Social entrepreneur Nathaniel Peat set up his first company, The Safety Box, at 25-years-old, encouraging young people to apply the school curriculum to business concepts. A firebrand of ideas and enthusiasm, his latest project is Gennex, which supplies affordable solar-powered devices to countries in the developing world.
The power problem
He explains: “We’re addressing problems such as young people being burnt by kerosene lighting in schools, families with no lighting in their homes, and farmers in rural areas who are forced to take long trips to charge a mobile phone.
“My background is first-generation Jamaican and my business partner Dowa Ojarikre is Nigerian, so we are conscious of the realities faced by people in these areas. We want to make a change, by providing solar-based devices which can charge items like mobile phones and provide lighting. We thought we would do this slightly differently – empowering people by showing them how to build the devices.”
Gennex was founded 20 months ago and has grown quickly, with a head office already set up in Nairobi, Kenya, which is run by a team of six, plus a team of eight based in Jamaica. “I am a qualified engineer and we have also recruited six young, smart engineers from UK universities to innovate and think on ways to bring the products to market,” adds Peat.
Finding people better than you
Gennex has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Kenyan government, as part of the Greening Kenya Initiative – which will cover most of the regions of the country. Says Peat: “We’ve trained engineers on the ground and also engaged entrepreneurs who have the ability to not only sell the product, but to install it. This pilot is now operational and we’re working towards getting quantifiable data.”
Peat and Ojarikre met through Virgin Media Pioneers, a platform which allows young business thinkers to post videos promoting their concepts and share experience and advice: www.virginmediapioneers.com. “Richard Branson has a philosophy of finding people who can do things better than you,” adds Peat. “We have literally applied this model. In Africa, our Director for Africa is a former director of AirTel, the fourth largest telecoms business in Africa. Having him on board has helped immensely in establishing the leads and contacts that we need there.
“Virgin Unite has also very kindly allowed us to leverage their contacts as well, including an excellent law firm which has assisted us with many of the hurdles involved in dealing with African countries.”
These hurdles have not been minor. For instance, to open a bank account in Kenya you need a work permit, but obtaining the work permit requires investment of US$100,000 per person on the account. Underlines Peat: “For a start-up, $200,000 is a lot of money, particularly when you are trying to break into a new country. We encountered a whole host of other issues like this, such as certifications, taxation issues and so on. Without the help of our lawyers, it would have been almost impossible to negotiate these challenges.
“I would say that having a network of people who know the market you are moving into is essential and, even now, we are benefitting from their advice.”
Learning from the market
As Gennex has grown, the business model has changed, Peat reveals. “Initially, we were looking to launch five or six products but soon realised it would be better to break one product into market first. We’ve also discovered that needs are different in different places. For instance, the needs of a farmer are very different to a family home. In Jamaica, it’s not that they have a problem with electricity, it’s that they can’t afford to connect to the electricity.”
To source this information, Peat and Ojarikre have made countless trips overseas. Modern methods of communication such as WhatsApp have also proved invaluable, as well as Facebook and other social media. “We constantly have our ear to the ground, following up on leads and information quickly and also using these methods to maintain relationships.”
The power of entrepreneurship
Unsurprisingly, Peat is passionate about encouraging entrepreneurship in young people. He emphasises: “Entrepreneurship is the backbone to the modern economy but in addition to that, there is so much untapped potential in our young people, whose creativity can be stifled by the education system. We need to create and incubate their ideas so we can develop more successful businesses.
“It is also important that banks support young businesses to grow and that they support these ideas. Sustainability is key, though. It’s relatively easy to start a business, but it’s extremely difficult to maintain it and to grow. You need continual access to finance to achieve this.”
The future is bright
Gennex is continuing to expand its international scope, building on its base in Africa and Jamaica by moving into Haiti in December. “We’re also looking at Latin America,” Peat adds.
He describes another venture: “We have launched our latest initiative, a crowdfunding project with ISupportJamaica and need to raise about US$5,000 to kick-start it, so we are looking for support. The website feeds funds into small businesses – both micro-enterprise and non-profit.”
To access information about Gennex, visit: www.gennex.info
To find out more about ISupportJamaica, go to: www.isupportjamaica.com
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