“I had my two daughters back to back,” Stella Oeri, 39, smiles. She is married, and now has three children.
“I had the first in 2010 and the other in 2011. I used so many packets of wet wipes when they were younger, sometimes a whole carton in one month. I noticed they were reacting to that particular brand, though, and got severe rashes. I decided to make a product that was better than what was in the market.”
Stella runs a company called Octagon Ventures; it’s located in Lang’ata and has a workforce of four. Octagon is an umbrella for a handful of business undertakings, which includes the manufacture and supply of personal care products for babies and women – wet wipes, sanitary towels and panty liners. Stella is expanding her product offerings to include ear buds, maternity pads, and cotton wool pads and balls. These products trade under the brand Comfort.
Stella says, “I registered Octagon as a limited liability company in October 2011, a month before I quit my job, but we didn’t start selling our products until May 2013.”
Stella grew up in Keroka town, in Kisii county, the first in a family of four. Stella learned from her mother what it meant to have a strong work ethic and the perseverance to run a demanding enterprise to sustainability.
“My mum raised us as a single parent and was never employed. She had a restaurant and hotel business then later got some matatus plying the routes in Kisii town. I loved that she had total control over her businesses.”
Stella relocated to Nairobi after high school, and got a job as a data entry clerk with a bowling alley. She saved most of her salary and raised Sh100, 000 to start her first business. “I bought two pool tables in Kariobangi and took them to a rental space in Keroka,” she says. “They were very popular! I made about Sh2,000 every day.”
Stella got another job as a clerk with Nakumatt supermarkets then joined KIM (Kenya Institute of Management) College in 2006 for a diploma in sales and marketing.
After KIM, she enrolled at Kenya Methodist University for an undergraduate degree in business administration.
Stella continued working with Nakumatt while still in school. In 2006, she was made the sections manager for gifts products. She says, “I was based at the Nakumatt Mega branch but I was in-charge of all branches. My job was to source for the gifts from mainly China and UK, organise for their importation, price and display them, and distribute them to the other branches.”
Stella was in this position for two years to 2008 when she left and joined Biofoods Limited as a sales executive and merchandiser. “My job was in retail supplies and sales to supermarkets east of Nairobi. I excelled at retail sales and was given corporate accounts manager for key hotels and retail outlets. I worked there for a year then I was promoted to sales and marketing manager, overseeing Nairobi and Mombasa.”
Stella’s career trajectory thus far had given her experience in sourcing for products, marketing them to retail clients and collecting payments. She was also adept at preparing sales reports and statements, and she understood basic accounting. Stella figured she could transfer these same skills to her own business. She settled on supplying baby wipes.
Stella fixed her eyes on this business idea and pursued it with fervour already familiar to her.
She got onto Alibaba – the Chinese-based ecommerce site for businesses – and engaged three manufacturers of baby wipes. While at it, she researched extensively on the product, learning about the nitty-gritty of baby wipes, like the weight and thickness of each leaf, the different scents available and the raw materials that go into their manufacture. “I settled on one manufacturer and he sent me samples. I tested these samples with other mums and returned feedback that he used this to improve on the product. The value-add for our baby wipes is that they have a rash preventer.”
Stella financed this testing and development phase of the business from savings and borrowings from the larger family. She later got a bank loan to finance her growth and product expansion.
Product aside, Stella got the licences required to run a personal care business. She also approached the smaller supermarkets to retail her product; “I prefer them to bigger supermarkets because of their payment terms, they settle their invoices quickly. Plus I was able to meet their demand per order.”
The first shipment of products arrived in May 2013, only three-quarter full a container. Turnover was slow but Stella aggressively marketed and by early 2015, she was competing with other established brands and constantly running out of stock. “I learned not to run out – now I always have a container full of products on the high seas.”
Early 2016, Stella started supplying panty liners. “The value-add for our panty liners is that the green packet comes with an anion strip. This anion strip has many important benefits to women.”
To address the handicap of future financing, Stella recently entered a partnership with a non-profit that extended to her invoice discounting facilities and, sometime soon, supplier invoicing.
“They’re called FACTS. They usually work with women in agriculture, this is the first time they are working with someone in retail.”