9 Lessons from Kenyan Multi-Millionaire Kimani Rugendo

What does it take for entrepreneurs to change their paths, establish a niche business, scale-out, or penetrate new markets? 

“The greatest fear of human beings is the fear of failure. But I encourage you, whatever you are doing, do it well and don’t be afraid of falling. When a child starts walking, he stands and falls relentlessly till he develops his own pace and becomes resilient.” – Kimani Rugendo.

As part of our knowledge-exchange sessions with the participants of Empowering Entrepreneurship Initiative in Kenya, we had the pleasure of hosting Kimani Rugendo. This Kenyan billionaire businessman has always been a role model to hundreds of entrepreneurs worldwide. He is the owner and founder of Kevian Kenya LTD — a juice manufacturing company in Kenya that leads the food & beverage sector with its famous brands: Afia and Peek ‘N’ Peel.

During the session, Kimani shared his experience with the entrepreneurs, along with 9 key lessons to keep in mind on their path to scaling. He then invited our entrepreneurs to visit the Kevian Kenya LTD. headquarters, where they had the chance to explore the entire production process and create connections for potential strategic partnerships. 

From politics to reaping fruits for a successful juicy business

Kimani Rugendo, the former Ford-asili party chairman and ex-political activist who has called for pluralism since the late 1980s, shifted his endeavors from politics to business, with the vision of actively contributing to a sustainable economy for his country.

His turning point was when he failed to capture a parliament seat in the 1992 country elections. He then established Kevian Kenya LTD, starting with one factory where he developed its first product, Mt. Kenyan Water,  a bottled water brand that counted back then as a niche spin-off in the market. 

I was never born free. I was born during colonial times where we were not allowed to think for ourselves. Somebody had to think for us. Now you’re free, and you should exercise that freedom. You should make full use of all the opportunities and facilities that are given to ensure that you get the environment that you really require for you to innovate in your business.

Kimani Rugendo’s belief in his homeland’s self-determination resonated further when he called for establishing more local, 100% Kenyan-owned businesses. Along the same lines, he pioneered the bottled water industry in Kenya, introduced new products and is still competing locally and regionally. 

Starting with supplying hotels and restaurants in Mombasa with his Mt. Kenyan in the early 1990s, Rugendo not only succeeded in achieving a solid value proposition for his business, but he was also the first businessman to introduce 100% Kenyan brands to the tourism sector.

Nine Success Lessons From Kimani Rugendo

#1 Keep your customer in focus

#2 Hold on to your staff

#3 Keep your word with your suppliers

#4 Maintain a good reputation in the market

#5 Recycle and save the environment

#6 Keep a work-life balance

#7 Hire the one who knows more than you

#8 Look for the value in every gap

#9 Build a network of reliable people

Let’s dive into it!

#1 Keep your customer in focus

Whether you are introducing a new product or seeking enhancements, Kimani Rugendo advises you to always follow your customer feedback. 

He ensures that you’ll know you’re on the right track if you keep  an eye on your finances as well as on product rejections and returns. That’s because considering the customer experience and feedback has always been his guiding light.

“People are always very skeptical about new products. But you always remember, your customer and their comments are vital to you to keep on making your product better and better so that it appeals to the customer daily.”

Today, Kevian Kenya houses an innovation center where kids are invited to play around with different ingredients. The innovator teams then see what the kids could develop, and build ideas for developing kids’ products based on the real-time customer behavior.

#2 Hold on to your staff

The culture you build in your organization is the motive for your staff to stay or leave. And this is not very easy. We all come from different backgrounds, and because of that, we react to criticism differently. 

“My wealth is built on good people, clear conscious thinking people, because that is the basis of a good business.”

Today, Kevian Kenya LTD supports more than 800 direct employees, along with thousands of small-scale farmers who supply the juice manufacturing company with fresh fruits. Aside from that, they support a realm of distributors, retailers and wholesalers through partnerships.

#3 Keep your word with your suppliers

When dealing with suppliers, you have to set a basis of confidence and reliability from the very beginning. For that, Kimani Rugendo advises you to:

1) Keep your promises always! The suppliers are also manufacturers like yourself. For them to meet your needs, you have to be a person of integrity. The best practice is to meet your deadline and pay your supplier on time.

2) Plan, plan, plan; don’t overbuy, and don’t underbuy. If you require a large amount from a particular supplier in a month, don’t be shy to order it, thinking that this enormous amount is too much for you because they might think your business is small. Only be transparent and ensure that the confidence is there. And meet the promised payday. When you do so, you’ll find the suppliers become flexible as you establish a relationship built on trust and allow you even extra days.”

#4 Maintain a good reputation among your customers

Continuous Improvement and teamwork” is a simple guiding motto that Kimani Rugendo follows in his business and encourages you to adopt while always considering your customer feedback. 

“A single miscommunication can spoil your reputation. We are living in a time where information will travel very first, and you have to remember that your reputation is your most important asset.”

For that, Rugendo advises you to teach your staff how to value customers, from how customer service representatives answer calls to how your drivers behave on the road:  “Even if you as an owner are a caring, kind person, the image of your business depends on every team member working with you. Everyone has to adhere to the same standards.” 

#5 Recycle and save the environment

Waste has always been one of the most pressing challenges in industrial operations and a major contributor to climate change and global warming.

“By nature, we are all polluters — we have to look around us and consider a greener environment. At Kevian Kenya, we utilized tetra packs and aluminum cans. But once I realized how I’m a major contributor, I went fast into recycling,” Rugendo explains. 

Certified by The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Kevian Kenya has also extended its environmental work by building the fastest recycling facility in the country since 2019. In Thika, this facility recycles the tetra pack paper to make various home utilities, including roofing materials, bins, industrial pallets, etc.

#6 Keep a work-life balance

Rugendo believes that a good business is like a well-learned family. But running a successful business for 30 years has pushed him to sacrifice a lot in this aspect — a mistake that he admits and urges you to avoid.

“You have to know what time to let go, to stop and when to start. Otherwise, you’ll crack up!”

He says: “In the beginning, I thought that I should be on duty 24/7. For the last 30 years, I was married to the business. I didn’t have a social life. But in the end, you will find that you’ll be a sick person. You’ll lose your friends. Having made that sacrifice, eventually, I’d say no, I’d go back and work towards having a balanced life.”

#7 Hire the one who knows more than you

To be able to keep a work-life balance while scaling your business, it’s important that you make the best use out of your resources, and learn when to delegate, and when to ask for help. 

“If you’re a good manager, you have to ensure that your deputy is better than yourself by far.” 

Rugendo believes that finding mentorship should be your first step when starting your business or leveling up with it. “The next step is setting up a succession plan: How do you plan to grow into the next step within your business and let others take charge? You have to learn how to trust others and make sure that they are capable of doing as well, if not better than yourself.”

#8 Look for the value in every gap

Reflecting on the onset of COVID-19, the 70-year-old Rugendo reminds us that there is an opportunity in every disaster. Out of his long-enduring journey, he prompts you to consider saving for tough times and having a backup plan.

“Farmers always have a store somewhere to keep some grains and seeds to plant when the times are bad. And so should you: It’s always good to have something spare. You cannot use up all that you have and forget to save something for a rainy day.”

Look up the missing link and find the gap,  but always keep your values and respect your customers.

#9 Build a network of reliable people

After stepping back from politics, Rugendo resorted to his network of friends and family to help him grow his business. He could also secure some funds from angel investors before convincing the bankers and financial institutions. “I had to put a lot of my assets at stake for the security of the bank. At one point, everything that I had was mortgaged for me to go into business.” 

“You alone cannot do it. You have to build a network. And it must be a network of people with integrity.”

At enpact, we’ve always been keen on empowering entrepreneurs along their journeys. For instance, the Empowering Entrepreneurship Initiative has supported over 300 businesses to date in emerging markets, including Kenya, with dedicated mentoring, training, and direct financial backing. One of the most important components of the program was allowing entrepreneurs to meet and build peer-to-peer partnerships, exchange knowledge, content directly to global experts and mentors. They were able to identify and tap into the relevant networks for their businesses. If you’d like to learn more about the enpact community and take part, subscribe to our newsletter and stay informed with all opportunities.

Also, if you have been to Kenya by any chance, don’t miss the opportunity to visit one of Kevian Kenya’s factories! Rugendo is always keen on supporting aspiring entrepreneurs in Kenya and offering his company’s support – just reach out to Kevian Kenya’s customer service and leave a message with a visit request!

“Most importantly, you have to remember that in your journey in being an entrepreneur or a successful businessman, you have to be a man or a woman of integrity. Promise to deliver quality then deliver on time.”

Junior Communications Manager

Noha is the Communications Coordinator at enpact. She is a content writer and storyteller,  skilled in Journalism, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Interviewing Subject Matter Experts, Newspapers, and Magazine Articles.

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