Cosmas Ochieng is trailblazing the renewable energy market in Kenya with novel ideas that are padding communities’ pockets as well as his own.
Ochieng, 28, is the cofounder of Eco Fuels Kenya, a startup that produces renewable energy and agricultural products from indigenous croton nuts, the product of croton trees found expansively across East Africa.
His work has won him praise worldwide. U.S. magazine Forbes named him one of Africa’s top entrepreneurs under 30. In 2012, Eco Fuels Kenya won GrowthHub’s Village Capital/GrowthAfrica Program and a U.S.$50,000 investment.
But Ochieng’s life hasn’t always been a whirl of award galas and over-size checks. In fact, his rise to founder is the stuff movies are made of. Ochieng grew up in a polygamous household in rural Homa Bay town in western Kenya. He set foot in Nairobi for the first time after high school and was the first one in his entire clan to get not just a university education, but a high school diploma.
He’s always had an entrepreneurial bent and spent school holidays fixing “black mamba” bicycles under a tree at markets. Ochieng graduated from Technical University in Nairobi and interned in two different food processing industries, where he discovered his niche in the production of consumable oils.
In 2009, he found himself in Naro Moru, a small town in central Kenya, working for Help Self Help Centre (HSHC), a nonprofit that produces biodiesel from croton nuts. Their model was simple: educate the community on the use of the nuts and the need to preserve croton trees, then pay those same community members to supply the nuts. It was a win-win situation: communities profited, and the company produced renewable energy.
In 2012, Ochieng felt it was time to set up his own business, Eco Fuels Kenya. Three years on, the startup not only produces biofuels, but also fertilizer that revitalizes the soil, briquettes (an alternate fuel source from croton nut husks), and poultry feed.
Ochieng shared the secret to his success and his goal for fulfillment with AkilahNet’s Rose Odengo. Excerpts follow.
Did you ever imagine yourself as an entrepreneur?
No. I always imagined myself working under someone, operating other people’s plans. It has never gone to my head that I am a director somewhere — which is good, because if it gets to your head, you become corruptible. I know we have a lot of work ahead of us.
What’s the secret to kicking off an agribusiness enterprise?
Start with what you can, no matter the level. I started by crushing croton nuts by hand, and it would take the whole day to crush a bag. It begins with what is in your mind, what is your vision, your aspiration.
There is a lot of money you cannot access when doing something for the first time. Begin with where you are. Talk to people who have done these things. Entrepreneurs are not mean with information, especially Kenyans; reach out to the best people, so you have role models also.
Why was it essential for you to involve the community in your business model?
The croton tree exists in the community; it is a community resource. They are entitled to benefit from the resources in their environment. This seed is a business; collecting croton seeds is a business. I also believe that solving people’s problems is solving God’s problems.
You have been encouraging communities living near croton trees to supply you with the tree nuts as a business. What was the hardest resistance you have faced thus far?
Some people are busy doing nothing. And they are too busy to do anything. Within two hours, you can collect up to 50 kilograms, and that is already 500 shillings earned. You have your money to solve your small needs.
In 2013, I went to Dol Dol, a nomadic community that simply herds and doesn’t have any solid economic activity. When I informed them of the goldmine they had in their forest, they thought I was conning them. Some asked me what right I had to tell them about this. And when I spent three hours in their forest picking up seeds and informing them that I would pay them 10 shillings per kilogram they thought I was being spiteful to them.
Some young men asked me, “How long will it take to pick a kilo of the seeds?” I managed to convince some 20 women to join me in the forest to pick the croton seeds off the ground for three hours. When the young men saw me pay the ladies in cash for the seeds they had picked with me, they were astounded.
Ever since, I get a minimum of 20 tons of croton seeds during peak season from that area weekly. That community’s life has changed. We even have an agreement: I send our trucks to collect the seeds, and the community sends their shopping lists and money to have food and toiletries bought in Nanyuki and delivered to them. They are collecting money from the ground, quite literally.
How many people have you employed?
We have 10 -15 casual employees and eight permanent employees. At the grassroots, the numbers are in the hundreds.
How do you select the communities you work in?
I use a map of the forests in Kenya. I visit the place and seek linkages to groups and the area administration, like chiefs and agricultural extension officers. Initially, I used to go to the market and talk to three to five people about a potentially good business. I would tell them that I have seen a lot of croton trees in their area and explain that this is money.
Why do you focus so much of your efforts on renewable energy? How do you convince others to adopt renewable practices?
If you have what you produce in your country through renewable energy, it is safe for the environment. It helps sustain the natural resources.
To have more trees, you need to talk to a layman about their livelihood; they need food. Because food comes first, I believe in income-motivated conservation. You need to look at “What can solve ourproblem?” not “What can solve my problem?”
I produce biofuel, which almost replaced kerosene in this area. If I produce something that replaces diesel, I am only targeting motorists. But if I create something that replaces kerosene, I am targeting everyone in the village.
How did it feel being recognized by Forbes?
It was a shock! I had not even followed much of Forbes. I got a phone call from a man speaking in Luo from America telling me that he had read about me in Forbes magazine. My directors in America also started calling with congratulatory messages. It was when I got a call from Forbes to go to Nairobi for a function that I realized this was serious. I thought it was an exaggeration because I don’t think I have done much.
Was there a direct impact of that recognition, by Forbes, on your business?
Yes, there were a lot of invitations. We were called for talks, and it also led to funding from Africa Green Energy, Village Capital, Growth Hub, and GVEP (Global Village Energy Partnership).
What’s the one thing that once you accomplish, you will feel fulfilled?
If 50% of the Kenyan population where the croton trees are take up croton seed collection as a business, get a steady market for their seeds, and sustain themselves from seed sales, that will be it. Because not only does Eco Fuels Kenya expand, communities will thrive from the croton trees, which they too will preserve.
First appeared here