Atiff Ibrahim Khalid and his wife Natasha Lakhani started their entrepreneurial journey after a trip to Thailand in 2019, where they got a chance to see the huge business potential that bamboo haboured.
When they returned home, they began manufacturing organic toothbrushes and toothpastes.
“We were awed by how, in a world choking with plastics, the Thai people were using Bamboo to make everyday products, in the process preserving their environment, the positive impact of the use of the eco-friendly material was also evident in Thailand’s pristine beaches,” says Khalid.
The couple was so impressed, they knew they had to utilise their new-found knowledge to improve their environment. After carrying out some research, last year they founded Eco-Smiles Limited, a company that manufactures biodegradable toothbrushes using bamboo and DuPont bristles, which are made out of nylon but can biodegrade under certain conditions.
The company produces oral and personal care products that are alternatives to the plastic ones available in the market that end up in the oceans and landfills.
“We strive to provide not only awareness on plastic pollution and the dangers it poses to the environment, but also provide a solution to this menace and hopefully inspire the community to follow suit.”
The couple invested an initial capital of Sh5.5 million into the company, which has a production and assembling facility in Vipingo, Kilifi, and an office in Parklands, Nairobi.
“We have since invested more than Sh8 million as we continue to raise funds from our recent acquired investors who have played a major role in mentorship and channelling funds towards our growth and expansion,” says Khalid.
The toothbrushes are curved out from bamboo stems with a specialised machine, which is able to produce different stem sizes. They source the bamboo from local farmers near Globleq tech solar, a company that supports locals to grow bamboo commercially in Kilifi.
Every bamboo cut down is re-planted and the waste material used to heat up the factory.
The toothbrushes have BPA-free nylon soft and medium bristles, which are effective in removing plaque and tartar without damaging the gums.
‘“The toothbrushes are beautiful artistic pieces in themselves, and for good oral hygiene, we recommend replacement after every three months, though one can re-purpose the worn-out toothbrushes.”
Online marketing, they say, had driven up the demand of their products, increasing production from 1,000 toothbrushes a month when they began, to 10,000 pieces per month as word about their products spread to the East Africa region.
The prices of their products ranges from Sh170 to Sh900. Adult toothbrushes cost Sh299 while children’s cost Sh249. They also offer wholesale prices to bulk buyers and small vendors while they offer customised products for hotels and corporates.
Besides toothbrushes, the couple also makes organic toothpaste tablets, which they store in recyclable glass jars and biodegradable boxes, doing away with plastic toothpaste tubes which contribute to pollution of the environment. They offer refill of the toothpaste tablets to subscription clients. The tablets come in fresh mint, mint charcoal and strawberry flavours.
“They are free of fluoride, SLS and glycerine,” Khalid explains, adding that they currently source the toothpaste tablets from Thailand, though plans are afoot to localise production once they get appropriate machinery.
“All our toothpaste tablets are made from organic ingredients such as coconut oil and xylitol, they do not have preservatives or additives, therefore if a child swallows it, he or she is safe,” says the businessman.
The company also produces Bamboo combs and hair brushes and teeth whitening products made from charcoal and coconut powders, with 30 grams going for Sh399.
Other products the company produces are organic dental floss made out of corn starch, cotton buds from bamboo sticks and biodegradable cotton.
“We stock our products in a number of supermarkets, pharmacies such as Goodlife Pharmacy, World Health Dental Organization, and hotels such as The Sands Kenya,” says Khalid, who adds that the company is in the process of introducing more eco-friendly products, such as amenity kits targeting the hospitality industry, kits that will include shavers made from bamboo, shower caps made from wheat, bamboo fibre diapers and sanitary towels, wet wipes, re-usable cotton nursing pads and re-useable cloth diapers for children and the elderly.”
“Business had been good, since we have been doubling our sales every quarter with decent profit margins, but at the moment, we are more structured in business growth and expansion rather than focused on making profits only,” he says, adding that they manufacture some of their products locally.
“We buy from local suppliers who grow bamboo commercially, we then process the raw materials in our facility in Vipingo, package them with our plastic-free packaging and then send to our warehouse where they are dispatched to our partner vendors and to our shop.”
Eco-Smiles have seven full time employees, and between 20 to 30 people they employ part time or indirectly.
Like every business, theirs too has had its share of challenges.
“Like any other start-up, raising capital to support product development, marketing and pay compliance costs has been a huge challenge, so has been penetrating the market and convincing potential customers to switch from the cheap plastic products that they have used since childhood to ours,” says Khalid, explaining that while they would like to reduce the cost of their products so that they can be affordable to everyone, the production costs of quality and natural products is very high in Kenya due to scarcity and high prices of raw materials.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the couple lost their full-time jobs, a chance they embraced to fully focus on their new venture. Khalid is the Managing Director while his wife, Natasha, is the company’s CEO.
Khalid notes that while they are in the business of making money, they are also a company that strives to have an impact on the community, especially the youth, by creating awareness about caring for the environment.
“We want to inspire the youth to tap into this eco-friendly market that has not been effectively tapped into by starting sustainable businesses that empower them economical and environmentally,” he says.
The company’s unique business has not gone unnoticed - Khalid was nominated as a finalist, Founder Of The Year Awards 2021, in a competition that involved seven countries in Africa. He also represented Kenya at the Arab Youth International Model United Nations this year.