Shirlene Nafula, 26, didn’t grow up envisioning life as an entrepreneur. In fact, she had big dreams to study for a master’s degree abroad, and then see what career in science she’d find herself in.
That was until she was denied a visa in 2014. To ease the sting, her grandmother gave her Sh10,000 and asked her to think of a business she could start.
“I have a science degree from the University of Nairobi, so I decided to look into rolling out beauty and hygiene products. I registered my business, Crystal River Products, and with the capital I got from her grandmother, I printed my first batch of labels,” says Shirlene.
Her mother then helped her purchase chemicals, plastics and the basic machinery she’d need. In March 2015, she went into production, making bio-based products that are partly derived from plant materials.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, but she has built up her company to the point where she caught the attention of Chandaria Capital, a venture capital and private equity firm.
While on the show KCB Lions’ Den, Darshan Chandaria pledged Sh4.5 million for a share of her business.
“Our products include Bio Pearl Handwash, Gran’Mas Multi-Purpose Liquid Soap, Bethels Shampoo and Shanea Glycerine. We also make gift packages for corporates and for special occasions, like birthdays or holidays,” Shirlene says.
She’s now a regular traveller abroad, and with the benefit of hindsight, is grateful the overseas programme didn’t work out.
When we caught up with her at her Upper Hill office in Nairobi, she’d just come back from a business trip to China.
Shirlene first heard of KCB Lions’ Den on TV and social media platforms, but didn’t think she had what it takes to apply. However, her mentors and a few other trusted entrepreneurs convinced her to put her application in to bid for financing from the show’s five investors.
And she did. She then went through the initial stages after a review of her online application, and was later picked by a film crew for training on pitching her business idea in the den.
“I had rehearsed my pitch in my head for a while, but only typed it on the way to the studio. We had our hair and makeup done, and I was the first woman to pitch in the den that day,” recalls Shirlene.
“When I first stepped out, I was very nervous. Eventually, though, I got myself together after repeating in my mind that ‘it’s never that serious’, and ended up having a lot of fun with the presentation.”
She ended up getting two investment offers. One from Olive Gachara, who wanted 40 per cent of her business, and the other from Darshan, who wanted a 45 per cent stake. She went with Darshan.
“Chandaria Capital at first put in Sh4.5 million, but we later renegotiated a new deal that I can’t share just yet as I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement as we work out the details,” says Shirlene, adding that she expects the deal to be finalised in a month’s time. And her streak of good fortune hasn’t just been limited to the TV show.
She’s won two awards from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) under its Empretec programme, and received recognition for her dedication and excellence from the Women in Business arm of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The British High Commission also listed her among 29 other young women leading in business in Kenya and across the Commonwealth.
Behind the success
“It is by God’s grace that I’m where I am today. The mentorship and guidance from my pastors have taken me a long way, as have my family, other mentors and help from the new team at Chandaria Capital with whom we’re building a business together,” Shirlene says.
She’s especially excited about the path her business is on when she remembers that she started with four employees whom she later had to let go off after being unable to pay them.
“Like every start-up, we faced our fair share of challenges. In particular, we struggled with poor employee work ethic and delayed payments from certain retailers, which made finances challenging. However, we worked our way through it and are stronger because of it,” she says.
Shirlene now has 16 employees, and expects the money from Chandaria Capital to help her increase her workforce.
“The money will also increase our production, marketing and distribution capacity; basically, we’ll be growing every aspect of Crystal River Products.”
Her investors are also providing support in terms of her go-to-market growth strategy, general oversight and management of the business.
What it takes
In her view, what do the investors in the den look for?
“A strong return on their investment is key. Also, they should be able to see potential in the people behind the business. When it came to Crystal River Products, beauty and hygiene are an integral part of society; everyone likes to look good, so there’s huge potential for a business like ours to scale,” Shirlene says.
She adds that making an exceptional product at an affordable price would also work in your favour.
With her new partnership, she sees her company promoting good hygiene and raising awareness on preventing the spread of communicable diseases.