We all have a quote that defines our life. It could be from your favorite comic book, a sitcom you grew up enjoying or even from a profound inventor or philosopher.
It is unorthodox to ascribe someone else a quote that defines them but with John Mbindyo, we couldn’t help ourselves.
John Mbindyo is the CEO and founder of Freshbox, a Nairobi-based social enterprise which provides reliable solar-powered refrigeration solutions to fresh produce farmers, distributors, and retailers. Interact with his work at Freshbox and you might agree with us that this quote by Lily Tomlin best describes his work. “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody”
So, what’s the story here? A couple of years ago, John ventured into entrepreneurship with Shopa, an on-demand shopping and delivery service in Nairobi. At Shopa, he handled logistics, managed vendors as well as a fleet of motorbikes that made deliveries.
It is in this process that he had a eureka moment in addressing food wastage and lost income, while having a conversation with a fresh food market vendor. From the vendor he learnt that fresh produce only lasted three to four days after which any unsold stock would end up as garbage. This often translated to about 30% to 40% income loss, but was not considered a big challenge as there was a small profit margin. However, this realization did not sit right with John.
Upon much thought, he came up with the idea to offer a paid for cooling storage service and joined forces with three partners to implement it. They prototyped the idea by installing a pre-owned fridge in the market, a service that gained popularity and soon more vendors approached him. He then decided to build a cooler box in a process that involved lots of self taught skills and sourcing materials from manufacturers. The IT trained John now found himself fully immersed in the world of assembling a cooler box, which he did successfully. By this time he had worked with his co-founders to register a company and they began the process of installing and renting out the units in markets. His first unit, which is in use to date, was installed at City Park market in Nairobi.
Over time he moved into manufacturing and selling the units which to an extent fuelled the rental demand. He also drastically reduced focus on the rental business but sold to individuals who ran with the rental model, enabling him to focus fully on the product.
Then along came COVID-19 in 2020, which surprisingly created a storage demand, increasing the need for rental services. This grew Feshbox’s footprint and led to an iteration in sizing.
“We started producing smaller sizes that store about 20 crates and were cheaper to produce therefore affordable for smaller farmers,” he says.
Towards the end of 2020 Freshbox won a recognition award through our partnership with WWF PandaLabs Greenhouse Sessions. The prize which recognized their work in food systems was in the form of business acceleration support. It took shape through John’s participation in our Leadership for Growth program.
He describes his experience going through the six-month program as way beyond his expectations and one of the best decisions he has made in a long time.
“I can’t compare the mode of learning and the knowledge gained through the program to anything I have done in the past. The structure was more like self-realization/reflection where things you know and/or never thought about were brought to the fore.”
While undergoing the course John presented a Business Innovation Project(BIP) called Box on Wheels. The BIP is a culmination of the program where participants use the skills and mindsets learnt to practically respond to a challenge or opportunity in their workplace. With Box on Wheels, John’s intention was to provide a mobile solar-powered cold storage unit for dairy and fresh produce. This solution went on to become the all-time highest selling product for Freshbox, increasing their reach and opening up new markets especially in off-grid areas.
“We have supplied Box on Wheels to camps in the Maasai Mara and it has proven useful due to its mobility. They can now collect their fresh produce and transport it back to the camps.”
Freshbox has helped vendors reduce wastage, enabled them to buy stock in bulk taking advantage of economies of scale, and improved their earnings by almost 50%. Their impact on food systems has further grown in East Africa with the business now supplying units across Somalia, Uganda and South Sudan.
For us at Amani Institute we couldn’t be prouder to have been part of his journey, and have a quote we hope inspires yours.
Big ideas come from forward thinking people who challenge the norm, think outside the box and invent the world they see inside rather than submitting to the limitations of current dilemmas
… T.D. Jakes
You too can experience a direct business impact from the practical skills gained through our Leadership for Growth program. Nominate a manager now and let us be part of your growth journey.