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Sustainable Future: African Startups

Sustainable Future: African Startups featuring Yvonne Mose & Jeremiah MabiriaSustainable Future: African Startups featuring Yvonne Mose & Jeremiah Mabiria
Sustainable Future: African Startups featuring Yvonne Mose & Jeremiah Mabiria

“I remind myself that no one is swooping in from out of nowhere to save me or the situation. I have to power through it ... Being a CEO and entering rooms with people who don't take you at face value or don't take you seriously has become a challenge. I believe that's what motivates me. I try to integrate women into the workspace in my organization. I aim to position them in roles where, as they grow and venture into starting their own startups or seeking other employment opportunities, they can be listened to, and people will take them seriously.” Yvonne Mose

Entrepreneurs Yvonne and Jeremiah founded MOMA Renewable Energy (former SBIKE), a company that produces bioethanol cooking fuel from food waste to address energy and environmental issues in Kenya. Their business aims to reach rural Kenyan households and contribute to reforestation efforts. Yvonne and Jeremiah represent the rising potential of African startups and the need for support in achieving a more sustainable and interconnected world. By channeling empathy and vision, Yvonne and Jeremiah exemplify how individuals can drive change and create a better future.

Stephen Matini: Jeremiah, you grew up in the US, and Yvonne, you grew up in Kenya. Jeremiah, you are also of Kenyan descent, correct?

Jeremiah Mabiria: Yes, we're actually from the same region and community. It's just that I had to eat and relearn the language when I came home.

Stephen Matini: Jeremiah, how was growing up in the States, especially with parents from a different country?

Jeremiah Mabiria: It was interesting to be different. I came from a place where I was like everyone else. Me and my brother quickly assimilated and became American. We had to relearn being Kenyan more than learning to be American. It felt natural.

Stephen Matini: When people ask you where home is, what is your response?

Jeremiah Mabiria: Minnesota is home; that's where I grew up. But Kisii (Kenya) is also home. I feel a connection when I'm here. My easy answer would be that I have many homes. I've been fortunate to live in various places and have many ties.

Stephen Matini: Yvonne, what was it like for you growing up in Kenya?

Yvonne Mose: Growing up in Kenya is everything I know. It's all I know about life, and it was really good to be around my people, my culture. My parents come from a very low-income background, which motivated me to understand who I am and what I want to work on. I believe it has truly shaped the person I am today. Growing up was really interesting; Kenya has 47 tribes, so I didn't miss out on anything culturally.

Stephen Matini: How long ago did both of you meet?

Yvonne Mose: About two years ago.

Stephen Matini: When you first met, could you sense cultural differences between the two of you?

Yvonne Mose: Yes, for me, there were differences because Jeremiah speaks differently. He is very American in his ways, but it was a pleasant surprise.

Stephen Matini: Both of you have developed over your life a passion for sustainability. Were there any specific people or event in your past that have somehow made you sensitive to the sustainable agenda?

Yvonne Mose: Growing up in a poor background, especially in the rural areas of Kisii, I saw how difficult it was for my family and neighbors to access clean cooking fuel. That experience shaped me because I noticed how much time it took away from playing with my friends or going to school to study. This gave me a clear idea of what I wanted to do. 

I became very environmentally focused, which I pursued in university for my degree. Meeting Jeremiah and his dad further influenced me. His dad convinced me that employment wasn't the way to make a significant impact. To make a difference, I should start something on my own, like a startup or business, to create more impact in the community. That's what made me who I am today.

Jeremiah Mabiria: For me, sustainability became significant, perhaps influenced by the education system. I remember the campaigns with blue dumpsters for plastics and green ones for other waste. It was taught in school, but as I got older, it became a lifestyle. 

Through the education system, I learned about the planet's environmental challenges. We keep buying new gadgets and cars without considering their environmental costs. If change was going to happen, I realized I had to be a part of it. I had to contribute to creating that change. Meeting like-minded people through school and college groups sparked my interest. 

We have the advantage of not having messed up a lot of things like in the West; we have a chance to prevent it from happening. We can create industries while considering their environmental impact and mitigating their negative effects. That's what really drove me, especially when I returned home, to ensure I was involved in sustainable energy.

Stephen Matini: Oftentimes, the whole notion of sustainability, capitalism, and growth—financial success—are seen as opposites. What is your view on this?

Yvonne Mose: I think when people consider impact, they often think about charity work, and I believe that's not the only way. Google is a tech company that has a significant impact on people without being a charity organization per see. 

When I think about impact, I consider the basic needs for communities like housing, clean energy, water, and health services. These are services that can be initiated and made accessible to low-income households or communities. At the end of the day, while your organization is making a profit, you are also thinking about the broader impact on the community. Impact and profits can go hand in hand.

Stephen Matini: Do you expect it to be easier to operate the company in Kenya going forward? Would it be more difficult in the United States? 

Jeremiah Mabiria: I think it would be easier for sure. What we're doing involves a lot of experimentation; we're trying new things. What I've found is that the Kenyan government, when we approach them for regulations or certification, they allow you to take the lead. 

They may not fully understand what you're talking about or haven't seen it before, but they say, "You do it, and then we will regulate you." It's very accommodating because it's a smaller government that is hungry for development and anything that moves the needle forward. They are very willing to accept.

In the US, it's a very regulation-heavy system, so trying unconventional approaches requires a lot of money. You have to conduct massive amounts of research and work to ensure compliance with regulations. Here, the regulators work with you, and they need you. In the US, the government is so large that I don't think they necessarily need any one entity.

Stephen Matini: Would you mind explaining the idea behind your company, SBIKE?

Yvonne Mose: Since SBIKE was created to maximize social and environmental impact, we currently produce BOCA biofuel. It's a bioethanol-based cooking fuel made from food waste and food processing byproducts. Our aim is to create both an environmental and social impact, and our products are priced affordably to be accessible to rural low-income households, which are our target customers.

Currently, households use charcoal and firewood for cooking due to their affordability and accessibility. When comparing our biofuel to charcoal, which is even more efficient than firewood, one liter of biofuel burns as much as three kilograms of charcoal. Our biofuel is priced at about 90 cents US dollars per liter, while one kilogram of charcoal costs about a dollar.

This also has an impact as households save money by using our fuels. Additionally, there are health benefits because the only byproducts from our biofuel are water and CO2. Cooking with wood fuels produces smoke and particulate matter, which can adversely affect health.

Our organization is primarily focused on making a positive impact rather than just profits. However, we are also profitable because we produce our biofuel at about 60 cents a liter and sell it at 90 cents, resulting in a profit margin of about 50%. While we generate profits, we are simultaneously making significant social and environmental impacts.

Stephen Matini: How has the reception been from your consumers towards your company?

Jeremiah Mabiria: Our current challenge lies in production. We've increased capacity twice since the fabrication of our first machine, and we've consistently struggled to meet demand. This isn't limited to the Kisii county area we chose as our pilot; we haven't fully launched in the entire county or region, yet we can't keep up with the demand in our current location. 

We've received requests and had meetings with the county government, and the main question is how quickly we can expand. This is why we're actively fundraising to build a proper launch facility.

Stephen Matini: If someone is interested in helping you out, what could they do?

Yvonne Mose: Currently, the most critical need is to scale up production. We require assistance in expanding our current facility, acquiring new production equipment, and improving product packaging. Additionally, as we scale up, we aim to initiate branding and marketing efforts.

Jeremiah Mabiria: Fundraising is crucial to obtaining the resources Yvonne mentioned, enabling us to reach more households and serve more people quickly, surpassing the slow national growth trajectory.

Stephen Matini: Do people need a specific stove to use ethanol?

Jeremiah Mabiria: There are stoves available, but for rural low-income households, we found a company in Kenya that caters to urban areas called "Cocoa Networks." They sell a stove for about $15. 

In the rural markets we serve, where most people earn a dollar or two a day on average, saving $15 is a significant amount. It's what they need to save up for their children's school fees, for example. Investing in a stove is just too expensive for them.

However, ethanol is combustible in any container. Think of serving lines at buffets—they use ethanol to keep the food warm in a container with fire. We've been reusing tins and training our agents to educate customers on reusing tins used for cooking fat and other purposes that they already have. They can use these as stoves.

So, they have an ELY ethanol stove that costs them nothing except the time invested in making the stove. They can replace it whenever it rusts at no extra cost, allowing them to allocate funds to buy ethanol. Otherwise, reaching them would be impossible because the manufactured stoves are prohibitively expensive.

Stephen Matini: Ideally, if everything went according to your plans, where would you like to be five years from now?

Yvonne Mose: Ideally, we would have reached all the rural households in Kenya. That's very ambitious. Currently, we're only serving the Western region of Kenya, specifically the Gossi region. So, ideally, in five years, we would have covered the entire country. We would've made a more extensive social impact, and we would have already started producing biodiesel, the product we are currently piloting.

We aim to increase our production so that we can supply bioethanol to industries and cook stove companies manufacturing cook stoves. Currently, these companies import ethanol into Kenya because there's no local company producing ethanol at a scale large enough to meet the demand in the country.

Currently, we're piloting biodiesel made from bioethanol and waste from companies that use cooking oil, particularly those involved in deep-frying foods. For example, oil waste from KFC, Trigger Foods, or even Tropical Heat, the company that makes crisps. So yes, we are currently piloting biodiesel, and we've identified it as a niche in the Kenyan market.

Stephen Matini: Do you also have other sustainable projects in your pipeline?

Yvonne Mose: Our efforts to address environmental degradation constitute a sustainable project. Although it doesn't generate profits, as a company, we have committed to donating 1% of our proceeds to land restoration, specifically reforestation. We support community-based organizations, women's groups, youth organizations, and even the local county government in their tree-planting efforts. 

As a country, we have a 10% target for forest cover, and while the national goal hasn't been met, our county, KC County, has achieved a current 15% forest cover and 26% tree cover. We aim to maintain or even increase these figures.

Stephen Matini: The life of an entrepreneur can be difficult. Is there anything that both of you do to lift yourselves up when things do not seem to go well?

Jeremiah Mabiria: Not just Yvonne, but having a good team around you, a group of people who see things the way you do and share the same goals is crucial. Like everyone else, I have low days, days where I don't want to go to the office or find out that the machine is broken. 

When you remind yourself of why you're doing it and the bigger goal, it's easy to get up in the morning. The goal is much bigger than myself, and whatever I want to accomplish personally, there's something much bigger that we are trying to attain in conjunction with other companies like ours across the world—showing that it is possible to make money while doing good, which I think is an important thing to highlight.

Stephen Matini: Yvonne, what do you do when you feel, ugh, it's so hard to bring your energy up?

Yvonne Mose: I remind myself that no one is swooping in from out of nowhere to save me or the situation. I have to power through it. Also, having a team around me, especially the team we're building, where no one is strictly in charge on paper, but we all help each other out. If I realize Jeremiah has a problem that needs solving or a different perspective, that's what we focus on and work on.

So, having an A team around me that supports me and knowing that through me and my work, I'm supporting other women to come up is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Stephen Matini: How do you ensure that you find the right individuals for your team? Is there anything specific you do or look for?

Yvonne Mose: For me, it's mostly a gut feeling. Currently, the only management team consists of the co-founders, who hold the management positions. The rest of our team includes production staff and those in our supply chain. 

When bringing someone on board, we rely on our gut feeling. Before finalizing a contract, we integrate them into our organization and have a three-month probation period. This allows us to observe how they interact and work with the team. After this period, if everything goes well, we commit and offer them a contract. It's not foolproof, but it's the approach we take.

Stephen Matini: How is it to be a female CEO in Kenya?

Yvonne Mose: Kenya, as a whole, is very accepting, but it has many different regions, especially the Gossi region, and I think we are also a patriarchal society. 

Being a CEO and entering rooms with people who don't take you at face value or don't take you seriously has become a challenge. I believe that's what motivates me.

I try to integrate women into the workspace in my organization, especially in our production staff. I aim to position them in roles where, as they grow and venture into starting their own startups or seeking other employment opportunities, they can be listened to, and people will take them seriously. 

So, as challenging as it is, it's also a personal challenge for me to ensure that in the future, this doesn't happen to other women.

Stephen Matini: You share a personal and a professional relationship, and that's not easy. Jeremiah, how do you keep these two important relationships in line?

Jeremiah Mabiria: They're very separate, and they have a life of their own. We sat down and were very intentional about how we created our work-personal life balance. She's my boss when we're in the office, and I take direction. That's our business relationship, and I take that seriously. We have a separate relationship when we're at home, and we make sure we give both those things enough time to grow. Each of them needs to be nurtured in its own way.

Stephen Matini: What would you say could be a first step, based on your experience, for anyone exploring the entrepreneurial route? 

Yvonne Mose: For me, it would be to just start. There's never going to be that perfect moment, and there's never going to be enough money for you to do it. If I had waited until I was in the perfect position to start my company, I would have waited until I had a hundred million dollars in my account to launch a big company and make all the impact I want. 

So, my advice would be to just start; everything else will fall into place. Do all the necessary research, understand your strengths and weaknesses, and build a team. 

While some view being a solo founder as a good thing, I found value in having co-founders who complement me because I realized I don't know everything, and I think that's crucial to acknowledge. 

Also, when talking about energy, I feel that many women believe they have to portray masculine energy to be taken seriously. However, if you channel your authentic self and energy into your endeavors, it will lead to success.

Stephen Matini: What would you say are your strengths?

Yvonne Mose: I'm empathetic. I tend to feel the people around me and strive to help them become the best versions of themselves.

Jeremiah Mabiria: I'm fortunate enough to have the ability to see possibilities rather than impossibilities. When discussing opening a factory in a rural village in Kisii, it's easy for me to envision how it's possible, why it would work, and the steps to make it happen. Some of my co-founders were initially skeptical, but I can communicate to the team what is possible and bring them around to the idea.

Yvonne Mose: Today, we were driving from Nakuru after a meeting, and we passed by a factory. Jeremiah said, "All the cars and money in the world, I don't want that. All I want is that." He sees possibilities where I don't, and I think that's what attracted me to him. He's someone who sees far, and I believe that's what I needed in my life.

Stephen Matini: For those listening to our episode, is there something specific you would like them to take away from our conversation?

Yvonne Mose: Africa is emerging in the market, with numerous startups and driven youth aiming to make the world better. We shouldn't be overlooked; we are rising and will make a significant impact.

Jeremiah Mabiria: We've moved past the dark ages, and I see hope everywhere, not just in our organization, but in meetings and programs where people share interesting and innovative projects. We need a little push, a helping hand from the rest of the world, but we are ready to finally join the global community.

Stephen Matini: Thank you for sharing your vision and empathy. I genuinely hope your aspirations come true, as there is a pressing need for a more sustainable and balanced world. 

Yvonne Mose: Thank you, Stephen.

🎧  Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Podbean, or your favorite podcast platform.


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