Cuthbert Ayodeji Onikute: “Find Your Tribe”
Good morning! I am here to introduce Cuthbert Ayodeji Onikute. I had the privilege of watching Cuthbert speak at the 2016 Africa Business Conference at Harvard Business School. He was one of the top 10 finalists chosen to participate in the new venture competition. He had to pitch his business in 5 minutes to 4 judges in front of a packed auditorium. The passion he feels about his business shined when he was on stage and I know when you read his interview below you will also sense his passion as a social entrepreneur working in Guinea.
Please introduce yourself. What is your name? Where were you raised? Where did you go to school?
My name is Cuthbert Ayodeji Onikute. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria raised in Gouyave, Grenada and grew up in Jamaica, New York. I completed my MSc in Urban Planning from GSAPP at Columbia University in 2013 and my BA in International Studies, Africa America Studies, and History from the University of Buffalo in 2007.
Describe your business.
Dechets a l’Or or “DalO” collects and processes solid waste produced in African cities to create fertilizer and energy for local consumption. We focus on servicing secondary cities, those with populations between 50k – 500k inhabitants, as they have the highest rates of uncollected waste and greater demands for fertilizer and energy.
We collect waste from households, businesses, and local markets. Then we use the organic material to produce organic fertilizer; the plastics are recycled to be reused in manufacturing, and the paper and cardboard waste is transformed into paper briquettes to provide renewable fuel for household cooking. In the future, we will use the organic waste to produce energy through anaerobic digestion.
How did the idea for your business come about/when did you start?
I wanted to find some opportunity to work in and be of service to Africa after undergrad. I got my first opportunity in 2008 to be an IFESH volunteer for 9 months in Kankan, Guinea. That is when I started thinking about business opportunities in Africa.
At Columbia, I learned about biomass (organic matter derived from living, or recently living organisms) and its potential for energy and other uses. So much of Africa’s waste is organic and there was not much activity in the waste sector. I thought that something could be done. My business puts my idea into practice.
How did you start your business? What were your first steps? It seems so intimidating to start a solid waste company.
First I did a lot of research on biomass, waste to energy, and then on waste practices in Africa, US, India, and some other countries. I interned at a large company in India and did a little bit of work solving their waste issues. I was also able to do some field research in Guinea and India, which I followed up with a feasibility study in Kankan, Guinea.
It is intimidating to start a company, much less a waste company, but I find it is better to think about it as breaking down a complex thing into a really simple concept. Everyone creates waste and wants to get rid of it. DalO helps them do that. Waste collection can be a complicated endeavor and our customers have limited means. So it is best to make it as uncomplicated as possible: a simple truck, hard work, and time.
Walk me through the step-by-step process that you went through to get to where you are today. What was the first thing you did? Next?
This was a long complex process but I can provide a brief outline of my steps.
Wanted to work in Africa.
Took an opportunity to volunteer in Guinea, Africa.
Came back to the States and learned about biomass.
Studied biomass and waste management practices around the world.
Worked for several months and saved $15k to head back to Guinea.
Conducted a feasibility study in Guinea; focused on 25 households for 6 weeks of service.
Rented a small collection vehicle.
Upgraded to a truck.
Now serving over 260 households.
Where is your business based? What cities do you service currently?
We operate in Kankan, Guinea. However, DalO is incorporated in Delaware as an LLC, based in NYC. We currently service Kankan (2nd/3rd largest city in Guinea).
Do you have a plant?
Currently, we are raising funds to scale up operations. We invite your readers to please learn more about us by visiting our website http://www.dechetsalor.com/ and hit the donate button because every little bit matters.
How do you get the waste to your facility? How have the bad roads and interesting infrastructure of African cities affected your business?
Right now, we are renting a truck, but we are raising funds to purchase our own truck. Inadequate roads increase our time spent collecting waste and traffic jams are a significant time suck.
Did you feel pushed into starting your business? Were you facing financial insecurity?
I did not feel pushed to start my business. I wanted to create jobs and provide opportunities for young men and women in secondary cities across Africa.
What is the most important part of running a solid waste business?
The important part of running any business is respecting the customers. For us, that starts with making sure we regularly collect their waste.
How many hours a day do you work/describe a typical day in your life.
I work on DalO full time. Every networking event, pitch event, or just administrative work that I do concerns DalO. So most days I work from like 10 am – 7 pm and on Sundays, I try to keep it to like 4 or 5 hours.
What role do you play when you are outside Guinea?
When I am outside of Guinea, I am fundraising and marketing for Dechets a l’Or. I keep in frequent contact with my team on the ground; I troubleshoot whenever possible. However, my primary role is to build awareness of what we have created and try to secure funds wherever possible.
My goal is to deliver the right message to the right group of people who see the potential in what we have created and are willing to invest. I am exploring every option including Echoing Green, D-Prize, National Geographic, Columbia University and Angel investors. We are also listed on VC4Africa and other platforms that help entrepreneurs promote their business and raise capital.
How long were you running the business before you started paying yourself? How did you live through those first few months/years?
I have not yet begun to earn an income from DalO. I am living through my first year and will tell you how I did it once I am done with it.
What have been some of your failures and what have you learned from them.
It is hard to speak of one particular failure. I would say failing to learn what I needed to in order to win grants like Echoing Green and D-Prize is significant.
Not raising enough money to comfortably operate is another failure. I am learning that I need to develop knowledge and acquire the skills to understand the financial landscape.
What has been your most satisfying moment in your business?
My most satisfying moments have been the conversations I have with customers. They tell me how much better their lives have been because we regularly collect their waste. How other operators come infrequently and charge high prices. They are not worried that we are going to take their money and never show up, we are reliable. They talk about how nice it is to wake up and not see piles of garbage in their yards.
How do you market your business?
We do direct marketing; interns go to households and present our service to them. We have an initial acceptance rate of about 18%, but within several months, most of the households we engage with usually join our service.
What is an example of what you do?
Looking back, what is one thing you wished you understood before you started your business?
A better understanding of the need to be ready, willing and able to cut people loose, and more willing to take small risks.
What are 3 pieces of advice you would give people who want to become entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Have Capital. Money is a source of its own problems, however having a reliable capital base relative to your business is essential to freeing you to nurture your business so that it may grow.
Find your tribe. It is incredibly lonely working alone so find people who understand where you are coming from and then surround yourself with them. Their energy and stories will help you through the rough patches.
Planning is wonderful, so do it! Plan as much as possible, for as long as possible, and tell people about your plan. That said, following through on your plan is equally important. When people join the train that your actions have pushed out of the station you will be able to accept all of their assistance.
How did you choose your staff since there are no background checks? How did you vet employees?
Right now, I get resumes from young people through contacts with former students and other relations I have at Columbia University, and then we interview them for internships.
Vetting is usually an informal reference through my team. My team has been with me since the beginning and they will only provide a reference if they trust the person looking for a job as they do not want to ruin their relationship with me.
How would someone get in contact with you?
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