It’s mid-morning of January 24, 2020 and the cool breeze of Kitisuru, a high-end suburb west of Nairobi city punctuated with green vegetation and trees, relaxes the mind.
But for Diana Ochola and Caroline Mutabacho, founders of Nature’s Touch, a company that manufactures organic beauty products, it feels like the afternoon sun is overhead.
They make body butters that remedy skin conditions including acne, eczema and dry skin for adults and children. They also manufacture lip balm.
The pair is unsettled and anxious.
Why? Today is a big day for their business! They are among the 2019 finalists for Standard Chartered Bank’s Women in Tech Incubator program. They are set to pitch their business growth idea later in the afternoon.
Know what we want
A win to them means they receive seed funding, mentorship, business opportunities and training on better management of their business.
“We know what we want and where we want to take our business; we have to show that while presenting the pitch,” says Ms Mutabacho during the interview in the turquoise coloured room which serves as the factory.
The room has machines placed between shelves stuffed with raw materials and ready for market body butters.
“We have prepared well, but we feel tensed up! Being among the finalists is a major milestone for us. All we are looking forward to is a win,” she adds with a laughter.
But getting their business to the finalist list of one of the progressive initiatives tailored towards promoting women’s small and micro-scale enterprises (SMEs) has not been a rosy journey.
Ms Ochola, 33, is a human resource specialist while Ms Mutabacho, 32 is a project management consultant.
The two founded their enterprise in 2017, blending together passion for healthy living and first-hand experience on skin conditions. The two had a long-time friendship before they started their business.
Ms Mutabacho suffered from acne, which she says was induced by work-related stress. She has previously worked for Microsoft and McKinsey.
In December 2016, however, her New Year resolution was that she would not go back to the corporate world. So, when her contract ended at the end of the month, she started a new journey. She wanted to start a business that would offer families solutions to skin problems.
Ms Ochola’s contract at the United Nations was also coming to an end in February, 2017, and she was toying with a business idea - that of manufacturing organic beauty products. She too, had no intention of going back to formal employment.
So, when Ms Mutabacho tipped her, she was elated: “Oh yes, let’s do it. I am more than ready to start off!”
With a capital of Sh30,000, they registered the company and tested their products with the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS).
While at it, they also did further research on the manufacturing process of the products and consulted their mentors Ms Mary Ngechu, Managing Director of LinePlast Group and Ms Phylis Wakiaga, Chief Executive Officer of Kenya Manufacturing Association (KAM).
Their first production was done in Ms Ochola’s family kitchen, before shifting to a detached room within the same compound. Making the products away from human food interaction was one of KEBS’ pre-requisite to certify their products.
The year 2017 was a learning one for them; they perfected their craft, captured the customers, and penetrated the market.
Their first customers were family members, friends and members of their respective churches, whose feedback they used to improve their products.
Their membership with KAM through which they mingled and associated with successful and resourceful entrepreneurs, was the greatest catalyst to their business.
“Mary Ngechu and Phyllis (Wakiaga) really mentored us. Mary opened her doors to us and has always been available for consultation. I tell you we needed guidance,” notes Ms Mutabacho who is the operation lead in the company.
Her colleague, Ms Ochola, the production lead in the firm, echoes her sentiments.
Test to business
“To grow in business, you really, really need mentors. You need direction. You need help to make sure you have adhered to all standards and regulations. We are indebted to Phyllis for guiding us and Mary for being an awesome mentor,” she enthuses.
Even with mentors, comes a personal responsibility that defines whether the business survives or not. And a test came forth in 2018.
For six months, between April and September of the same year, they were out of production because their desired glass jars used for packaging their products were unavailable.
Their local agent had run out of stock. And so, they only sold to those who brought back their jars to be refilled.
“It was a moment of evaluating the sustainability of our business because our production plummeted. Instead of giving up, we spent that period researching while looking for contacts to ship the jars from South Africa,” says Ms Ochola, adding that the jars are currently in steady supply.
To avoid future hiccups, the duo are in discussions with a South African manufacturer to supply them directly.
Had they given up, their company would not have been selected for the 2019-E4Impact Foundation Accelerator Program, which supports start-ups in Africa through trainings and mentorship.
“Before joining the program, our accounts were somewhere there. But now, we are on a different level and we have managed to streamline our accounts and production,” observes Ms Mutabacho.
With 17 distributors, an accountant, social media manager and a sales person to their list of current workforce, the two are destined for growth and expansion.
“We are going to make it and we will make it. We are not giving up,” they say in turns.