How a small team of undergrads is changing farmers' lives in Kenya

October 7, 2015
10 min read

An award-winning pianist cum culinary artist teamed up with a basketballer with aspirations of going into rally driving to come up with a formidable Agritech solution that is Illuminum Greenhouse Limited.

They have constructed more than 127 greenhouses and been recognized by New York Forum Africa as one of Africa's most innovative startups for the year 2015.  They have also most recently won the Seedstars Nairobi finals, were finalists in the Israeli Kenya-Agritech Challenge and emerged the 2nd best startup in the world for thier innovation, Smart Mobile Farming during the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya.

Over the years, agriculture has been contributing to about a quater of the Kenya's Gross Domestic Product but this is on the decline. Food aid has become something that most African countries rely on though the continent has the potential to feed itself and eliminate hunger if only more efforts were focused on improving agricultural productivity. Its is innovations like Illuminum Greenhouses that are helping farmers succeed in fixing some of their farming challenges.

Techpoint met them at their new office at mlab where they shared on their journey, challenges faced and plans going into the future.

First of all congratulations on your recent win at Seedstars Nairobi Finals

Thank you

Could you tell us a bit about your educational and professional background

Bett: My name is Brian Bett, co-founder Illuminum Greenhouses Limited. I focus on Finance and Business Development. I am due for graduation  in December with a Bachelors degree in Economics and Statistics from the University of Nairobi. I have also done some accounting and statistical courses at Strathmore university. We found this company in August 2013 due to our love for agriculture and a desire to make money. Basically, we were in campus and I felt the pocket money from my parents wasn't enough. My room-mate then was a guy from Oloitokotok (border of Kenya and Tanzania), and I could overhear him making agribusiness sales over the phone. He was making as much as 75,000 harvesting 10 - 15 crates a day. So we decided to start it off. We hired a piece of land.This is my first job, I have never worked for anyone before.

Taita: I am Taita Ng'etich, co-founder, Head of Operations and Engineering. I am a Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Nairobi, I joined my 5th year in September. The story is basically the same; we went into agriculture because we were raised in homes where our parents practice agriculture. It was an easier way to start a business in farming as we leveraged on their experience. We started in Oloitoktok and we had losses.



What was the inspiration behind starting Illuminum Greenhouses?

BettAfter the losses we made in Oloitoktok, we decided to built our own greenhouse. We went round shopping for greenhouses and they were really expensive - for as much as 350,000KES. Having spent all our savings in Oloitoktok, where would we start? We were just in our second year at university. We looked for designs online, customized to our own taste, looked for craftsmen around home -- Kericho -- and constructed our own greenhouse. We sourced for materials  locally for the structure and we were proud of our work. There was a lot of traction after that, people passing by -- the piece of land was next to the road -- would ask who put up the greenhouse for us. We saw that there was a gap and we sought to fill it.

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We made some money from designing greenhouses but it was not as much as we had expected. We faced challenges with plant care as the person doing it was not that good. We looked around but there was no one. Yes, we have many graduates who did Agriculture but we could  never find them. We saw that we could package this, build a greenhouse, do an open field irrigation system and then help the farmer take care of the produce. That is the most important part, it's an investment. We have to tell somebody how they will make their money. Seeing a client up is a good thing. We have had clients whose greenhouses had collapsed and we built them back up.

How are you able to balance running a company and your studies?

Bett: It's not that hard. It just requires planning myself right. I would have 2 classes in a day so during the free time in between, I would rush to Westlands to look for a greengrocer to buy a farmers produce, the next day talking to a technician. It's just a matter of finding balance. Having everything online in our cloud has also helped us a lot. We didn’t really need to have a lot of paperwork or an office. We met our clients either through emails or over coffee at Java. We didn’t need to be physically present for the company to run.

Taita: We leveraged a lot on technology when running our startup. Every decision making process, every payment process was electronic so I could approve payments, review reports and have meetings from class. We also ran a WhatsApp group with our technicians which was interactive to the point that if a technician goes to a site, the would not need us to be there. He would see, for instance, that weeding needs to be done, take a photo, upload it to the group with caption, ‘client to do weeding and spraying on this’. The whole idea was to minimize any manual work in the company and push all that to technology and focus on delivering quality service, that is the approach we took.

Bett: Initially we could not even  afford an accounting software so we were using Google Sheets. We would create the formula, and have a tab for "event", "petty cash Taita", "petty cash Bett", "stock" etc. It was a good learning curve. The main thing was just keeping it online

How did you find your co-founder? What skills/competencies should one look for in a co-founder?

Bett: We were high school classmates then we went to the same university campus.

Co-founders complement each other. For example, I am keen on detail and he is keen on delivery. He is keen on time, I am keen on consistency. It’s a give and take kind of relationship whereby I would be good at getting a client, get a meeting but I get tired along the way. He doesn't; he is better at the end. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses  then using it to push your brand is important.

Taita: Finding the right co-founder is like with your brother or sister; you don’t shove things to them. It's letting them not always have their way but giving them time to cool down when you don't agree. You don’t always have to agree on everything, you will have those disagreements and it's always good to review them after some time.

What are your thoughts on mixing business and friendship?

Bett: For us it has worked. It always is about  having room to put the company before you. He wants a new device, you believe it won't work but what's the harm in letting him try? It’s a cycle.

Taita: I also think friendship is very important for co-founders because business is about trust. I should be able to trust that you can handle finances, handle a client and I think when you start building from friendship, trust in business comes easy.

How easy was it starting up? How did you get your initial funding?

Bett: It was not that easy because we had to get frameworks on things like how to deal with clients, who picks which email, who deals with a customer, who deals with the suppliers, etc. There was a lot of structuring that had to be done in the beginning -- setting  the standards and maintaining them so that were always giving our best all the time.

Taita: We bootstrapped. We self-raised revenue. We went to Oloitoktok, used all our savings and incurred losses. Our parents played a key role in what I would say was our second round of investment. We went to them and told them what we had done, what we had failed at and why we were moving into greenhouse farming. It was easy to get them on board because we had already proven a concept. They also thought we were being wise by thinking of starting a business early enough before we exited university.

Bett: We went to them with the photos taken before the rains and after the rains: ''I have 45,000kshs and my partner has 45000kshs, we need posts to make the greenhouse''. Mama Taita would tell us she would give us her tree so we pay her later. I told my parents and offered to buy the first round of pesticides. Going to them with something -- a problem we had solved halfway -- made it easier for them to help us complete the other half.



What is your business model for Illiminum Greenhouses?

Bett: We construct affordable greenhouses from both wood and metal. We also do open field irrigation systems linked with sensor technology which enables the farmer to control the watering remotely via text message. We also offer agronomic support where our experts help the farmer with plant care till harvesting. Farmers pay for these services. The smallest green house, which is about 6m X 20m goes for 130,000kshs. The technical support comes separate as there are clients who have their own experts helping them. We charge 30,000kshs for this support for a whole season which is around 8 months long. The sensor kit is 25,000kshs.

What motivates you in life?

Bett: Making an impact in the agricultural world is my greatest motivation because, once you get out of this world everyone has a tag; he was a good writer, he was a good economists. Whatever that tag is for me, I would like to to have the name agriculture somewhere.

Taita: I don’t know what motivates me but what gives me the drive to do what I do everyday is just seeing how we are changing lives of ordinary Kenyan farmers. To me this is really transformational. We go to a farmer who is growing maize and waiting for the rains, he buys the drip irrigation kit. On coming back 6 months later, he has cabbages, spinach, cucumber and tomatoes. He is now able to take his children to school, his house, even if a mud one, is newly painted with mud , we can see he is really happy and excited about his crops. We feel like we haven't done enough though. There is much more to be done. Agriculture is one of the most important sectors but the least developed. We feel like it's in our ability to take it to the next level.



Are smart technologies such as yours being adopted as fast as they could be by farmers?

Bett: The younger farmers are receptive. When they hear you can text your greenhouse they are wowed  but their drive doesn’t last for long. The older farmers will take a longer time; we give them trials and demonstrations to show them the benefits. We are hoping with time they will get to appreciate it.

What challenges have you faced running Illuminum Greenhouses and how did you overcome them?

Taita: Our main challenge has been lack of skilled labour. During our first pilot period, we hired substandard people simply because we wanted to be really cheap so that we could get more customers. It cost us a lot as we had to go back to do some of the structures we had done. We compromised on quality so that we could be affordable in price.

Hardware development is also really expensive in Kenya and to get someone skilled at it is even harder. We went into some offices and the quotes we would get were nothing near our total revenue for a whole year. We are young guys and the people running those companies would also be young. People want to make it to the top fast, we would tell try negotiating with them to bring down their costs as they would make more money from repairs and maintenance as long we have the numbers. But people want to make it one time.

During the first year, we worked with local friends in Kenya but the product we got was not as good as we wanted, it was not market viable sowe are now taking it to India. We will have it back by the end of this month and looks like it going to be positive. They were so excited in India as they have done it again and again plus they are also affordable. I think we will have a different version from what we had before.

What crops do most people grow in your greenhouses?

Bett: People grow high value crops like tomatoes, capsicum (red and yellow), cucumber, strawberries. For the open field irrigation people grow French beans, onions and its really picking up as the export industry is getting into drip line technology because the value of the crop is better.

Organic agriculture or biotech, what is the way to go? Why?

Taita: Organic. I think people are starting to develop a lot of complications in terms of mineral content, there is  a rapid increase in cancer triggering minerals and also in terms of the environment. Fertilizers deplete the environment, not sustain it. So I would say organic is the way going forward. It's something we haven’t started yet but we are trying to, educating our farmers on using organic fertilizers

What plans do you have for Illuminum Greenhouses going forward in the next 2-3 years?

Taita: Our number one thing for next year is the mass launching of our sensor device. We are looking to enter the market on 1st, January 2016. We are also going to start a very huge round of investment; our Series A of 200,000 USD and I think that is where Seedstars comes in since the Global finals will be in February 2016. That is for the first year. For the next 2-3 years, the plan is to move into export because we would have closed farmers with the system. We want to guarantee these farmers a market, we want to handle the entire value chain from marketing and eliminate the broker. Brokers make money and farmers are still languishing.

What are the most important lessons you have learnt in your entrepreneurship journey?

Bett: Family always has your back

Taita: Embrace failure. It always happens as all startups start with a dive. What is important and what defines every other entrepreneur is how you handle that failure. Embrace that failure until it becomes a success.

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