Irene Wanjiku the roofing expert.



Irene Wanjiku

Five years ago Irene Wanjiku quit her job at a construction firm to start her own business.

Six years earlier, she had joined the company as a receptionist. As she worked her way up in the company, she noticed that though construction in Kenya was changing, there remained only two main options for roofing: clay tiles or metal sheets.

So, after meeting representatives from global roofing and waterproofing materials manufacturer IKO at an exhibition in Nairobi, Wanjiku convinced them to give her distribution rights for East Africa – despite having no previous experience in distribution.

Armed with this agreement and US$21,000, Wanjiku started Rexe Roofing Products.

Earning trust

Wanjiku began by visiting construction sites in the mornings with brochures and samples of roofing shingles. In the evenings she would send off emails to developers, architects and contractors.

“Everywhere I went the first question I was asked was, ‘Where else have you done this?’ I did not have enough capital to bring in the first shipment and people were scared because I was asking them to give me money upfront. I would ask someone to give me $8,000 and they would look at me bewildered,” Wanjiku remembers.

Lastly, there is a rating system where clients can review each tutor’s performance.

“This is then shown on the tutors’ profiles so intending clients looking to hire a tutor can see what previous clients have said about the tutor’s performance and conduct. It gives them some level of confidence to trust and deal with that particular tutor,” notes Benson.

The platform also allows for verified tutors to be paid upfront for their services to ensure it attracts only committed clients. Tuteria takes a 15-30% commission of each paid lesson.

Out of about 16,000 tutor applicants nationwide around 2,500 have passed Tuteria’s competency assessments so far.

Growing pains

The company’s main challenge at the moment is finding affordable human resources.

“Most of those who have the skill set we need are really expensive; the amount they want to be paid per month is quite outrageous. And those who are available to work don’t necessarily have the skills,” explains Benson.

“We have remained a team of three in the company for a long time because even though we have employed people at some point, we had to let them go because it wasn’t really working out. So it has been a challenge and we are still working to see how we can get people who have at least some of a skill set that we need.”

According to Benson, one of the biggest lessons he has learnt in launching a startup is to invest in finding out what the customer really wants as soon as possible.

“It saves the entrepreneur a lot of headache and wasted time. As quickly as possible, try and build a [prototype] of your product and quickly test it in the market to get feedback from users – they will tell you what they want and what they do not want. That’s one thing that I wish we knew at the onset.”

He also advises other aspiring entrepreneurs to manage cash flow carefully, look for a co-founder with complementary skills, and make sure they are pursuing entrepreneurship for the right reasons.

“You have to find that inner drive that keeps you going continuously because there are going to be a lot of challenges that make you want to run back to a regular job.”

“To any entrepreneur: if you want to do it, do it now. If you don’t, you’re going to regret it.” – Catherine Cook, co-founder of MyYearbook.

This article was adapted from How We Made It In Africa

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