Building multimillion-shilling food testing firm without loans
Thursday March 02 2023
How many months or years does it take an entrepreneur to raise funds?
When Dominic Mureithi founded Polucon, a testing, inspection and verification company, it took seven years.
For many, that would have dampened their entrepreneurial spirit, but for Mr Mureithi, it emboldened him.
“We founded the company in 1990 but had to raise funds until 1997 when we began operations. In those days, no bank could lend us money because they did not understand our business and we didn’t have collateral,” he says.
His sights were set on creating job opportunities for young scientists. He had realised that science graduates in Kenya lacked jobs.
His testing, inspection and verification company would offer opportunities to those young scientists.
The chemist and food scientist studied in Germany and worked in Europe as a laboratory analyst, rising to the level of a laboratory manager at a multinational company.
Picking the expertise he had learned, he came home to open Polucon.
“I realised that in Europe, they create their own jobs, especially for the scientists because scientists control many things in the world, be it agriculture, manufacturing, production, and development. The world is made by science,” he says.
He also wanted a homegrown company to support trade within and outside of Africa as the food testing industry was dominated by foreigners.
“We are involved in checking the quality and safety of drinking water, and food safety analysis,” he says.
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Having realised that no bank would advance them money for buying equipment, they decided to grow organically.
“People call it savings, but we called it a loan to ourselves. My partner was somebody I could trust, and I knew was interested in seeing my dream come true,” he says.
Mr Mureithi says that when starting a company, there are some things that an entrepreneur can do even while in employment.
Instead of buying a new bed for his small apartment, he bought a desk, chair, computer, and fax machine.
He also made sure he had a post office box and telephone. He advises planning is key when changing from formal employment to entrepreneurship.
“You must plan clearly for when it rains. I’m here but where do I want to go?” he says.
What has propelled his success momentum is trust and integrity.
“People don’t appreciate how trust, integrity, and being ethical are important – these helped us a great deal,” he says, adding “clients want to feel you are more like a trusted friend than just a business person.”
Being an African company competing with multinationals was not easy.
To overcome this, Polucon went for ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems certification towards the end of the 90s to be at par with top companies in the world.
“Certification and accreditation brought us to the world business playing ground. But we still suffered as underdogs,” he says.
Despite the perception that an African company cannot penetrate the industry, he persevered and grew the business to 100 employees, serving exporters and importers, farmers, processors, packers, manufacturers, and local industries.
Their turnover grew from between Sh50 million to Sh1 billion. Last year, Polucon was ranked among the Top 100 fast-growing mid-sized companies by KPMG and Business Daily.
“We now export our services by receiving samples from all over Africa. We now serve a broad spectrum of other clients that includes industry regulators, agents and foreign firms,” he says.
Soon he opened another testing laboratory in Mombasa.
One of the biggest lessons Mr Mureithi has learnt is that “as Africans, we are our biggest enemies because we don’t believe in our local capacity. We prefer foreign companies.”
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“Why should we create opportunities for people in other countries? We need to believe in our own capacity and professionals,” he says.
Another lesson is resilience.
“We have tripled our turnover with profitability all without bank loans,” he says, adding, “you can create funds as you grow. We have learnt organic growth from mama mboga, who educates her children successfully by being resilient.”
The third lesson is financial prudence.
“The shareholders opted to plough back all profits into the business. One laboratory machine for instance was able to purchase the next one that we needed and so forth,” he says.