Synnefa: How Rich Roommate Inspired Two Broke Campus Friends To Found Multi-Million Business

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Synnefa: How Rich Roommate Inspired Two Broke Campus Friends To Found Successful Business
Taita Ngetich and Brian Bett founders of Synnefa Greenhouses Photocredit/TheStandard

Agriculture is a source of livelihood for many Kenyans across the country. Regrettably, a good number of farmers end up making losses due to the many variables related to farming. This is what happened to Taita Ngetich and Brian Bett, who burnt their fingers in a tomato farming project while they were still in university. This is what inspired the duo to found Illuminium, later rebranding to Synnefa. According to their website, the company “offers smart and comprehensive farming tools with a variety of products to help the modern farmer take the guesswork out of farming”.

Here is what WoK has gathered about the company and its founders.

Founding Illiminum, later renamed Synnefa

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The idea to start this business was founded while the two friends were still in college. According to Taita, his roommate was always loaded and they admired his lifestyle.

“My roommate had money. My friend Brian and I really admired his lifestyle, so we asked him how he sustained it. He told us about his farm at the foot of Mt Kenya where he planted tomatoes for wholesale. We didn’t care much about the tomatoes at the time, but we wanted the money, so we decided to get into the business,” he told the Standard.

The start-up capital was Sh45,000 which they didn’t have. They convinced four other students to join the venture and rolled up the project confident of making a tidy sum.

“……After the first three months, we lost the capital after most of the crop was damaged by excessive rain. The other four students dropped out leaving me and Brian. We decided to research how to manage external factors in farming and that’s when we came across the idea of greenhouse farming,” Taita shared.

Illuminium Greenhouses

In 2013, the then university students pitched the idea of setting up a greenhouse to their parents who supported them with Ksh 120,000. The duo then topped up with Ksh40,000 each bringing the total investment to Ksh 200,000. After building their first greenhouse, it only took them three months to get their first harvest. They made Ksh90,000 profit. 

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The success that came with this project sparked interest from other farmers. They gave them contacts of the contractor who had built their greenhouse before realising that they could actually make money from these farmers.

“Initially, we just referred them to the contractor we’d paid to build our greenhouse. Then we thought, why not use this as a business platform? So, we actively started selling the idea of green houses to farmers,” Taita says.

Farmers would pay 80 percent deposit, which was used to pay the contractor, and the remainder once the project was completed. In 2014, they registered Illuminum Greenhouses.

They charged Ksh200,000 for a single greenhouse and in the first year they built ten greenhouses making Ksh 2 million. In 2015, they faced another challenge which was access to adequate water. 

“The obvious solution was irrigation systems. But the challenge was that most of these systems used electricity and high speed internet connectivity, which farmers in the rural areas didn’t have access to. We came up with the idea of using solar sensors, 2G internet and an SMS system for feature phones,” he said during the interview.

The duo pitched the prototype at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya in 2015 which was graced by the then US President Barack Obama. 30 startups from 184 countries applied for a grant and the duo came in second after Mexico. They secured a Ksh 1.5 million grant which they used to reinvest into the company and build their new system.

In July 2017, during the Connect business conference in Rwanda, and American Society of Mechanical Engineers iShow hardware competition they received Ksh2.5 million and Ksh1.5 million respectively which they used to repay their debts and complete their sensor irrigation system named Farmshields.

The system costs Ksh75,000 to install and comes with two moisture sensors, two humidity sensors, two temperature sensors and one flow meter sensor which measures the flow of water. The company has employed 32 staff and since sold over 1,200 greenhouses and sensor irrigation systems.

Rebranding to Synnefa

In September 2021, the company rebranded to Synnefa. The company rebranded following a pre-seed round led by Founders Factory Africa and Water and Energy for Food. Some of the products offered by the company include the irrigation sensor system – FarmShield, farm management system – FarmCloud, Smart Greenhouses, Screenhouses, NetHouses and Drip kits. In September 2022, Synnefa was selected among 60 African startups, 12 from Kenya, to benefit from Ksh 479 million Black Founders Fund offered by Google.

“We are excited to receive this non-dilutive funding from Google. This win gives us validation that we are building a company that can scale globally and is solving a critical need for farmers in Africa. Raising capital as Black Founders is challenging, this win speaks to the level of hard work and support we had for farmers,” Ngetich said.

Education Background

Taita Ngetich sat for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination in 2009 at Moi High School – Kabarak. In 2011, he joined the University of Nairobi-graduating in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in mechanical and manufacturing engineering.

2016-2016: Purdue University through the Mandela Washington Fellowship for a Business and Entrepreneurship program. 

He also took a New Ventures Leadership and Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He later graduated with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) specializing in Business Administration and Management at the University of Warwick.

Career

Taita Ngetich began his career journey in January 2010 working as a Piano and Violin instructor at Trinit Music School. He interned at Hashi Energy Limited in 2013 as a Petroleum Engineer. 

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