The rice husks are collected from farms and then processed into biochar, a charcoal-like substance that’s made by burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes

| Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

How three youth started a fertiliser company with Sh50,000 seed capital

When three graduates pooled their resources to venture into production of organic fertiliser, the main aim of their business idea was to meet a social need, to provide a local solution to a local need.

Today, what started with a seed capital of Sh50,000 has grown into a multimillion company, Safi Organics Company, which is worth Sh150million. The company converts rice husk, which is considered waste, into high-yielding organic fertiliser at an affordable cost, in the process of transforming lives through sustainable agriculture.

The fortified organic fertiliser is produced under the brand name Safi Sarvi, which can be used on tomatoes, French beans, capsicum, cabbages, onions, maize, rice and for top dressing in acidic soils.

The brains behind the formation of the business, located in Mwea,  Kirinyaga County,  is Samuel Wanderi, 32, Kevin Kung 35,and Joyce Kamande, 29. Wanderi, who came up with the idea and sold it to his colleagues, is an agri-business graduate of the University of Nairobi, Kung a Massachusetts Institute of Technology trained engineer, while Kamande is a procurement graduate from Dedan Kimathi University.

"Safi organics was registered in February 2015. We used individual savings as our seed capital. We were looking into ways in which we could convert the rice husk, which many farmers saw as a nuisance, into cash by making fertilisers. Many farmers were struggling with tons of husks after harvest, which was left lying idle in their farms, " says Wanderi.

They started small, producing an affordable organic soil conditioner to fix soil acidity, which they sold to smallholder farmers. The yields were amazing. Wanderi explains that it increased farmers' yields by 30 percent for every acre of land it is used.

"We have since invested in laboratory equipment and milling machines, we bought the land where we have set up our company three years after we started the enterprise, for Sh2million. The latest valuation indicates we are worth about Sh150million and our target is to hit Sh1billion before 2030."

The firm is offering a range of services and products under the brand name Safi Sarvi fertilisers : 50kg top dressing fertiliser retails at Sh2,000, 25kg goes for Sh1,100, 10kg Sh400, foliar feeds fertiliser for Sh500 per litre, while the acidic soil amender goes for Sh1,700.

"In 2015 when we started the company, we had about 30 farmers who we sold fertiliser worth about Sh600,000. Today we cater to 6,000 smallholder farmers and about 10 percent large scale farmers in Kirinyaga, Embu and Machakos counties and beyond who buy our products. In a good month, we make sales worth Sh1million," explains the businessman.

Samuel Wanderi

Samuel Wanderi  is an agri-business graduate.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

To give farmers value for their money, last year, the company diversified into soil testing services and invested in a soil testing laboratory which also forms part of its revenue stream.

“We charge Sh2,000 for a soil test if we collect the samples, but if farmers bring the sample to us, we charge Sh1,500. We are happy that farmers are now seeing the importance of soil testing as this is translating to high yields and a 40 percent saving on the inputs they buy.”

The company employs 18 workers, majority of them university and college graduates.

"About 95 percent of our workforce is made up of youth below 35 years. Our youngest employee is 21 years old. Indirectly, we have employed more than 100 youth in Mwea who collect rice husk and converts it into biochar and sell to us."

"We realised that the process of converting the husks into biochar is tedious, and decided to empower the youth through the assistance of Kilimo Trust, a not-for-profit organisation working on agriculture for development across the East Africa Community who helped the youth register community-based organisations which buy rice husks directly from the millers and converts to biochar, and then sells it to us. “

Some of these youth groups include Mwea Carbonators, Murinduko Group and Kiarukungo Group.

"One of the best performing groups makes up to Sh200,000 a month. We give them orders of between 500 to 2,000 bags depending on the capacity of production. We buy a bag of 30kg biochar for between Sh200 and Sh300," explains Wanderi.

He says the secret of success is working with like-minded partners and individuals.

"One of the lessons we have learned is that to help smallholder farmers thrive and prosper, we have to develop strategic partnerships with governments, institutions, experts and other players in the agriculture sector to provide the full range of support smallholder farmers need to prosper.”

Currently, the company is collaborating with OCP Kenya, a fertiliser making company, Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation, University of Nairobi, Kabete campus, Cornell University in the US and Egerton University through Kilimo Trust to develop and do efficacy trials for the new products.

“This will help in ensuring the efficacy of our products as they will be based on scientifically backed data. We’re also banking on Kilimo Trust to replicate what we have here in Western Kenya.

He added: “Our vision in the next five years is to replicate what we're doing here in Mwea in five other regions across the country and already, we are collaborating with Lake Basin Agrotech in Kisumu County to make fertilisers as they have rice husk which can be used to make biochar."

But it has not been all smooth sailing as one of the biggest challenges they faced at initial stages included getting their products registered by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and building trust among farmers that their products were good and the Covid-19 pandemic which disrupted farming activities as farmers had nowhere to sell their produce.

“It took 18 months before our first product was registered and certified by KEBS. We carried a lot of farm demonstration and awareness campaigns to convince farmers to buy our products," said Mr Wanderi.

Well, it worked.