Eric Kinoti, 29, who runs a Ksh150 million empire, reveals how he met lady luck while struggling to sell food

Being a millionaire at a young age makes people imagine you are lucky. It could be luck, but you have to be natured well. Starting a company that makes Ksh150 million and an affiliate raking in Ksh3 million annually is no mean feat.

But for Eric Kinoti, a Forbes Top 30 below 30 finalist for 2014, is living his dream in Shade Systems East Africa, a growing empire that manufactures and supplies military tents. Born in Mombasa 29 years ago, Mr Kinoti was brought up in a business-oriented family and it’s from this upbringing that the CEO of Shade Systems learnt the ropes of entrepreneurship. “I started assisting my mother in her business while still in lower primary,” he says. “At school I sold sweets from my father’s wholesale shop to the other pupils. At age of 10, I was the cashier at the shop.”

This inspired business in him, a mindset he carried on to high school. “I was allowed to sell cakes to students at the school canteen,” says Mr Kinoti, whose company emerged second runners up in the KPMG 100 Midsized Companies 2014 and the industry leader in manufacturing. After completing his Diploma in Business Management in 2004, Mr Kinoti started working as a cashier at a hotel in Malindi and working mostly on night shift, he had a lot of free time. He had the option of hanging out with friends or even basking in the Malindi sand beaches, but he chose to do business as his side kick.

“I started distributing eggs around Malindi during my free time,” he adds. Three years later, Mr Kinoti quit his job in 2007 to venture into business. “With a capital of Ksh20,000 I started buying milk from Kinoo and Kiambu and supplying city hotels both in Nairobi and Mombasa. The milk business was very challenging because it has a lot of licensing and a lot of capital involved,” he says. Things did not work well and he found himself working at Standard Chartered Bank, only to get frustrated after two months.“The milk business became a challenge for me and I had to look for a job which I got but after working for Standard Chartered Bank for only two months, I realised this was a bad move,” says Mr Kinoti.

The political upheaval after the disputed 2007 presidential elections was a blessing in disguise, as he was forced to relocate to Nairobi. He started supplying foodstuff to schools in Mombasa, Nairobi and Eastern Kenya. It is while in this business that he met a client who didn’t want anything that he was supplying but a tent for a function he was planning. “I took the challenge and supplied it. After making some money out of the deal, I went and withdrew all the savings I had and ventured into tent business,” he says.

Breakthrough, three years later

At 24, and armed with Ksh60,000, Mr Kinoti started Shade Systems East Africa, to manufacture military and relief tents, branded gazebos, restaurant canopies, car parking shades, marquees, luxury tents, wedding party tents canvas seats and bouncing castles. “Capital was my biggest bottleneck and I tried a shylock. I had my stuff auctioned when I did not pay on time,” he says.

After several years in the business, Shade Systems made a major leap forward in 2010 when the company sold a canopy tent to an Asian family and those who attended the function loved the canopy idea. “After that I got a big tender to supply military tents and I’ve never looked back since then,” he avers. Mr Kinoti draws heavy inspiration from business mogul Chris Kirubi whom he terms as a shrewd businessman who ‘sees a gap in market and fixes it with a solution.’ In his job, every day presents a different challenge, mostly unwelcoming clients.

“Every choice has consequences. In business you make many mistakes, some haste decisions that don’t work, but at the end, you learn from every past experience. However, it takes hard work, sweat, dedication, focus, having the right team and God,” he says.

Listed in Forbes 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa 2014, Mr Kinoti wants to expand his business to the entire African market. Getting the right positioning of the business in terms of location, name, staffing and expansion hasn’t been an easy task for him and he has been forced to relocate twice. Mr Kinoti owns two other companies affiliated to Shade Systems. Bag Base Kenya makes leather and heavy duty canvas bags, school bags, laptop bags, corporate bags as well as iPad covers. Safi Sana Home Cleaning Services offers house cleaning and residential laundry services.

Working tips from his success

Mr Kinoti wants young people to learn from him and not emulate him. “Entrepreneurship is a journey, not a one-off get-rich scheme. When you imitate what your role models are doing, you limit yourself, be different,” says Kinoti. “Young people willing to venture into business should not wait for the fat lady to sing; start with what you have as it is the small things we do that make us the most important people in the world.”

In entrepreneurship, he says, patience is a virtue. “Most of the young people are not patient enough to see a business grow. They want to start an enterprise and start earning profits the next week. It doesn’t work like that. I stayed for over three years without making real money, but I kept my focus, faith and worked hard.”

He says the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is jump from one business to another, hoping the next is better. “Every business, every industry, has its own challenge, it’s upon you as an entrepreneur to stay put, work hard and remain focused from where you are.”

His last word? “Think Big. Start Small. Start Now.”



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