Biogas provider gets a lift from business mentorship
Nothing had prepared him for what would come out of the business plan writing competition. After all the entries in the Enablis Business Launch Pad business idea competition had been evaluated, Samson Gichia emerged winner in the Green and Ecological solutions category.
This award, recognising the huge potential in his biogas project of providing clean and renewable energy, was sponsored by Inoorero University. This gave him the motivation he needed to grow his business in provision of energy from his biogas business at his Ruiru-based premises.
And when the business started gaining speed, Gichia found himself back to Inoorero University for mentorship at the Regional Centre for Enterprise Development (RCED), which builds capacity for startups and existing businesses through professional business mentoring.“The cost of energy in Kenya is always going up and thus people are seeking alternative and affordable sources of power,” says Gichia, the Managing Director of Cobitech Biogas Ltd, which he started in November 2010 to provide affordable and eco-friendly energy solutions.
The company specialises in the construction of fixed dome biogas systems for domestic household clients with livestock waste as feedstock and institutions like schools and water and sewerage companies, where human bio-waste is utilised as feedstock for biogas generation.
But before long, there was too much to do with his limited knowledge base and capacity in this field. “I was getting overwhelmed as I was doing everything as I sought to satisfy clients’ needs,” he said. “It became so difficult to an extent that the business was just mark-timing.”
Gichia was lucky to be picked as a business mentee under RCED’s business mentorship programme, which marked a turning point for the businesses. Here, he received lessons from his mentor, Pius Kamau Ng’ang’a, who guided him on setting up management structures, book-keeping and most importantly, market specialisation encouraging him to focus on three key business lines: domestic, institutional and industrial energy services.
Through business mentorship, entrepreneurs get insights about the viability of their businesses and learn how to remain focused on their core activities without losing grip of management and operational activities as well as their personal growth.
“Mentorship helped me to deal with challenges such as managing a very general and un-segmented business,” he said at his office in Ruiru. With the help of a mentor, who is often an experienced and knowledgeable person, an entrepreneur is able to find his/her footing and take huge strides in building the enterprise through improved management, strategy planning and execution, as well as marketing and human resource management.
Gichia enrolled in the RCED business mentorship programme in June 2011. He is still under Ng’ang’a’s tutelage until he is strong enough to stand on his own. “Before mentorship, everything in the business was mixed up but after the mentorship, operations are more streamlined,” said Mr Gichia. “No entrepreneur is perfect and at some point one goes wrong in business. After few months of mentorship, I improved my marketing and networking skills.”
Gichia says mentorship has helped him to develop an effective marketing strategy for his business, mainly through follow-ups on existing customers who recommend the company and its services to potential customers through word-of-mouth, thus cutting his marketing budget. He says he has learnt that to succeed, entrepreneurs need business mentorship for continuous guidance and capacity building.
Daniel Huba, the Coordinator of RCED, says business mentorship unlocks an entrepreneur’s potential and been credited with the success of many entrepreneurs. Mr Huba says for mentorship to be effective, the mentor and mentee agree on specific goals and targets.“They should take time to learn and understand each other, and clearly establish their roles to nurture commitment,” he says. “Cobitech’s success is a result of an excellent relationship between Samson and Pius and that’s how it works with most of our mentees in the programme. The mentor views his or her role as an adviser, encourager, analyser and never a decision marker.”
Gichia targets peri-urban regions and rural areas where electricity supply is limited and cooking gas unaffordable to many. One plant costs up to Sh80,000, a pricey amount, so Cobitech allows its clients to pay in installments. “In the course of the year, the company will introduce biogas technology for cooking and lighting in schools,” he says.
The 35-year-old economics and sociology graduate from the University of Nairobi says he has in the past been invited to Netherlands and South Africa to marketing forums. The company has also participated in various competitions such as the Enablis Chase Bank Business Launch-pad Competition, Start-up Open Business Plan Competition, Climate Technology Initiative – Private Financing Advisory Network (CTI-PFAN) Clean Energy business plan competition and Scholarship certificate programme in management and innovation of Agri-business entrepreneurs.
Cobitech has two employees and six contract workers. Gichia worked at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) as a research assistant between 2000 and 2007. He left and established a family maize milling business, which he still runs. He says he raised capital for his business through personal savings.
The company has installed biogas systems for many clients including Naivasha Water and Sewerage Company, Wildfire flower farms in Naivasha and Gachoire Girls High School. He dreams of being the leading technology provider of biogas solutions for clean energy in the region. “If you have a business idea but do not know how to take it to the next level or you are already in business but experiencing difficulties,” he says, “professional business mentorship is definitely the best way to go.”