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 started in 1990, and it is a fascinating start-up story between 1990 and 1997. In my discussions with fellow scientists, we hadn’t seen any locally owned technical or scientific enterprises. We, therefore, had to brainstorm to see how we could put one together. We looked at the barriers to African ownership and worked on going around them.
It is expensive to run a scientific company in Kenya. If you need to have laboratories, you will require expensive equipment. Unfortunately, in most cases, if you go to the bank and ask for a loan to buy a small box of equipment, the bank will ask you where they’d sell it if you fail to pay. Secondly, we realised that there’s potential in Africa, in terms of people who have got processors. So we decided to use those African indigenous minds to build a scientific company. We knew we had a problem with raising the capital and getting the right people for the job.
We also realised that our company had to build trust with customers, due to the nature of the job. Our goal then became to establish a trusted company with the capacity to handle inspection work. We registered the company in 1990, but did not start operations until we could provide the collateral needed by the bank. We decided to raise our own money, something we call a virtual loan. If we wanted twenty thousand dollars, for instance, and we have no bank to give us this, we’d assume we’ve received the money and made plans to pay back. That’s what we call a virtual loan; God has given us the money, but we don’t have it. He’ll give us once we finish paying. We started putting money aside and to avoid putting it to the wrong use, established a plan to buy equipment, and other things we would need with the money raised at each stage.
Polucon Services started operations in 1997 when we already had the basics. We took young people and trained them to be ethical and trustworthy and capable. That sorted the second problem, which is Universities not teaching people to become entrepreneurs but employees. You find that a University has many students, but has only one or at times no equipment. We decided to use the equipment
At first, people did not believe in our ability to do the work because we were going against big international companies. We decided to move and look for a way to benchmark ourselves with the rest of the laboratories. To allay any fears of a quality gap between us and competitors, we went for ISO certification and accreditation. We had to go for ISO 9001, which is a quality management system so that people can be able to trust us in whatever we are delivering. If you are ISO 9001 certified, you have procedures of how you do things in your management, and you can trace and prove the procedures you followed to reach where you are.
The next thing was accreditation, which is a measure of competency. We have laboratory accreditation, which means analysis done by us is accepted worldwide. Proving our competence made us even more attractive in the industry.
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 a leading African inspection and testing company, which means we want to be all over 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, I 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: The 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 your efforts without cutting corners. The investors need to come with a positive mind that they are going to get partners to work with, without necessarily thinking about the risk behind it. 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, we are certified internationally for no bribery by Trace International. Locally, we are a 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, the fact that you don’t feel left out.