By Catherine Kuria
Have you ever tried looking at things from an ant’s perspective? Have you ever tried to view the world as if you were an ant? One day, while sitting on a bench in a park, I saw an ant that tried lifting a crumb that looked thrice its size. It’s amazing how the ant took on the task, no matter how big and intimidating it might have been.
That observation got me thinking; if I were an ant, would I have lifted the crumb or I would have just backed away and given all sorts of excuses? However, one thing became clear to me in the process; there are a lot of things that we can and should emulate from ants. One of them is that ants are very industrious.
The positive character traits of ants may have informed the decision taken by three young entrepreneurs to start a business aptly named: Ants of Africa. Beautiful, jolly, charming, warm and tough are some epithets that crossed my mind when I first met the trio. Ants of Africa is a startup company that has developed and patented a revolutionary product that replaces the use of steel wool when cleaning pots and pans, washing detergent and petroleum jelly with Shea butter.
It was started in the year 2011 by Ms. Margaret Saru Kalama, Ms. Mary Lwawasi Kalama and Mr. Mtawali Mweni. Their vision was to venture into the cleaning industry, but their business never got to see the light of day because they had full time jobs (then bankers) that they put more effort into and lost focus with scaling their business. Fast forward to 2016, the idea of manufacturing soot remover was born and since they registered their company, things fell into place quickly.
Inspiration behind Ants of Africa
“The idea came to us in December 2016 in Taita Taveta County where during the festive season, there is a lot of cooking and merry making. Things are usually not so merry for the women though – they normally use firewood to cook most meals and usually take a lot of time to wash their soot stained sufurias with sand and water,” says a vibrant Mary.
They came up with the idea to formulate a paste solution to remove the carbon soot with ease. Their mission was to look for formulators locally who understood their idea clearly and develop the product for them. It took them many months, but in May 2017, they were lucky enough since they came up with the following products: masizi (Soot remover) which is their flagship brand, ruby petroleum jelly (with three variants) and spring (manufacturing hand washing powder).
The identical sisters say they look forward to having a range of other products like bar soap and bathing soap to grow their portfolio.
Their decision to engage in manufacturing was inspired by the need to solve one domestic challenge; remove carbon soot stain on stainless surfaces. They did their own feasibility study and found that the market was only offering the conventional way of washing cooking pots which is by using steel wool or stainless scouring pad.
“There is no other product in the market that effectively removes soot with a sponge or scouring pad. The reason to enter into manufacturing came naturally as our product is unique, solves a problem and is scalable as a business,” chips in Margaret. The incentives given to local manufacturers in terms of finance, space and marketing of their products by the government also informed their decision of venturing into manufacturing.
Their model currently is business-to-business. This means that they target both wholesalers and retailers who buy their products in bulk, before selling them to individual customers. The fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs) market has traditionally been associated with many barriers to entry and it has therefore been dominated by big manufacturing companies with financial muscles. Nevertheless, times are changing and many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are making forays into the market. E-commerce is also becoming common in a market associated with selling and distributing products physically.
“We do not see this as a threat to the conventional retail focused FMCG business. The e-commerce route to market offers a world of opportunity for the established FMCG players. We know it can be hard when you are in an established category to look outwards. Sometimes, the struggle is to merely see the limitless possibilities,” says Mtawali.
Business performance and monetary injections
Their products have received good reviews in the market. A feature they did on a local television station enhanced the visibility of their brand. Sales increased due to the feature and they are currently competing favourably in the market with other players. The future of their business is looking very bright since they understand the dynamics of the industry and are able to keep up with the market trends.
Their seed capital was Kshs. 500, 000 and it catered for formulas, training, patents fees, raw materials as well as other regulatory fees.
Why venture into fast moving consumer goods?
Ants of Africa made a decision to venture into manufacturing fast moving consumer goods because of the need to solve a domestic need – the removal of carbon soot in cooking utensils that will ease the burden of cleaning cooking utensils.
Target market and growth plan
The total population of women in Kenya was reported at 50.3 % in 2016 according to the World Bank collection of development indicators, compiled from officially recognized sources. Their target market is 2% of this number.
They are currently a cottage industry with operations in their house which makes production slow because they are yet to mechanize their processes. They have applied for facilitation from a financial institution, help from friends, family and their personal savings in order to realize their goal . Their growth plan is categorized into three parts:
Stage 1 (January 2018- December 2018)
Locate and lease suitable manufacturing facility
Mechanize their processes and establish proper working systems
Establish a sales team and distribution network
Establish a good working environment with suppliers and distributors
Use above and below the line media of advertising
Successfully penetrate the target market
Secure contracts to achieve projected sales goals
Stage 2 (January 2019- December 2020)
Move operations to other parts of the country i.e. Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Naivasha
Establish warehouse facilities in these counties to meet the product demand
Increase the sale staff
Formulate marketing strategies for different markets to keep their product demand on top
Become a profitable company
Stage 3 (January 2021- January 2022)
They plan on moving to Tanzania to set up a factory
Set up a plant
Establish a good distribution network
Establish a solid reputation as an industry leader
They plan on marketing their products to the consumer to establish brand loyalty and set up the supply chain to ensure the product is adequately priced while still generating a commercially viable profit. Additionally, they plan to focus more on cluster – a region that contains more than one viable market. They also plan on hiring competent staff who will buy into the vision of the company and develop the product from the packaging, labels and formulation.
They have successfully managed to get patent registration for Masizi Dishwashing paste. They have been registered by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA). They have been featured on The Entrepreneur- a show that airs on KTN every Thursday. They have also been able to supply their products to various wholesalers and retailers in Nairobi, Voi and neighboring country Tanzania.
According to them, their biggest joy and achievement is being able to formulate a product that is currently not in the market that is unique in its formation and usage.
Their greatest challenge has been lack of adequate capital to fully commence operation in their business plan. In addition, acquisition of monetary support to keep the business afloat has not been a walk in the park. Moreover, lack of mechanism needed in their line of work has also slowed down their rate of production.
However, this trio has the drive and motivation that keep them glued on their only focus; making it big in the industry. They are looking at partnering with any business that is keen on empowering the youth rather than profit making only. They believe in youth empowerment and social change and they strive to realize that change for a better tomorrow.
Advice to young aspiring entrepreneurs
This is their advice to young entrepreneurs in verbatim: “Go for it. Do not look at your pockets. Possibly, you don’t have deep pockets but just start. As long as you are confident, that this is what you are supposed to be doing, do it. So many people will dismiss you in the market place, but don’t be disrupted. Just have a plan, start and success will follow. Do not procrastinate saying that you’ll do it tomorrow, just start. Most importantly, do your research on your specific area of interest. Money should not be a hindrance to starting a business. Things will align themselves if you put God first. Lastly, take criticism positively and learn to soldier on after a fall.”