Q & A: Kenyan Tent Maker Aims For Coolest Solution Under The Sun

Q & A: Kenyan Tent Maker Aims For Coolest Solution Under The Sun

There’s no denying that the weather in some parts of Africa can be harsh, so when Eric Kinoti became a tent maker, he found himself with a successful company almost immediately.

Kinoti, 30, was born in Kenya’s second-largest city, Mombasa. He founded Shades System East Africa in 2008 in Nairobi, Kenya. Shades has 18 employees and annual sales of $1 million, according to Forbes.

The entrepreneurial spirit showed up early in Kinoti’s life.

“For as long as I can remember, I have always liked doing business,” he said on his website. “When I was 10 years old, I regularly acted as a cashier in my father’s wholesale shop. In school I was equally entrepreneurial, selling sweets, cakes and salt to schoolmates” He earned a diploma in business management from Tsavo Park Institute, a college in Kenya that teaches business and hotel management, hospitality and ICT.

Ever the entrepreneur, worked nights as a cashier in a hotel in Malindi after finishing college, and spent his days buying and distributing eggs around the town, which is on the Indian Ocean about 567 kilometers (350 miles) from Nairobi. Later, after moving to Nairobi, Kinoti started distributing milk to hotels around the city.

The idea for Shade Systems came when a client who bought dairy goods from Kinoti asked him for a tent for an outdoor event. Convinced selling tents would be a good business, Kinoti used all his savings and ventured into tent manufacturing.

Today, Shade Systems supplies tents, gazebos, shades and bouncing castles to clients all over Africa. The company exports to Somalia, Congo and Rwanda.

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Kinoti has multiple businesses. In addition to Shade Systems he owns Alma Tents, a tent-renting company; Bag Base Kenya Ltd., which manufactures bags using cutaway canvas and remnants left over from the tent-manufacturing process; and Safi Sana Home Services, a professional cleaning services company.

The world has taken notice of Kinoti’s success. Forbes named him one of 30 most promising entrepreneurs from Africa, and he was appointed youth patron by the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recognized him as an outstanding youthful businessman in 2014, according to Kinoti’s website.

Kinoti spoke to AFKInsider about doing business in Africa.

AFKInsider: Why did you start Shades System East Africa?

Kinoti: I saw a need and I went right ahead to fill the gap. When I was selling food supplies after college someone approached me and asked me for a tent. I went and asked around. The profit I got for being a middleman in this deal was good, so I thought since I had a tough time looking for a tent, why can’t I start manufacturing tents and selling them at a viable price.

I did my research, studied the market and the rest is history.

Another reason is the African climate. We have extreme weather conditions. If it’s hot, it’s usually very hot and when it’s cold, it gets extremely cold. This means for any event to happen and to protect what matters to us, we must have a shade, a tent or a canopy.

AFKInsider: The company seems to have grown very fast.

Kinoti: A lot of hard work and dedication has brought us this far. I focused on providing solutions and satisfying my clients and I can say together with my dedicated team, that’s what has brought the success.

AFKInsider: What were some startup challenges?

Kinoti: My youthful age has been a challenge in many occasions. Years back, no one believed in a young person. All the big business was given to older folks. People didn’t trust young people and what they can do. There are opportunities that I have missed  because of “my age,” that’s why I am always happy when I see young people in their 20s getting big tenders and good business because it shows the trend has changed.

Putting the brand out there too was a challenge. Tents industry is highly controlled by government, so penetrating such a market and maintaining competition is a big challenge.

I had capital issues when I was starting up, but I didn’t let this pin me down because I am an avid believer in the ideas. I believe that the idea is the biggest capital one can have. I went without money to pay rent; I was in debt with the shylocks (people he borrowed money from to start his business) who almost auctioned my business and went without sales for awhile.

AKInsider: How do you market the company?

Kinoti: I don’t do a lot of above-the-line marketing. I am an avid believer in referrals, so I make sure every job I do, I do it to the best so that the client who is satisfied can recommend me to someone else.

Apart from that, we are very active online. We use the social media platforms and other online selling.

AFKInsider: How did you develop your exports business?

Kinoti: Once again, I study the market and I like doing research a lot. So when I notice a gap that has potential, I dive right into it.

I have so much on my plate. I want to make all my businesses get to another new level and still continue providing solutions. I am no longer targeting the Kenyan market. No, I am looking at the 1-billion pan-African market.

AFKInsider: Is Kenya supportive of entrepreneurs?

Kinoti: We have our share of challenges. I think if some laws were changed, it can be better.

AFKInsider: You take the time to mentor young Kenyans.

Kinoti: I also have a mentorship program. I organize an annual event called Entrepreneurs Boot Camp. Entrepreneurs Boot Camp is an event that provides a platform for successful entrepreneurs  to share experiences with young, ambitious founders and connect them to mentors. The boot camp gives attendees an exclusive inside look into the career path of well-respected professionals — business lessons learned by successful entrepreneurs and an opportunity to meet and get personal advice from amazing African entrepreneurs, pitch to potential investors, create pipeline and network.

The entrepreneurial journey can be a very challenging one and young entrepreneurs need to be mentored and offered platforms to learn and network with one another.

I also have an African version of  “Shark Tank” on American TV that’s dubbed “The Eagles Nest.” We are in the process of finalizing everything.

AFKInsider: How do you stand out from your competition?

Kinoti: There is competition, but everyone has his or her own market share. I keep innovating. I keep proving my clients with the best products at the right prices. For us, every day we have to live up to our theme, “The coolest solution under sun.”