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Finding a gap in the industry, Kenyan entrepreneurs Mohamud Omari and Rashid Omari founded a Kenyan-made pencil company, manufacturing hundreds of thousands of pencils every year from recycled newspaper at their factory in Nairobi.
At the Momo Pencils factory, old newspapers are put through 18 different processes to produce funky, water resistant pencils that they say can last up to three times longer than ordinary pencils.
The pencils are sold to schools, corporate firms, government agencies and through a number of retailers.
Omari, who co-founded the eco-friendly alternative product in 2019, notes that growth in the education and private sectors is driving overall demand.
“About 100 million pencils are imported every year,” Omari tells RFI’s Africa Calling.
“By using recycled newspapers we are helping protect the environment by reducing littering and the number of trees being cut to produce wooden pencils.”
Invented centuries ago, pencils have stood the test of time and remain popular even in the electronic age of smartphones and computers.
Water resistant and longer lasting
“Some people expected that with the advent of technology we would stop using pencils. But annual global consumption is about 14 billion. Pencils are not going anywhere,” he says.
“However, how pencils are made should change to reduce pressure on trees – which is why we use recycled newspapers,” says Omari.
Momo Pencils has carved a niche in producing branded pencils used for sales promotions, marketing campaigns or as gifts.
“Children use them on a daily basis so they present a great opportunity as a communication and marketing tool. Organisations can use them to pass messages to children, and subsequently to their parents,” he says, adding that they can be “portable billboards”.
Rolling with the punches
Rashid says Momo Pencils began focusing on schools and corporate clients when it faced hurdles getting on to the shelves of retail stores.
“By virtue of being the only Kenyan company making pencils locally, we expected supermarkets to embrace us. But we were surprised when they showed us the exit door, and refused to give us orders,” says Omari.
They decided to re-evaluate who and how they would sell their pencils.
“We shifted our model to business-to-business, and began working with corporate firms and government,” he adds.
Although distribution is also a major challenge, Momo Pencils has not written off the mass market, and are hoping to sell to small shops once they get a distributor.
“If we can’t get a distributor who can offer us better terms, our final game plan is to invest in our own distributorship network,” he says.
Diversifying the business
Momo Pencils has diversified into producing pens and is eyeing more opportunities in manufacturing other products using recycled newspaper.
Recently Omari and graduated from the 2020 Green Pioneer Accelerator programme, which seeks to support businesses involved in reducing the effects of climate change.
The programme offers companies support to scale up their operations by getting their strategy and financials in shape, and preparing them for fundraising conversations with a network of over 600 investors.
“Next year we will start making crayons, as well as eye pencils used for make-up. There is also opportunity to make road signs. In Kenya road signs are often stolen to resell the metal. Our material is waterproof so we can make road signs no-one will want to steal”.
Schoolchildren benefit from ‘green’ pencils
And one of their biggest pencil markets is schools. At Creative Minds Primary school in Nairobi, students benefit from an initiative to supply them with affordable, environmentally friendly pencils.
Distributing pencils to students comes with an added benefit: educating them on the environment, according to Noel Omukubi, an environmental educator at Momo pencils.
“We do not only donate pencils, but we take them through a session where we teach them about environmental matters, and then we plant trees with them,” says Omukubi.
“They have shown us how to plant trees and they have also told us the benefit of trees like oxygen and the shade,” standard seven pupil Nathan Muki says.
For Creative Minds school student Joy Wangechi, 13, the Momo Pencils environment presentation was an added bonus.
“I am very happy and excited for this Momo pencil. It’s made up from recycled newspapers. They have taught me things about environment that I did not know,” she says.
Head teacher Mebal Okango applauds Momo Pencils for their efforts to empower children using recycled pencils.
“We are happy to have Momo pencils here. They have been coming, they have been assisting our children to have pencils. We really appreciate. Our children are so happy, they are using the pencils in class,” she says.
This was originally heard on RFI’s Africa Calling podcast.