Green pencils firm making a mark in stationery market

Mr Ivan Ochieng, one of the co-founders of Green Pencils. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The duo first invested in charcoal briquettes made from sawdust and paper but the project flopped because the briquettes burnt as expected but produced a lot of smoke.

Like any typical pencil, the one Antony Kirori is holding is light, contains a graphite core and it can also be sharpened with the usual sharpener that is a permanent fixture in primary schools.

But one thing starkly differentiates this pencil from other brands — recycled newspapers instead of the usual wood provide the casing for the black graphite stick.

This unique pencil is the brainchild of Mr Kirori, an engineer by training, and his business partner Ivan Ochieng, who has studied finance and law. Both are passionate about saving the environment.

“We only buy old newspapers from registered groups of youth, women and people living with disability in order to create jobs in the community.”

They two met through a friend with whom they were both doing business at the time. Mr Kirori, having previously worked in the waste disposal business, wanted to come up with useful by-products from the discarded materials.

The duo first invested in charcoal briquettes made from sawdust and paper but the project flopped because the briquettes burnt as expected but produced a lot of smoke.

With more research as well as trial and error, they settled on the green pencil for its eco-friendly qualities as well as the potential to create employment.

They set up Green Pencils in June 2012. The company whose factory is located in Juja, Nairobi can manufacture up to 100,000 pencils per month.

Mr Ochieng said they use two kilogrammes of old newspapers to make a dozen pencils.

“The process of making pencils from newspaper essentially involves us reversing the process that was used to make paper soft,” he said, adding that their manufacturing process is a closely guarded secret.

“We take the newspapers through a total of 18 different processes that hardens it well enough to hold the graphite stick, get sharpened and make it water resistant.”

The product can be generic (showing the original newspaper) or branded and used as marketing tools ideal for corporate sales promotions, brand campaigns or as gifts.

They sell the pencils mainly to primary schools, supermarkets, blue chip companies (for corporate social responsibility and marketing activities) retail and specialty outlets, and individuals.

The pencils sell for between Sh20 and Sh45. Customers who order in bulk pay less due to the benefits of economies of scale. The pencils are also manufactured in two different sizes — half and full ones. The latter is referred to as a “Fundi Pencil”.

“The country imports over 100 million pencils every year but over 60 per cent of these are counterfeits or are of very low quality ” said Mr Ochieng.

“We have the capacity to produce 100,000 pencils a month. We, however, do not sell this much since demand is mainly influenced by the school calendar.”

Green Pencils is not all about making money but environmental conservation, according to the two entrepreneurs. Mr Kirori says their product is helping fight deforestation but regrets that their efforts have not earned them any incentives like tax breaks to promote green enterprises.

“Climate change is a reality that Kenyans and organisations are now waking up to,” he said.

“Going green is not an option any more and the business-as-usual corporate models are changing to more sustainable models that are friendly to and respect the natural environment.”

Green Pencils is competing with mainly wooden premium international brands from Europe and from India.

However, the duo hopes that their consistent quality, availability and affordability will soon put them on an equal footing with the foreign brands.

High costs of advertising, however, stops them from marketing their products in the print and electronic media. But they get orders through their website and social media pages, complementing the sales made through retail chains like Uchumi Supermarkets, Banana Box and Spinners Web.

Green Pencils, however, says that the Kenya Bureau of Standards certification and Brand Kenya board’s “Touch of Kenya” product differentiation mark has helped them considerably.

“We are trying to change the perception that imported pencils are superior to locally manufactured ones,” said Mr Ochieng.

“The environmentally friendly pencil is still a relatively new product. School stationery suppliers only want to deal with what is already known in the market but we hope they will soon become more receptive.”

Mr Ochieng and Mr Kirori are finalists of the 2015 Green Pioneer Accelerator Program which is co-sponsored by Growth Africa and Venture Capital, among others.

It is a five-month rigorous programme that assists companies that are working towards climate change to get their financials and pitches in shape, and prepares them for fundraising conversations with investors. 

Upon graduating from the programme, Green Pencils hope to receive backing from angel investors who could inject more funds into the company to help it grow locally and even in the region.

“We have already diversified into manufacturing pens and road studs. We shall soon begin manufacturing coloured pencils, eye pencils and road signs,” said Mr Ochieng.

The co-founders say they owe their success to believing in their product but also adjusting or refining it to suit the customer’s needs without compromising quality.

Certification, a well-trained and motivated work force, and building relationships with clients are other key aspects that entrepreneurs need to be successful, they say.

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