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The impact of Barclay Okari’s social enterprise

Barclay Okari is a young Kenyan social entrepreneur. He is the founder of Impact Africa Industries, manufacturers of Safi Pads, the affordable and reusable sanitary towel that has eased life for many East African women.

The story of Barclay Okari’s entry into entrepreneurship is not so different from those of others: risk-taking, false steps and learning from mistakes. In 2007, while still in high school, Okari started the venture SkypeScience, a science sharing site modelled after YouTube. Because he lacked the time to nurture the business, it never made profit. Again, in 2009, he co-founded the e-commerce company, Marketplace Ltd, designed to be an online market for sellers and buyers. He hoped to make money from advertisement and subscription, but, again, the company didn’t quite break even and had to close shop less than a year after it was set-up.

Undeterred by his past failures, in 2011 Okari took a loan of $1,500 from his parents, bought basic equipment and established Impact Africa Industries, makers of Safi Pads, the affordable, washable and reusable sanitary towel. The company was conceived as a social enterprise to help Kenyan girls from low-income homes who cannot usually afford the price of regular sanitary towels in the market to stay in school during their menstrual period.

Barclay at the New York Forum, Africa. Photo: New York Forum Africa
Barclay (right) at the New York Forum, Africa. Photo: New York Forum Africa

He knew he was onto something big when the first batch of his product sold out within a week. Targeting women in local communities in Kenya, the company now distributes its product to Uganda, South Sudan and is contending for a share of the market with established multinationals.

“The biggest challenge has been to prove that our product is up to par with the known brands in the market,” he said in an interview with The Hub East Africa. “We are in competition with the large multi-national companies while we started out as a small local player. This has meant that we have had to extensively invest in research and development of the product, just to prove that we made a good reliable alternative at low cost.”

With over 34 staff, annual revenues of $ 300,000, a manufacturing plant in Kitale, Western Kenya and purchase of new equipment for large-scale production, the company is looking to increase its market share within the next few years.

22 of his employees, Okari told Forbes, are women.

“I believe that in empowering women with opportunities, I am empowering the community that we work in. I have seen this in the transformation in the lives of the families of the women that work with us,” he said.

Barclay Okari. Photo: Impact Africa
Barclay Okari. Photo: Impact Africa

A typical day in the life of Okari starts at 5 a.m., beginning with jogging, followed by bath and breakfast, before heading to the office at 8 am, where he remains till 5 pm. From there he goes to his evening classes and returns home at about 9 pm. Then he does some assignments and office work. He doesn’t go to bed until 1 am. The fact that his company is creating social change, he has said, is one of the factors that keeps him up and going.

“The need to be self-reliant and solve social problems with great social impact in society was what motivated me to become an entrepreneur. I had to go through a steep learning curve as a young entrepreneur to be where I am today,” Okari told Under35 CEO.

He considers Ghanaian entrepreneur and leadership development expert Fred Swaniker a mentor. Okari admires his “risk-taking attitude” and has learnt from him the basics of social entrepreneurship. Other lessons Okari has picked up on his entrepreneurial journey are the importance of persistence, hard work and a good team to work with. His other tips for success are contained in his book, MarketPlace. The book details his experience trying to run the initial failed ventures, SkypeScience and Marketplace. According to TM Africa, Okari wrote the book to encourage struggling entrepreneurs to persevere.

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