The GEN Starters Club team caught up with Okey Esse, founder and CEO of Nigeria based startup Powerstove Energy, about his experience at the Entrepreneurship World Cup last year, including the run-up to the global finals during which he took English language courses to boost his chances. He tells us how the EWC has impacted his work, his company’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and his journey as an entrepreneur. Okey also offers some well-chosen advice to entrepreneurs around the world.
GEN: Hello Okey, please tell us about yourself and your company Powerstove Energy?
Esse: My name is Okey Esse and I’m the founder and CEO of Powerstove Energy, a company that was started in 2017 and was registered officially in 2018. By the fourth quarter of 2018 we launched our first batch of products.
GEN: So what makes PowerStove unique?
Esse: We design, manufacture, distribute and sell clean cooking stoves that self-generate electricity as a by-product of the cooking process and we also produce wood pellets from agricultural and wood waste.
Our edge in the market is that we make sure our products get delivered at the right price to users’ doorsteps (or within walking distance). We ensure that our product quality is not compromised against profit – giving our final users products that they can be proud of and recommend.
Our anchor strategy has been that we avoid using the traditional marketing channels to advertise our products. Instead, we rely on word of mouth and referrals, which have grown our sales by an average of 18% month on month.
GEN: Casting your mind back to last year’s EWC, what expectations did you have?
Esse: At the time I signed up, what I had in mind was a global audience that could give my products a global visibility, because at that time I understood that there would be delegates from over 100 countries from across the world.
So, what I had strongly in my mind was how can I network with people or businesses that I can create lasting business relationships with?
The prize money was on my mind too, because at that time we were looking at expanding our business to meet current market demands.
However, getting to Riyadh during the event transformed my previous experiences on how to pitch, how to manage tension, how to be on a global stage and be able to sell your products.
I’ve never been on a stage that is so tense and so filled with high calibre experienced entrepreneurs from across the globe. It was quite challenging, but I was happy that I came, gave my best, that I made a mark and reached the top 20.
GEN: How did you find Riyadh and what was your experience performing on such a major stage?
Esse: From the time I got off the plane at the airport, to the streets of Riyadh, to the hotel – I was blown away.
I had a very different mindset about Riyadh and Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know they were technologically forward, that they were that welcoming.
I gained huge experience from the whole trip and also during the event. I was made to understand during the coaching process that the event was going to be moderated in English and there were 100 companies gunning for the prize money.
So I had to do a lot of personal development to be able to improve my pitching skills. I had to improve my English, improve my finesse, improve my stage act, so I could communicate to the judges, in the shortest possible time, the benefits, features and unique selling point of our products, and what we’re aiming to achieve going forwards.
GEN: We found out from talking to another EWC 2019 global finalist that you took it upon yourself to drastically improve your English language skills before the event. How did you manage that?
Esse: I used online resources and had a private coach.
I also used the internet; most of the online materials have videos to help you pronounce words, and make sure you will be able to say as much as you can to convince your audience within the limited time you’re allocated.
Before Riyadh, I felt the tension. I saw myself shaking because something I have spoken about for five minutes I now had to squeeze into ninety seconds and be able to make an impact.
It was a wonderful experience. It has helped me, going forward, because after being in Riyadh, we took part in other competitions and using the experiences from the EWC, we won those competitions.
GEN: Which competitions did you win? We saw that you won one with the Tony Elumelu Foundation?
Esse: Yes, we won that, and also we won the Next Einstein Forum. It was due to be held in Kenya in March, but then COVID-19 came and so it was shifted.
GEN: What was your experience at the global finals specifically with the other entrepreneurs and your mentors?
Esse: It was very useful. First, I was happy that I was on the right track as an entrepreneur, because I saw a number of successful entrepreneurs that have gone before me and are doing great.
Also, I understood that most of the challenges we face as entrepreneurs have no regional bias. It is part of the things you must experience as an entrepreneur – the challenges you must find a way to overcome, and be able to build your business so that it can at least provide a competitive product.
Another advantage that I gained from the experience is the camaraderie between all of us. We’re all ready to help each other personally and one-on-one we try to share challenges and ask for help. Each one of us confirmed that we are open to assist.
I also learned from one or two people about improving my marketing strategy, which currently is in the consumer space.
Another benefit I gained is from the judges who were open to telling you the areas that you didn’t do well in, and what they think you should have done or should be doing. That was helpful, as when you get honest feedback it helps you to know the areas that you need to strengthen.
GEN: Can you tell us about any lasting contacts you’ve made through being involved in EWC 2019?
Esse: Yes, I’m still in touch with a guy from Ethiopia. We are looking at expanding my product into east Africa and he is giving me a whole lot of baseline information that is saving me resources and gathering information.
He’s doing it free of charge, without attaching any financial reward – just because we are alumni of 2019 EWC.
So, you really can’t attach financial value to such friendship.
GEN: That’s wonderful to hear. Can you tell us how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted your business?
Esse: At the initial stage it was quite a challenge. It affected us at ground zero, because when it came, we didn’t expect the government to implement a total shutdown.
Nobody expected that, so in Abuja, we had one full month of total lockdown with no movement. Within this period we had staff that we needed to support, to make sure they were healthy and eating well. So, it drained part of our financial resources. We had to make sure that we didn’t lose any staff within that period, so it was zero revenue but with the same expenses.
Another thing I did within that period was think about how we can come out of this. What we did was move from a distribution marketing model to what is called a below the line marketing model which is now dropping us closer to our users.
Before, we were far away. We used a middleman. But now we are closer to our users, we are bringing the products closer to them and we understand their needs. We are trying to create better relationships with them, and in turn we are rewarded as they are buying more from us.
They also allow us to cut down on our Account Receivables. Selling through middlemen or distributors as a startups leaves huge credits or Account Receivables because most of the time when you sell through a third party to get your product delivered, you offer a lot of incentives and credit lines.
But when you implement below the line marketing and you offer door-to-door distribution, our Account Receivables have reduced to less than 5%, when before it was about 45%. So that gives you more liquidity in the company to be able to buy more raw materials and also increase production capacity.
GEN: What advice would you give to this year’s EWC participants and anyone else looking to start or scale up a business?
Esse: My advice is they should prioritize professionalism.
When you go into entrepreneurship without being fully committed, you will be knocked out from the competition at an early stage.
They need to do a lot of personal development: watching a lot of videos on YouTube on how they can pitch and communicate their ideas; and work around 2 minutes on average on an elevator pitch. Understanding that is key to making it to the top 40, or even the top 10 in the EWC.
I am also happy that EWC this year has rearranged their awards to include the idea, startup and growth stages. This will enable people to compete against only startups which are at a similar stage as theirs.
And for those who want to go into entrepreneurship generally, my advice is for them to understand that the first one or two years is no time to take out profits. Even if they managed to break even early, when you plough back your profit, it helps you to grow organically, it helps you to avoid the impact of investors coming in early, and you losing a lot of your equity and ownership of the company.
So they should be able to grow organically within the first three years and move on from there, learning from their mistakes before taking external funds.
GEN: And finally, what is your vision for PowerStove Energy for the future?
Esse: We have an ambitious vision that by the time we celebrate our five year anniversary we should have five million households using our products.
So, at that fifth anniversary we want to be in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with presence in east Africa, west Africa and southern Africa. Then we also want to be the number one company using blockchain technology to finance clean cookstove adoption.
We are pioneers in the clean cook stove industry, so we want to remain pioneers to ensure we make our mark in that sector.