Gathu Kirubi : “The work we are doing gives me a reason to wake up in the morning”


The DOEN Foundation supports pioneers who use an entrepreneurial approach to come up with solutions for a better world. Read the story of Gathu Kirubi, founder of SunTransfer Kenya Ltd (STKE). STKE offers people with low incomes in rural areas in Kenya access to solar energy and accompanying devices such as lamps, fridges and radios.

A new adventure
In 2009 I just came back from the United States where I decided to leave my job and start something in Kenya. In the US of course there are big opportunities and better paying jobs. But after I had finished my PHD I felt that my skills would be more relevant and better utilized in my own country, Kenya. So, immediately after my studies I took a flight and went home. In 2010 we started operations. A new journey full of dreams and expectations. I remember how we were struggeling to find an office and on of our employees helped us out. Till this day that same employee is still working with us, and so is our second employee who was with us at the start. It was such a great feeling to start this new adventure with them. I realised very quickly that to make it in this business you need a big network. We really got a lot of help from our parent company SunTransfer Germany. They helped us with the sourcing of the product, the shipping logistics and most important, they also gave us the fast line of credit. Besides local connections we also needed an international network, for example to find micro finance institutions that helped us to distribute our product. Without both global and local connections it would have been very difficult to get the dream even started. And over time we worked very hard to improve and strengthen and expand both networks.

Improving lives
My most moving experience remains the difference we are able to make to our customers. In 2013 we started a project at a school called: “one light per child”. We gave every child a small solar lantern which they could take home every evening and use it for the evening study. Of course the parents could also use it for lighting or phone charging. And the following day they would bring it to school to recharge and then they would take it home again. This had big impact. For example, school attendance. In these very remote places school attendance is a big problem. But now, parents had a real reason to send their kids to school, because in the evening they expected the child to bring back a recharged light. You have to remember this are very remote Masai communities. Sending kids to school from a Masai community is not your top priority. Your top priority is a child to look after your cows and for the girls to fetch water and firewood, or worse get married off early to older men. But now we had this small solar lamp that was transforming the way the parents are thinking about education and attending school.

We also started a project with a Langata health clinic in Ol Loitokitok, Kajiado County the only health facility in this village serving up to about 500 households. The nurses would only work during the day because there was no electricity. One of the challenges we have in this area is snake bites at night. So if someone had a snake bite the next immediate first aid is vaccination. But if someone is bitten at night, and the clinic is closed the person is as good as dead, because the next clinic is 100km away. By installing solar panels the clinic could open day and night! It makes you appreciate the work that you are doing. It gives you the reason to wake up in the morning.

Recipe for success
When I look at our success I see 3 important factors. The first one is impact. Changing the lives of people living in rural communities. The second is the employment we’re creating. At the moment we have 70 employees and 150 agents. A lot of these employees are young people from the age of 20 to 25. And the last factor is, of course, financial sustainability. Because without it it’s really hard to scale up your business.

The DOEN Foundation supported us in 2015, in the days we were still piloting and defining our business model. The financial support made a big difference in two ways. It helped us to expand our network and we were able to get working capital. Both really important! And with DOEN as part of our investors, it gave us some very good credibility. Once again: this business is built on networks. Both at the international as on the local level. So the funding from DOEN, the network and the name that they was and is also really important for our growth.

A new new beginning
What I like to mention is 2018 was a new beginning for STKE. We feel that we’ve made our mistakes in business, like every business does, we’ve taken very strong lessons, we’ve build a strong infrastructure, we have up to 15 branches. Most important remains our team of highly experience and passionate staff of 70. Also we have financial systems in place, we have launched a new model for distribution which is quite effective and efficient in terms of delivering sales. The only thing that is missing, to conclude that, is working capital and equity. So that we can put all the pieces together, make it possible for the agents and models we have created, the infrastructure we have now put in place. So the adventure continues!

Authors: Indra Heerkens & Thijs Looijenga

DOEN is helping to combat further climate change by directing its attention to reducing CO2 emissions. To achieve this, DOEN will over the next few years be supporting initiatives in the area of sustainable energy. Within this area, DOEN focuses on frontrunners with a business model. Within the Netherlands we are looking for pioneers in the field of sustainable energy and energy saving; moreover we finance initiatives that focus on access to sustainable energy in Africa and Asia. With this programme, DOEN shows that solutions can be practical, efficient and payable.