Kuni Safi supplies schools and small-scale businesses an alternative to charcoal and firewood. This alternative, briquettes, are made of compressed sugarcane waste, and Elana Laichena, 27, is at the centre of it all.
“My business partner and I raised the capital to set up this initiative from our savings. We started saving while at the university in the US and continued to do so when we both got jobs,” she says.
She explains that Kuni Safi is her idea, and although her partner is a co-director, his function is largely advisory since she is in charge of the day-to-day running of the business.
The idea to launch Kuni Safi came about during her one-year employment at a social enterprise whose core business was to provide alternative sources of fuel.
“I thought to myself that this was something I too could do. I went ahead and registered a company, Acacia Innovations, which Kuni Safi falls under,” she explains.
While working with this enterprise, apart from discovering the opportunity of making fuel from sugarcane waste, she also discovered that there was a gap in the distribution and marketing of the product, and she set out to close this gap.
Elana holds a master’s degree in City Planning from Pratt University in New York and an undergraduate degree in Urban Studies from New School University, also in New York.
So far, Acacia Innovations, the mother company behind the Kuni Safi initiative, currently supplies the briquettes to over 160 schools, including Starehe Boys Centre, State House Girls, Ngara Girls, Lukenya Schools and Good Testimony Schools. They also supply Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort and CitiZone Caterers. The company has also sold their briquettes in 15 counties, including Kakamega, Nairobi, Makueni and Meru counties. With time, they hope to set base in all counties.
“Thanks to the quality of our product, we get many referrals – Kuni Safi is more environment-friendly and efficient compared to charcoal and firewood, and therefore saves our customers money,” she says.
The company also designs and locally manufactures energy-saving cook stoves with which to use the briquettes.
“For a customer to enhance the efficiency of our briquettes, they need an energy saving jiko because the product needs to burn in an enclosed chamber with a chimney,” she explains.
They offer a discount of 50 per cent on all cook stoves if a customer, upon buying, signs a contract to purchase Kuni Safi for at least six months. At the moment, the company only supplies to schools, restaurants, and hotels, but is in the process of designing smaller cook stoves for use in households.
Kuni Safi, which was launched in October 2016, has grown to employ a full-time staff of five, and six sales representatives who market the product.
Though briquettes are much cheaper and more environment-friendly compared to charcoal or firewood, which would make the company’s selling point easier, Elana explains that the biggest challenge they experience is convincing prospective customers that briquettes are a better deal than charcoal and firewood.
“We face a lot of resistance because generally, human beings are resistant to change, they prefer the old way of doing things,” she says, adding that those who give the product a try become loyal customers.
One of their marketing strategies has been to form working relationships with organisations such as the Kenya Secondary School Heads Association and the Kenya Private School Associations, which allow them to exhibit their product during their conferences, in the process growing their networks.
“Initially, before we got a firm network of clients, we went from school to school and requested to speak to the school principals – it was a lengthy and laborious process, but I knew that I had to be patient and be ready to put in the hard work to succeed,” she says.
Kuni Safi primarily sources its raw material from a specific sugarcane factory but has two other factories on standby in case their primary source is unable to supply what they need.
“The other options would be to use rice husks or coffee husks or even sawdust, but we prefer sugarcane waste because it has the most energy and releases the least smoke,” she explains.
The company’s head office is in Upper Hill, in the outskirts of Nairobi’s CBD. This is where official operations take place, such as meetings with potential clients.
The warehouse is located on Lunga Lunga Road in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.