ERIC KINOTI :The Astute Entrepreneur  

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Eric Kinoti is a young entrepreneur bent on changing the face of Africa. At only 30 years of age, he has already received premier accolades and awards and set tongues in the business world wagging. A former hotel cashier who has made it big, Eric stands as proof that any one, through tenacity and diligence, can weather odds to accomplish incredible exploits. He also demonstrates why small establishments should never be used as a justification for failing to realise one’s achievement. He chats with ESTHER AKELLO on family, his path to success, and mentoring young people to achieve their dreams.

When I landed my interview with Eric Kinoti, the current darling of the entrepreneurship world, the pressure was on. However, I soon realised it was his itinerary that should have intimidated me more. Our interview seems like a scene out of a multitasking public service announcement as he picks calls and answers my questions in between, all the while scheduling meetings without skipping a beat. After going through this for a while, we both realise we will not achieve any results and agree to reschedule the interview for later on in the day. Hectic, is the word that immediately comes to mind.

In a typical day, the 2014 Forbes magazine Top 30 under 30 most promising entrepreneur in Africa nominee sits through about eight serious meetings. His day begins at 3.30 a.m. with prayers and going through e-mails, proposals and implementation strategies. Little wonder then that he emerged from the shadows in 2012 to garner not one, but two nominations in the coveted Nation Media Group’s Business Daily newspaper Top 40 under 40 list of promising entrepreneurs in the country.

“I learnt of the Business Daily Top 40 under 40 nominations while reading the newspaper. I appreciated the acknowledgement, but when Forbes magazine came calling last year, it hit me hard that people really knew who Eric Kinoti is,” says Kinoti.

He was also awarded the OLX Social Media Awards Kenya Most Influential SME Personality 2014.

Kinoti is the brain behind Shade Systems East Africa, Bagbase Kenya, Alma Tents Ltd and Safi Sana Home Services business conglomerate. He credits his success at entrepreneurship to his upbringing. It was the only life he knew and he attributes the entrepreneur bug that bit him to his father.

“My parents had a shop in Mombasa. They never believed in employment. When I was around the age of 10, I started working with my dad in his shop. I would count the money and arrange them in stacks in the various denominations. It was he who instilled in me the desire to be independent,” recounts Kinoti.

He admits that once the bug bit him, he never looked back. He started small businesses to raise cash while in school, selling among other things, salt to his schoolmates.

“High school porridge can be bland. We tolerated it by flavouring it with salt. I saw an opportunity, grabbed it and started selling salt to my classmates by the spoonful. After my O levels, I started delivering bread to my father’s clients and would earn a shilling for every loaf I sold,” says Kinoti.

By the time Eric was starting his business, his work portfolio included working as a wholesale egg seller, porter, hotel housekeeper and hotel cashier. The first signs of a breakthrough in his various efforts came in 2009 while working as a cashier at a local hotel.

“I was working as a wholesale egg seller by day delivering to several institutions such as schools, and a hotel cashier by night. Then a client approached me asking for a delivery. This time not for eggs but tents,” says Kinoti. Kinoti did what very few would think of: delivered on his promise and went ahead to start a multi-million company, Shade Systems East Africa. The company would soon grow into a premier manufacturer of tents, tarpaulins and car park shades, among other protective solutions.

But does that mean there haven’t been times when the business failed to bring in anticipated returns? Kinoti, who describes himself as easy going, God-fearing and hardworking, admits that it was his faith in God and persistence that saw the company weather the storms.

“There have definitely been some down times. We competed for a tender in 2013 and one of the conditions was that we would not get an advance deposit to complete the project. We ended up digging deeper into our pockets by about six million shillings,” says Kinoti.

Shade Systems however would soon get back to its feet to birth his other companies.

“I was a bachelor when I started Shade Systems and did not really look forward to going to my house. I would hire a housekeeper to deal with the chores. After observing my situation, I thought of professionalising the services for people with the same need and opened Safi Sana Home Services,” quips Kinoti.

Bagbase Kenya, which deals with customised canvas bags and related items such as wallets, and Alma Tents Ltd, which hires events related materials such as chairs and décor, followed successively. Alma Tents Ltd is named after his two- year-old daughter, Alma Tamara.

Kinoti admits that while he has been a force to reckon with in the business world, it was not until late last year that he probably became a big deal following his recognition by Forbes magazine. He further catapulted himself into a household name by announcing that he was launching a Kenyan Shark Tank, a programme mirrored around the international hit franchise show Shark Tank that sees little known and struggling entrepreneurs pitch to noted investors with the hope of winning them over as investors. This was inspired by his other passion, mentorship.

“With the recognition from Forbes magazine, I realised that my platforms had shifted and while I had been doing mentorship on a small scale through my social media pages, I decided it was time to upgrade it,” explains Kinoti.

The programme’s pilot episode was shot on December 22, 2014 during the first ever Eric Kinoti Entrepreneur’s Boot Camp held at the Maasai Mara. The event saw 350 people sign up and drew speakers from a slew of successful young entrepreneurs from all over Africa.

Eric, who holds mentorship close to his heart, says his dream would be to open a talent academy in the country.

“I never had a mentor when I started out and it cost me in terms of some of the decisions I made. I want to help other entepreneurs escape the pitfalls that I underwent when I was starting out,” says Kinoti in retrospect.His situation has since changed and credits his business partner as his mentor and father figure. He also cites Royal Media Services owner S.K. Macharia as his inspiration.

“He is among a class of entrepreneurs that have paid a huge price to reach where they are today. He has a rich history,” says Kinoti.

Among those lucky enough to call Kinoti their mentor, is his personal assistant, 24-year-old Martin Mutwiri who opened his own digital company, SEN Pr, seven months ago after Kinoti, who noted his social media skills, advised him to do so and even gave him money to register the company while helping him to source for clients.

“He is more than a boss to me. He is a friend and a brother,” adds Mutwiri.

Kinoti, an ardent reader and traveler, admits that while he does handle ridiculous sums of money, he is yet to become a millionaire and is content with his current life. This is not to say there is less pressure to perform. On the contrary, more so following Alma’s birth. Heightened by his desire to provide the best for his daughter, he agrees that his priorities and his drive have changed.

“I find myself being more time conscious. I try not to work past official office hours. Although Alma is a bit young right now, I hope to do a good job of instilling an appreciation for hard work and independence in her. I do not intend to spoon-feed her,” adds Kinoti.

For now, even as he strategises on expanding his brand to a Pan- African scale, he hopes to move more ‘talkpreneurs’ into entepreneurs.

“One of my favourite authors Shiv Khera in his book, You Can Win, says there is a price to pay for everything. A lot of people are not ready to take the pressure or risks it takes to become successful entrepreneurs and that is why they will never achieve their dreams,” concludes the inspiring entrepreneur.

Published in February 2015