samir with his lightning (and enlightening) intelligence is a joyous conversationalist, as JACKSON BIKO found out when they met in their offices in Lavington.

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What has to happen for a guy like you — Indian, Canadian, American — to say, 'I’m going back to Africa to start a solar business and work with farmers?

There was no aha! moment. That’s for sure. When you study finance, they teach you to make plans. So I had this 10-year plan to end up here because I was interested in a private sector growing economic development.

In business school, I was in a programme which allowed me to study abroad a lot.

So I did semesters in Shanghai, India, Argentina and Peru and it exposed me to the private sector solving big problems. All through my life, I was grappling with how to help people solve problems.

One of the best things my parents did for us was that at 16 years, on our birthdays, they would give us a plane ticket and say, ‘go learn about the world.’ That gave us courage.

What were your expectations coming here to set up a business?

That it would be easy! (Laughs) I didn’t fully understand the challenges associated with building something on a different culture. I grew up in the US where I watched people starting businesses in months and I didn’t realise it was not applicable in other markets.

We were naive and overly confident, which is good. We were really confident despite a whole meadow of challenges that we didn’t see at the beginning. I think if we saw them {challenges} before, it might have been very difficult to jump ship.

I’m always curious as to how much of what you learn in business school you actually use in starting and running a business. Did you find what you learnt in business school useful?

That’s a good question. The short answer is; some of it was useful, most of it was not. But it gave me a good understanding of the things that I need to know.

It helped me to know the unknowns and where to dig in to find answers be it in finance, marketing or operations.

You’ve been running this business for seven years, what is your greatest insecurity? I suppose you have crossed that point of thinking that this might not work.

You are right. (Long pause) My biggest insecurity is not an intellectual one, it’s more a question of; am I doing enough? Which is funny because I see what we’ve built here, I look at our numbers but still I question that.

I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in too much competition at school …(Pause) There is some sort of surface insecurity.

How have you had to change as a person to do business and what have you learnt about yourself?

When you start a business you’ve never done before, in a sector that you didn’t know before, in a country, continent you have never been before, employing hundreds of people, it really puts a mirror in front of you.

No one is telling you what to do and you’re making decisions for many people, decisions that have not been made before.

We’ve been the first in a lot of things. It has helped me cut through rubbish faster because my decisions impact many people. (Pause) I’ve learnt what I’m good at and what I’m not.

That what a business needs at stage one is different from what it needs at stage 10. And that the role of a CEO changes over time and what’s required from different people.

Initially, I thought that I had to be excellent in everything but I realise that I don’t. I have to make sure that I’m doing what I’m good at and what I cannot let people around me handle. I have learnt about being human.

Entrepreneurship is over romanticised in the media: What do you need to start a business? Routines of successful leaders. How little to sleep in the beginning …

I grew up thinking it was cool to not sleep very much because I saw entrepreneurs talk about how little they slept. I realise it’s garbage. You are on your own journey, every company is different, every sector is different, every team is different.

How much of what you’re doing is attached to your purpose in life?

Have you watched those “Crazy” Nike ads? I find that I want to become an expert in learning about myself, and I feel that’s where my purpose is. It’s about really knowing who I am and then share it with the rest of the world.

Purpose for me is about value and impact. I ask myself, ‘how do I solve massive problems for a lot of people and at what depth?’ It’s called the cube of value.

My purpose right now is to create structures where people can be their best selves, through businesses and allow people that we work with to live to their highest potential.

What does that tattoo on your underarm say?

This is my mom’s name — Tazim — but if you read it in the other way it’s my dad’s name — Alkrim. The tattoo on my shoulder is an Arabic prayer/ verse: “He will be your helper in all calamities.”

I got it translated into Roman letters. When she passed away, I got it sort of as the angel on my shoulder.

Who is the child in you? And what does he do or like doing?

There is an author named Mark Manson, who wrote; “Remember back when you were a kid? You would just do things. You never thought to yourself, “What are the relative merits of learning baseball versus football?

You just ran around the playground and played baseball and football. You built sand castles and played tag, asked silly questions, looked for bugs, dug up grass and pretended you were a sewer monster.

Nobody told you to do it, you just did it. You were led merely by your curiosity and excitement. And the beautiful thing was, if you hated baseball, you just stopped playing it. There was no guilt involved.

There was no arguing or debate. You either liked it or you didn’t. There was no second-level analysis of, ‘Well, is looking for bugs really what I should be doing with my time as a child?

Nobody else wants to look for bugs, does that mean there’s something wrong with me? How will looking for bugs affect my future prospects?’

If you liked something, you just did it.” That’s the child in me I’m trying to explore.

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