|Joel Mwale speaks about his business venture Photo: Youtube|
BY JEVANS NYABIAGE
The name Joel Mwale may not be familiar to many people in Kenya, but he has gained quite a fan base internationally.
And not just because he made more than Sh40 million at 19.
Last year, he sold his 60 per cent share in SkyDrop Enterprises — a rainwater harvesting and purification project that he started at 16 — to an Israeli-owned firm for $500,000 (Sh42.5 million).
At 16, Mwale changed the lives of more than 5,000 people in a community in Kitale when he helped them access clean drinking water.
He had contracted dysentery from contaminated water during a particularly dry season in Kitale. And when lying on his hospital bed recovering from the very serious bout of diarrhoea, the health risk in his community sparked an idea.
With savings of about Sh8,000, the knowledge of physics acquired at Friends School Kamusinga and some help from volunteers, Mwale built a borehole on some community farmland.
He installed a pump that would allow extraction of the water, providing clean, drinking water to hundreds of households in his village.
He was forced to drop out of Friends School since his family was unable to pay for his tuition. But this did not dampen his spirits.
He set out to find tuition fees and earn a little extra to support his family.
Coincidently, the idea for SkyDrop came to maturation when Mwale was caught in a rainstorm.
“I remember it was in April during one of the heavy rain seasons in Kitale. I was just walking as the rain poured and happened to spot a closed yoghurt shop. Next to it was a water tank that was storing the rainwater from the gutters of the roof.
“I thought to myself: can’t I trap this rainwater, store it in a reservoir, purify it and then sell it to the public?”
After convincing the owner of the yoghurt shop to lease him the location, Mwale set out to find a purifying machine to filter the rainwater. He soon discovered that this piece of equipment was quite expensive.
The next three and half months saw Mwale knock on the doors of local banks and NGOs for funding, but they declined.
He turned to his 20-acre piece of family land, which had been lying fallow for years. He approached his mother about selling it, an idea she was initially opposed to. Eventually, however, he convinced her.
With the proceeds from the sale, Mwale bought a water purification machine for Sh430,000, and paid for the cost of operation to produce drinking water.
“We used to harvest rain water and focus on production during wet season. During the dry spells, we would market our product.”
Half a litre of water retailed at Sh17, and a litre at Sh31.
Initially, SkyDrop was only able at sell about 10 bottles a day as a result of significant competition from already established drinking water bottlers.
But after persistent campaigns, sales climbed, with the company making Sh25.6 million in profits last year, Mwale said.
He added that he used some of the cash he made to replace the family land he sold to fund his business.
The success of this project and the unfortunate turn of events that occurred afterwards ultimately led to the creation of SkyDrop Enterprises.
This is the social enterprise that has earned him global accolades.
In addition to providing clean water to his village, he skillfully converted the idea into a booming venture by bottling the water for sale across western Kenya and into Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Sudan.
He had also just won a Google award (Zeitgeist Young Minds 2012) for being one of the Top 10 Brightest Young Minds in the World. The award saw him spend a lot of time in USA’s Silicon Valley. He spent time with people like Larry Page, the co-founder and chief executive of Internet search engine giant Google, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, best known for inventing the world wide web.
Mwale is among a crop of young entrepreneurs who have overcome tremendous odds, and instead of crying foul over the unemployment crisis in Kenya, have gone the extra mile to create jobs.
Unemployment has gone up progressively from 6.7 per cent in 1978 to 40 per cent today.
He is now on a journey to building an African Google, Apple or Facebook. With other partners, he has founded Gigavia.com, a company that he says will likely offer solutions for how institutions can deliver education materials and also provide a platform for veteran entrepreneurs to mentor youngsters.
The company has offices in Kenya, South Africa and in Silicon Valley. It currently employees tens of programmers and administrative staff.
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