Interview with Anthony Kirori, Green Pencils Limited Founder and CEO

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Green Pencils Limited is an environmentally-conscious organization that manufactures eco-friendly pencils, pens and infinity road studs, devices used to increase road safety. The company’s goal is geared towards addressing the global challenge of Climate Change in line with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Kenya’s Vision 2030, a development blueprint that seeks to address some of society’s most pressing challenges.

According to Green Pencils Limited, more than 14 billion pencils are currently in use across the globe. To meet the annual demand, thousands of trees have to be cut down each year. As our population increases, more pencils will be used, increasing the number of trees that have to be felled. As such, the Green Pencils is looking to alleviate pressure on the environment. The group’s Founder and CEO, Anthony Kirori explains what milestones the company has made to this end.

What inspired you to launch Green Pencils Limited?

Unfortunately, on the night of 27th August 2006, my brother, Andrew Kanyi, a father of 2, was involved in a fatal road accident. It was raining, and there was no other car at the scene of the accident. The traffic police said he must have tried to avoid a head-on collision.

Later on, the traffic police informed me that, at night, many people drive via approximation or memory, especially when it is raining. From the Road’s ministry, I realized that we had no practical solution to improving night driving visibility, thus enhancing road safety.

I, therefore, embarked on designing and developing road studs, and after a few years, I made road studs that will not only improve night driving visibility, but also provide advance road warnings. When tested by the government agencies, they surpassed both local and international standards. This was a first in Kenya, and possibly Africa.

What challenges did you face when you first started your business?

We thought the government and the supermarkets will quickly embrace these local innovations. We were in for a rude shock.

What are some of the milestones that Green Pencils has made since its inception?

  1. We got our first four clients in the third month of operation – a total of 3,758 pencils. Two of those initial customers are still our repeat customers 6 years later.
  2. Got our first high net worth client (ICRAF) in the 4th month.
  3. Made the 10,000th Pencil after 9 months (coincidentally delivered to our 1st client, Nairobi International School).
  4. First retail client (Banana Box) at 12 months.
  5. Developed a new product (green pen) 16 months after commencement.
  6. Made our first export sales (Definition Africa Uganda) 19 months after inception.
  7. Became members of UN Global Compact after 18 months.
  8. Got the first multi-national corporate client (Unilever) exactly after 2 years.
  9. Two years and one month, we got onto the shelf of Uchumi Supermarket.
  10. Made our first presence in Tanzania three years later (Saba Saba).
  11. Participants in the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
  12. First export to France after 3 years (AO Technologies).
  13. First export to Australia after 4 years (Kentainers).
  14. Moved to bigger premises after 4 years.
  15. Invited to pitch to venture capital investors after 4 years.
  16. Presence in the largest stationery chain in East Africa (Text Book Centre) in the 5th year.
  17. Working on our first eco-friendly packaging at the moment.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to branch out on their own?

  1. Business is about solving problems or meeting needs and wants. Think of how to create solutions in an innovative and sustainable manner.
  2. The world is now a global village. Open and challenge your mind. The world’s problems can be solved from practically anywhere. Therefore, do not geographically limit the scope of your thinking.
  3. Money and success are two different things. Never get into any venture to get quick money and never make money an end to your pursuit. Instead, come up with an innovative solution to a problem/challenge and the rewards will follow.
  4. Focus is everything. You can have the brightest idea but without focus and strategy, it won’t work.
  5. If you don’t invest you will not grow. Don’t be scared to spend.
  6. Work with a team that shares the same vision. You can never succeed alone. Seek joint ventures if you have to.
  7. Don’t get too personally attached to your product or service. Let it have a life and brand of its own.
  8. Make sure you are compliant with all the regulations and avoid shortcuts, they always catch up with you.
  9. Protect your intellectual property.
  10. Dream big, think bigger.
  11. Think of where you want to be in 10 years and have a succession plan.

A majority of new businesses are susceptible to failure within the first few years of operation. In fact, many of them collapse a few months after they are launched, according to a United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) report on SMEs in Africa. What did you do to avoid this fate?

Most people get into the business because they have seen someone else doing it.

We have survived because we believe in what we are doing and are passionate about it. We are also realistic and humble. Don’t attempt to live beyond your means, or project an image to impress others. Network widely. In addition, it is important to have a great team with progressive minds and persistence is key.

Learn from your mistakes. Accept, adjust and advance.

Have structures and systems that work and move with the times. Adjust where you need to but don’t lose focus.

Without persistence, it is almost all in vain. Do what you have to do, within legal and moral limits of course.

Be patient. The rewards may not be immediately forthcoming, but eventually, with the will come, perhaps not immediately, but eventually, with the right and consistent action, it will come.

What are your plans for Green Pencils Limited in the near or distant future?

  1. Manufacturing is one of the President’s Big 4 Agenda. We plan to leverage on this so as to conduct business with the Kenyan government. The volumes generated here will enable us to rapidly expand our horizons.
  2. The European Union (EU) is currently imposing a ban on single-use plastics. That, and the fact that the Blue Economy Conference will be held in Kenya (November 2018) presents a unique opportunity for our environment-friendly pens (made from paper). Kenya is seeking to partner with governments, the private sector, the civil society, academic and scientific institutions among others to make the Conference a great success. Having our paper pens used in the Conference will present myriad of great opportunities.
  3. According to the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), over 95% of road accidents are caused by human error. Most of these accidents occur at night. Therefore, improving night driving visibility is of paramount importance. That, and the fact that manufacturing is one of the Big 4 Agenda places the road studs we manufacture in a unique position.
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  1. Pingback: Green Pencils Limited and its support for Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) and Kenya's Vision 2030 | Briefcase Africa

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