As the post-election violence intensified in early 2008, Oliver Ndegwa and his wife Fridah Gaturi, were stuck in their rural home in the Rift Valley unable to leave their compound, not even to get food.
This is when the idea of having a greenhouse hit them. And as things calmed down and they moved to Nairobi, the couple prepared to own the structure in their home, only to realise that no one in Kenya distributed greenhouses that would fit their compound, and hence; a business opportunity became apparent.
“We went for that opportunity when we realised after a thorough research that no one had the structure we needed. This led to the birth of Agrotunnel International,” Mr Ndegwa says.
His first approach was to Amiran Kenya, an agricultural inputs provider, which was not in the business of providing small-sized UV treated polythene garden covers that would enable small-scale farmers have their crops during any weather.
Without any capital, Mr Ndegwa committed two acres of land owned by the family to Amiran to place the greenhouses that he got on credit on. This first consignment of 10 medium-sized greenhouses was worth about Sh1million.
Even though it was not difficult to sell the structures, with over 200 of them being bought in several months at Sh150,000 each, the couple still felt they had not fulfilled their initial goal of having a real domestic package.
With this in mind, they designed the ‘Kitchen Garden’ kit by subdividing the big ones into smaller units that could fit people’s compounds with more than 60-square feet of usable growing area.
The frames of the green houses were made of galvanised steel and a heavy gauged reinforced UV cover with a large twin zipped roll up doorway for easy access, was a dream design for the couple.
“Most people in Nairobi have such limited space that you have to make for them customised greenhouses that fit and serve the purpose to the maximum,” he adds.
There is a huge demand for the Kitchen garden structures, which the couple sells for about Sh35,000, especially among the growing number of the middle income group, mostly those who have bought homes in the last few years.
“The structure is quite affordable, given its long-term benefits to the customer, as it comes with a 10-year guarantee. The types of crops grown provide an alternative healthy eating for the consumers,” he says.
The entrepreneurs soon realised they needed to do more in the homes for which they provided the greenhouses, many of which did not know how to use the structures. Agrotunnel had to teach them how to benefit from their investments.
Without any formal training in agriculture, the couple hired a team of experts in various fields to help in the installation of the greenhouses and designing their customers’ irrigation systems, providing seedlings and monitoring the crops without increasing on cost.
“This was part of our long-term goal to provide employment opportunities to highly qualified people and we have now employed technicians and over 20 sales people permanently, across the country.”
The company also plans to increase their operations from major towns to other interior parts of the country and eventually, the whole continent.
Floating shares to the public one day, is also on their minds.
“Our goal is to be the leading kitchen tunnel in Africa and to employ as many people as possible.”
The company has diversified its operations by registering a new company under Agrotunnel called Kachumbari Farm Produce, whose main aim is to buy excess farm produce from the greenhouse farmers and distribute it to major stores in the country. This way, the farmers do not have to worry about where to take the perishable products.
Agrotunnel also has another company, Greenhouse Management Service, which trains people on crop growing, health and greenhouse logistics, and management.
Based in Nairobi, Karen area, the company has other branches in major towns like Mombasa, Kitale, Bungoma, Kapsabet, and Meru.
The internet Mr Ndegwa says, has been instrumental in creating awareness about the company through their website, www.agrotunnel.com, that is receiving more hits daily.
With the company having a turnover of over Sh7 million last year, Mr Ndegwa, an engineer by profession does not regret leaving his salaried job to take on a business venture. Neither does his wife who used to work in the hotel industry.
They now take on the business by dividing the roles. He is engaged in marketing and research, while his wife does the administration and finances. The other roles are delegated to staff.
Mr Ndegwa says that with more support for the farming community in Kenya by the government and banks, the current food shortage cases can be addressed and people would be able to eat healthier foods grown from their backyards. For example with the El Nino rains expected, many crops will be destroyed and this may spark and hike in food prices.
His advises people venturing into business, “to personalise their service to their clients and deliver on time”