Kenya has temperate waters that are ideal for fish farming and has an ample supply of low-cost land and labour. So why can it not produce fish at a more competitive rate and why is it reliant on fish imports from China?
This was the question Talash Huijbers asked herself. When discovering that the answer was feed – animal feed makes up between 60 to 70% of the production costs for East African farmers and the most expensive component is protein – she saw an opportunity.
Her company, Limuru-based InsectiPro, is aiming to replace imported soy, fishmeal, sunflower seed cake and cotton seed cake with locally-produced black soldier fly (Hermetica Illucens). Black soldier fly contains more than 50% protein and can feed on organic waste products, making them a high-protein, cost-effective and sustainable fish feed.
InsectiPro has gone from strength to strength and, last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged a $2 million grant to the startup. However, female entrepreneurs face many challenges in the region, as Huijbers told us recently.
Talash, what is the business environment like for a female entrepreneur in Kenya?
“It’s not easy. First of all, there are a lot of regulatory challenges being in an innovative industry; I didn’t choose the easiest industry to be in. Also, I feel that although it’s women who do the work in the agricultural industry, it’s men who benefit the most. I started the company at 23 as a solo female founder. Once I went to a county meeting and they said to my male colleague, ‘Oh you brought your secretary, can she make us some tea?’
“Small things like that are shocking but not surprising and happen continuously on repeat. It’s already hard enough being in this industry but add being a woman and add being young, it’s like a triple negative.”
Do you find that people eventually get past their own prejudices, accept you as the CEO, and focus on working together?
“No. For example, the head of one of the biggest fishing organisations in Kenya refuses to take meetings with me because I’m a woman. He only accepts meetings with my male colleague, Sam Gituro. This hasn’t happened just once or twice so now we get the message that I can’t go to meetings with him, only Sam can.
“Kenya is a very patriarchal society, so I’m not really surprised. I’ve told him I’m the CEO, but he won’t accept it. So, he will just stay with his old ways of thinking, and we have to find the easiest way to move forward.”
Do you feel that things are changing with younger generations and with more women like you acting as role models in leadership positions?
“There are still a lot of ingrained thoughts that women should be in the home. For many people, I am 26 and I don’t have children yet so, I may have a big company, but I’m failing in my life. I still see this a lot even though my generation is a lot more modern.
“I also find that women can be the meanest! One female government official refused to sign my paperwork and made me feel awful. I left her office in tears, thinking, ‘You understand my struggles; why are we not on the same page?’. Another government official asked me once, ‘What will happen to your company when you get pregnant?’.”
Are there support networks for women businesses leaders in Kenya and Africa, and could they help change mindsets?
“Yesterday, I heard the CEO of Biomilq, Michelle Egger, say very clearly: ‘Don’t feel sorry for me because I’m a woman, just see the work that I’m doing’. I agree. I hate things like the term ‘She-EO’, I don’t understand why it’s necessary. A CEO is a CEO, we don’t need a special term like ‘She-EO’!
“But I do think these groups are good for women empowerment, sharing stories and figuring out how to handle certain situations. That is good but the rhetoric of ‘She-EO’ makes me feel like I’m not being taken seriously because I’m a woman. I don’t need extra bonus points because I’m a woman, I need extra bonus points because I’m kicking ass!”
Do you have any advice for women who want to pursue a business career but who are based in patriarchal societies with very entrenched gender stereotypes?
“Don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s society. And sometimes it will just be easier to put your pride aside and let a man have a conversation with a man – if that really is the blockage, and you just need to move forward. Sometimes you need to recognise when you’re not going to win and find solutions around [the problem] because what you are doing is more important. That’s a problem you can solve later, as long as you’re still able to do your work.”