AfricaLive: Could you please give us a bit of the background of Polucon Services? How would you describe your business philosophy?
Dominic Mureithi Mathenge: Polucon Services’ foundation is a fascinating start-up story that ran between 1990 and 1997. Seven years of Strategy, deliberation and brainstorming. A story on how to become pioneers, Entrepreneurs, how to raise funds, remain professional and gain respect both locally and internationally. Polucon was founded in 1990 and became Kenya’s first indigenous technical and scientific enterprise offering laboratory testing, Cargo Inspection and Environmental monitoring Services. Polucon was established ultimately to apply the mostly ignored indigenous skills and expertise that can build a company of international repute and standing. We essentially looked at the various barriers to African ownership and embarked on going around them.
We registered the company in 1990 but did not start operations immediately since we had no collateral for the bank or sufficient own finance so we decided to raise our own money, using something we called a ‘virtual loan’ (paying for a loan you don’t have as a way to raise money). Since before inception, we had salaries and assumed we had taken a loan and had to pay it back. That’s what we call a virtual loan; We started putting part of our salary money aside to avoid putting it to wrong use, we established a plan to buy equipment and other things we would need at each stage.
Our strategy of raising funds organically between 1990 to 1997, as well as our great conviction and belief in African indigenous minds paid off. In 1997, we started our operations in earnest, however, we realized starting is one thing but running a business is where the real challenges lie
Polucon strategically engaged young people by training them to not only be ethical, trustworthy and professional, but also to be able to handle the most recent laboratory technologies and equipment. It was not easy because some of our local universities are not well equipped and, therefore, produced some graduates who were brilliant but not fully baked. We had to overcome this constraint by offering internships that exposed graduates to our modern equipment and technologies before employing them. We use our own equipment and materials to train interns as a way of improving their employability or entrepreneurial opportunities
Our greatest change challenge as a small African company competing with large multinational companies, was to prove that we had the competences and capability. We were lucky that a bench marking platform had been created at an international level by ISO through accreditation and Certification and that’s what we needed most.
We initially went for ISO 9001, which is an International quality management system and got certified in 2006 followed by Specific Accreditation for competency under the ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO/IEC 17020. We have laboratory accreditation, which means analysis done by us is accepted worldwide. Proving our competence made us even more attractive in the industry. We are internationally accredited for our competence in inspection verification services and similarly any inspection certificate we issue is globally accepted.
Another thing that catapulted us was the internet. Network partners started coming in when the infrastructure in the country was good enough to support them. Our work over the years has endeared us to customers all over the country. We understand Africa so well, and so we started extending our offices within East and Central Africa.
AfricaLive: What are your plans in terms of future growth and expansion?
Dominic Mureithi Mathenge: Our vision is to become the company of choice and a leading African inspection and testing company. We want to cover Africa. We want to extend to Africa differently because we know Africa has the potential to be the world’s supplier.
Another important thing is that Africa is young, vibrant, and has excellent brains. In our company, we have young scientists of an average age of thirty years. We have been able to mentor those young people, and we want to duplicate that to every country in Africa.
AfricaLive: That means you want to expand your footprint even further?
Dominic Mureithi Mathenge: Yes, we want to establish our footprint much further. We are leading in Africa, but we want partners from other countries to facilitate trade within Africa because it’s a big basket. From our experience, there’s so much Africa can offer that we are yet to exploit. The more we produce in Africa, the more we will benefit from partnerships that will showcase Africa in a positive light.
AfricaLive: It’s been thirty years now, what impact do you feel you’ve made in Kenya and Africa over this time?
Dominic Mureithi Mathenge: First and foremost, we have created jobs and given opportunities to people who would otherwise be jobless. Secondly, we have changed the perception that you can’t grow something significant from scratch. You can start small and face the challenges as they come if you have the passion. We wanted to build the confidence of young people, to understand that they don’t just go to school to pass an exam. It’s about learning something that can help you, and not just about having a degree. We always encourage our employees to find innovative ways to go around challenges. We keep on talking of innovation in Africa, but you cannot be innovative unless you face a challenge that calls for that innovation. Whether it is diseases or formulation of foods, if someone knows how to test a particular vitamin, for instance, you can tell them to think of a faster and better way of doing the test.
At the beginning of December, we were ranked among the top one hundred for innovation, for what we are trying to do. Our innovative youth helped bring that win home despite their shortcomings when it comes to confidence. If you compare the graduates from Africa and those from Europe, the ones from Africa lack confidence because of lack of exposure. I am glad that the scientists who work for us are confident about their abilities. The world can now use the knowledge that has been established by us.
AfricaLive: What would be your advice to young entrepreneurs who are about to embark on their journey now?
Dominic Mureithi Mathenge: One of the critical things is financial management. The biggest challenge that I’ve seen in Africa is SME financial mismanagement. The way company finances are managed is very key, and how you access that capital is also important. If you can organise yourself, look at your goal, and plan to attain your goal, then success will come. However, success will only come if you have a passion for what you are doing.
AfricaLive: What does it mean to be a good leader, and what values and characteristics should a successful, and well-accomplished CEO have?
Dominic Mureithi Mathenge: First, you have to be an example. You can’t tell young people not to be corrupt if you are corrupt yourself. People learn by observation, and young people that we deal with today, depend on us to show them the way.
Secondly, you must give people the opportunity of leadership. The fact that we can share our knowledge and experience with younger people is fantastic. For instance, my number two is thirty-one years old, and all the heads of departments are below forty years. When somebody comes, and you give them the opportunity of leadership while guiding them, it works. If you are not selfish, and you make sure that other people are also part and parcel of your team, you grow.
AfricaLive: Concerning the perception of risk in Africa, what would be your words of confidence to the international investment community?
Dominic Mureithi Mathenge: That perception is what is killing Africa, yet it’s not the reality on the ground. If an investor comes and expects that there will be corruption, he or she may find it. If you come with the perception that people can not be trusted, it just might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have established ourselves as professionals today, using our efforts without cutting corners. Investors need to come with a positive mindset, that they are going to get partners to work with, without necessarily perceived risk in mind. I admit that there is a level of corruption in my country for instance, but there are still many successful companies that are doing well without corruption.
For example, Polucon is certified internationally for anti-bribery by Trace International. Locally, we are a Blue certified and recognised company – free of corruption. That is not enough; you need to walk the talk. The opportunities in Africa are so vast that you don’t need underhandedness. For any professional who is coming up, as well as the investors, you need to come with an open mind. The risks are not as high as they used to be, and every African country is asking for direct investment in their countries. Every country is working on making this environment good for investment. Things are changing fast compared to years and decades ago. This is the best time to come and invest in Africa.
AfricaLive: What legacy do you feel you’ll be leaving behind once you are ready to retire, and how do you envision the future of Kenya and Africa?
Dominic Mureithi Mathenge: One of the things is the confidence that has been built, to many young people and the fact that my vison has created professional jobs across Africa.