Sometimes, a good-paying job just does not provide a life that is fulfilling and filled with purpose. Jonathan Saunders is well-familiar with this, having left Wall Street and the world of investment banking in exchange for a company that serves his community. Now, he is the COO for SunCulture, an innovative Africa-based Agritech company that is helping modernize the farming community. He joins Cameron Herold to tell us his story and the things he learned along the way. Jonathan then shares some of the skills and tools he pulled from his MBA, time at Wall Street, and sports to utilize into SunCulture. Rounding it all up, he introduces us to what a social enterprise is and how it operates.
Our guest is Jonathan Saunders, who is the COO for SunCulture, an innovative Africa-based agritech company. SunCulture develops and commercializes life-changing technology to solve the biggest daily challenges of the world’s 570 million smallholder farming households. Jonathan has a track record in building infrastructure for growth-stage organizations that leads to institutional and governmental investments.
As SunCulture’s first Director of Finance & Operations, and now COO, Jonathan established the human resources, finance and accounting, sales, supply chain, and IT infrastructure areas. His passion for creating social impact through operational excellence led him from a five-year career in private banking at JPMorgan to nearly ten years in social impact investing and operational leadership in African start-ups.
Over his career, he has worked for clients and organizations in Central America, Africa, and North America. Jonathan earned an MBA from Columbia University and a BA in Finance from Fordham University. In his free time, Jonathan enjoys playing competitive hockey and plays for the Nairobi Ice Lions after playing Division One in college. He is a New Jersey native and based between Nairobi and London. Jonathan, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
We have so much ground to cover, all over the map. I’m a Canadian. I got to go for the obvious. How does an African American start playing hockey? Are you young enough that you guys are going to take it?
Young enough is not the case here. Coincidentally, my dad is Canadian. There’s Canadian hockey in my blood. My dad is from Toronto. Half of the family is in Toronto. My dad was the fifth black player in the NHL, Bernie Saunders. There are some interesting articles that have been popping up.
I remember the name of Bernie Saunders.
That is my father.
Who did your dad played for?
The Quebec Nordiques. He played college at Western Michigan where he’s a Hall of Famer. He did this thing with his career where he went off and bounced around the minors, played the NHL, went back to the minors. There’s a minor league team in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is where I was originally born, and Western Michigan University, which is a division one team is also there. He circled back and finished his playing career in Kalamazoo. He and my mom settled in there and along I came.
If you’re the son of hockey royalty, you’re already there. Also, growing up in Michigan, you’re playing hockey as well. What else are you going to do in the middle of winter but play hockey? Good for you. I used to be a huge Montreal Canadiens fan growing up. That was a fun era. You’ve been able to live in three different continents for work, Europe, North America, and Africa.
I bounced around quite a bit. The funny thing about this is that prior to business school, I hadn’t traveled anywhere. I was on this track of wanting to work on Wall Street and thinking I’m going to make all this money. 2007 happens, I’m working at Bear Stearns, the sky falls out, and I quickly realized, “All these people have money one day and didn’t have money the next. Maybe I need to do something that’s a little bit more altruistic or more fun and going to B-school to make that transition.” Through B-school, I got the opportunity to get some exposure to Sub-Saharan Africa. I did my internship at a place called Tugende in Uganda, which I had never been to before. I had one of the most amazing summers of my life, working professionally.
I worked in New York at a family office. I was investing in social enterprises. I was based in New York and traveling all over the continent of Africa. My wife and I moved to Nairobi where I took up the role at SunCulture. My wife was a former global head of HR for Andela, which is a large tech startup. She’s transitioned from that. She’s the head of HR for a big private equity firm, CVC Credit Partners. She moved us back to London. I get to spend a lot of time on a plane between London and Nairobi when the world’s not in a global pandemic.
Bear Stearns. Did you ever come across a guy there who lives in Toronto named Bill Bamber?
No. Would you know which group he was in, by chance?
He led derivatives for the Americas, North and South America.
I was on the private client services side of things. He’s probably one on the trading desk.
He led the derivatives group for that. He also wrote the book Bear-Trap: The Fall of Bear Stearns. Have you read the book?
I’ve read many books on the financial crisis. I have not read that one. I will pick it up.
It talks about Bear. I was talking to him one day and he goes, “Lehman is going to crash.” I’m like, “There’s no way Lehman is going to.” You got to work on Wall Street at the height of it and then you get into the social enterprise sector. Did you make enough money on Wall Street and then you want to do something different?
I started in 2006. I was in the class after everybody was getting these crazy bonuses. When they stopped paying everybody all this crazy money, I learned some stuff there, both on the private client services side and the private banking side. I remember distinctly a day where I was working at 270 Park once JPMorgan had taken over Bear, I’m getting on the escalator going up to the elevators. Everyone is in their blue, gray, or black suit. There’s a big Chase sign in the middle and I’m like, “I’m like a drone or something. I’m not even a real human being.” Sit at this little cubicle and press these buttons and turn around and go home.
I realized that they paid enough to keep you interested but never enough where you’re never going to make it on your own, unless you’re one of the top guys that make millions and millions of bucks. Not that was ever my thing. I decided that I wanted to do something more altruistic. I’ve been doing a lot of volunteering in New York at the time. I was like, “How do I merge this together?” This is when the whole impact investing, social entrepreneurship craze started popping up, so right place in the right time. I got out of the Wall Street stuff. I went to B-school. I’ve been running around Africa ever since. It hasn’t been too bad.
I remember when the whole social enterprise sector started. I’ve gone to the main TED conference for years. One of my favorite TED Talks ever was on the whole social enterprise space and it was around 1999. It was the launch of that whole idea around social enterprise and what you could do with that stuff. It was cool. Tell us a little bit about SunCulture. What does SunCulture do?
We do many things. We’re a vertically integrated company. At the nexus of it, we’re trying to solve a couple of different key challenges for farmers. If you look at other continents and you think about the Green Revolution in Asia, for example, what causes stuff to happen? We have the belief that farmers lack access to modern farming equipment, access to information, and access to finance. Those three things is why they’re stuck in a certain situation where they’re not able to massively increase their yields by coming into this new age of farming if you will. All three of those are still prevalent not just in Africa but in other places around the globe.
What SunCulture tries to do is try to solve those issues for those farmers. You heard from our mission statement, develop and commercialize life-changing technologies to solve the biggest daily challenges. When we look at our customer base, traditionally, we’re taking somebody who is using a pulley system to pull water manually twenty liters at a time, which I encourage anybody to try to do and realize how incredibly difficult it is. If they’re not pulling water out of the ground, they may be waiting for it to rain, rain-fed irrigation, which is a thing of the past.
Through our CTO, Charlie, who’s like the Wizard of Oz character, the person behind the curtain, he’s developed a suite of products that we’re able to sell to our customer base. A modular irrigation system that strips out some of the fancier parts and gets it down to its most basic, bare-bones concept. The same thing on the pumping side, farmers weren’t able to purchase an expensive $5,000 AC pump. How do we find a smaller pump equipped with a battery, equipped with a controller, connected to a solar panel and sell it to them? Furthermore, even if you are exposed to this modular irrigation system, modular pumping system, so on and so forth, how do you afford it?
That’s the secret sauce, to be honest. We do our own financing. We do vouch financing ourselves. If you think about us, we are a product company. We have our own products, RainMaker 2. Our Climate Smart Battery product is a quick selling product. It’s an insane logistics and supply chain. Most of our suppliers are sitting in Asia. We’re a financing company. We’re a retail company. On top of having a B2C business, we also have a B2B business where we sell to other distribution partners and other markets.
I’m not sure how familiar you are with the solar home system space. In the past years, this thought of you can finance a light bulb, you can finance you know a solar charger for somebody has taken off. What we’ll do is we’ll sell our solutions to some of these other SHS companies. Even though we have our B2C business mainly in Kenya, we do distribute in Togo. We’re looking at Ivory Coast, Uganda. We have a strong partnership there. We’ve been working in Ethiopia with a couple of different partners.
The cream of the crop of all this is our solution, the modularity, and the variety of things we’re able to sell. We also come across a lot of NGOs. If we’re talking about a refugee camp, for example, access to water is one of the key things or access to a stable food supply. We have a team that will focus on doing installations in South Sudan or Somalia or Northeastern Kenya. It is a lot of different businesses within a business. In a nutshell, that’s SubCulture.
Have you read the book Economic Hit Man?
Yes. It’s a good book.
I started thinking about the way that model worked with major corporations going in and funding growth in countries but doing it in a capitalistic and almost Machiavellian way. I was thinking about your model tied to that same idea but in a much more altruistic way. Are you taking equity positions in some of these farmers, too?
No. It’s straight debt. We’re financing the farmers.
Imagine if you could do that as well if you could have warrants or something. There’s nothing there.
They’re small. What we’re trying to do, in a nutshell, is incredibly hard to pull off.
You’re going to do the SolarCity but have something of the farming side in Africa, right?
The cofounder and COO of SolarCity used to work for me back in 1993 at College Pro Painters. I got him into the whole house painting business in Toronto. That’s an interesting model. Tell us about your skills at SunCulture. What do you think you pulled with you out of your MBA and out of your time on Wall Street? What skills or tools did you pull from both of those that you use now?
I would add one more on there, sports. I should probably start with sports. In my role, in particular, as a COO, I almost think of it as you’re either a coach or a captain of a team. You’re not scoring all the goals, you’re not out there every shift, but you play an integral part in keeping people motivated, focused, aligned in one direction. In my time playing hockey, it set me up for that. The biggest lesson out of that is the team goal is bigger than any individual goal. In a lot of companies, sometimes you can lose that, depending on different characters.
Number one, hockey has taught me the biggest principles relating to teams, some of the hard skillsets from my time working at Bear Stearns and JPMorgan. At Bear Stearns, I was front office working private client services. At JPMorgan, I was private banking but a middle office. In the middle office side, our role was to be players where we’re moving a lot of stuff around. We would invest over $1 billion a month into alternative assets. I’m getting good with my Excel skillset. It was probably the biggest payoff from there. Understanding these different funds, we’re offering RSP or Hedge funds and so forth. Reading through those offerings and understanding how they’re marketing it to customers was something that I high level pulled away but not something I applied directly to some culture.
From the MBA side, it’s interesting because in MBA, you do learn stuff. The biggest thing from Columbia was the network is fantastic. I can be in Nairobi and link up with fellow CBS alums almost any night of the week. That part is huge. Columbia University, the business school itself, had been incredibly supportive of my career. I can’t thank them enough. I went from JPMorgan to MBA and then went and worked. I was taking a major pay cut after my MBA to do the jobs that I’m doing. Columbia steps in and they have this whole loan forgiveness program that I’m a part of because I worked for a social enterprise. The support that they provided me over the years has been fantastic as well, links with the faculty and other students.
The biggest thing out of the MBA thing that I learned was how to take a chance. People look at the MBA opportunity and say, “If I don’t get this McKinsey internship over the summer, my life is over. If I don’t go work at Goldman over the summer, my life is over.” My approach is the exact opposite. I was like, “I’m not doing any of this consulting stuff and this banking stuff. We all leave here in two years with the exact same degree. What is the riskiest, craziest thing that I can do over the summer and try to learn something?”
Fast forward, I was leasing at this company called Tugende, an asset financing business. We were financing motorcycle taxi drivers in Kampala, Uganda. It’s a super startup. When I went there, there’s probably 25, 30 bikes on the road. Now, it probably has 25,000, 30,000 bikes on the road and is a fantastic business. Colombia itself gave me an opportunity to think outside the box, if you will. Think about somebody who’s coming from a Wall Street background and then put them in Kampala, Uganda with no instructions. Figure it out.
You said something as well, though, which dawned on me. You’re working in a market that is completely disregarded by North Americans. North Americans don’t know anything about Africa. I’ve been to Africa a couple of times. They don’t know anything about the continent. They don’t know anything about wealth. They don’t know anything about all the countries that are there that are massive, huge markets. There are 100 markets in Africa that are the same size as California. Big, wealthy, strong cities. Are you extrapolating from businesses that have existed in North America and then taking it into a market at a much lower price point, like bicycles in Africa versus bicycles in San Francisco?
There are some that are doing stuff like that where they see an opportunity or something somebody is working on in the US, for example, and they try to copy and paste that in Kenya or Nigeria. That does happen. Even in that copy, paste, many challenges might pop up, whether that’s access to capital, access to human capital. I could go down a list of all the things that I would never even imagine I would have to deal with all the time. Yes, it is the case.
The biking business that you talked about and then the business you guys are in is a finance business more than anything. It’s setting up massive leasing companies, which is huge.
It’s a proven business model in other markets. It’s something that works. We’re fulfilling a need that is there. The motorcycle taxi business, for example. You think about it and it’s like, “We’re leasing this. How are you going to collect the money?” We have these collection officers. You got to remember, most of the motorcycle taxi drivers are unbanked. You have a collection officer who would go and pick up the money, bring it back to HQ, and we put it in a safe, and so on. It’s not scalable, whatsoever.
The guys don’t have bank accounts. They can’t do a bank transfer. What do you do? You stumble across this machine where it’s called PayWay and you can go in and you can put money into the machine. You can put in your phone number and you can either pay your water bill, your electric bill, whatever. Negotiate a deal with PayWay. We get our company put on one of the options. Overnight, it turned into a cashless business and it goes from $50 to $100 to have their 25,000, 30,000 bikes on the platform. Leasing business, that’s the basics. How are you going to get people to make the payments? The same thing with SunCulture, it’s a leasing business.
The technology is allowing us to do businesses that we used to be able to do 50 years ago in North America. We can start doing them over in Africa, India, China, or Asia.
The interesting thing as well is that you take a leasing business model and apply it to smallholder farmers. You also have this whole leapfrogging concept. In Kenya, M-Pesa is how you transact. It’s mobile money on a whole another level than you see in any other markets. Everybody uses it. The guy selling bananas on the side of the street, you can pay him mobile money. The penetration rate is incredible. Probably 80% to 85% of the population uses M-Pesa. For us, 90% of our payments are through the M-Pesa platform. What does that do? That enables us to work with rural communities where we can sell, finance, install a unit. Our customers are way out in the middle of nowhere.
The M-Pesa platform is using a currency like a Fiat currency. It’s not some digital currency. It is a Fiat currency of a country.
Yes. It’s the Kenyan Shilling. They have a network of agents around the country where you can sign up to be an agent but you just have a flow. You put $1 in, you get $1 out.
Are you seeing anything happening yet with digital currency and a non-Fiat currency like Bitcoin or Ethereum? Are you seeing anything like that happening yet?
We’ve seen a couple. The whole remittance industry aspect, people are sending money back. People have tried to set up some stuff where they’ll use Bitcoin. There’s a company called BitPesa before. It was something where you can buy Bitcoin and then they would get you a favorable rate and convert it to Shillings so you could send it through M-Pesa to somebody in the middle of nowhere.
I’m curious whether someone is going to build that closed-loop network for massive markets in places like Africa or Asia where you can move away from a Fiat currency that could be created.
There’s an opportunity. I’m sure somebody is working on some iteration of that. For Kenya, on the M-Pesa side.
You don’t even need to go there.
You don’t. It’s incredible. Almost every business is based on the M-Pesa platform in some way, shape, or form.
You are working with a social enterprise. I’m still not quite clear how this is a social enterprise. You don’t mean it’s a charity, like a nonprofit?
It’s a company that’s a for-good component to it. You’re a nice capitalist. You’re not running a nonprofit or an NGA.
No. It’s a for-profit business. We run it in a for-profit way. We’ve taken on institutional capital from investors that expect a return on their investment.
You’d done a Series A round. I thought you said NGO but you said you’re more like a social enterprise. What does this social enterprise mean? This is a newer, twenty-year-old-ish concept. What’s a social enterprise?
It’s like a dual bottom line. Yes, we exist to make money. Also, we exist for some type of greater good. The greater good that we’re striving for is trying to provide our customers with a way to increase their income via increasing their yields and so on. Sometimes it’s a triple bottom line. You want to make money but you also want to do good along the way. We’re in the process of scaling this business. Also, when we talk to our investors, they’re very much focused not only on the financial but they’re also focused on what good are we doing? How many women have we approved for loans? What is the yield increase of our farmers? What is the income increase for our farmers? How many more kids are we enabling to put into school? These are all factors that factor into what the investors are looking for from an ROI perspective.
Let me play devil’s advocate and pretend that I’m on the far left, I’m a total tree hugger, I’m working for an NGO or somewhere and I’m like, “You’re not. You guys are pure capitalists that are selling stuff to people that can’t afford it. You’re locking them up into these long-term leases.”
For us, the situation is that we’re enabling people to purchase modern farming technology that can massively increase their yield and we’re doing it at an affordable price point, which is why we have to finance that equipment over time. I think highly of the solar home system companies. They probably blazed a path for us. The key difference for us is that we’re financing an income-generating asset for somebody.
The minute they start using our products, they can start making money or saving money. People think of us as an ad company. It sounds like a micro water utility. People are using it for cooking, cleaning, bathing. We have a guy who’s using it for car washes. We have people who have apartment buildings that are renting them out. They’re able to access water. You layer on that irrigation component too. Somebody who’s using drip irrigation can save roughly 75%, 80% of the amount of water than they would traditionally use. There is conservation on the water side. Also, if you’re paying for it, it’s better to use to use less water.
It does come up. People are like, “It’s not an actuality.” We’re financing an income-generating asset to serve a demand that has yet to be met. Our market share in Kenya, East Africa, across the continent, has exploded. The interesting thing is that you see a lot of solar home system companies or distributors that are looking at us and they’re purchasing from us and we’re doing the training. They’re saying, “Financing an income-generating asset makes a lot more sense than financing a non-income-generating asset.” We sell TVs, for example, but it’s not our core product. If the TV breaks, what do you do? You stop paying for it. I don’t care. The TV is broken. When your water turns off, you figure it out.
You guys are like a smaller version or a more entrepreneurial farm-based version or whatever of General Electric, GE and GE Finance. They’re giving countries these massive pieces of equipment to do things. You’re doing it at a micro-level.
Nobody has made that comparison before but that’s a good thing if you think of it that way. How our unit works is that the battery and the controller sit and they’re connected to the panels and all of is connected to the pump. There’s a SIM card in it. It’s connected to the Cloud. Everything is over in M-Pesa. Everything is over mobile money. With COVID, people had issues paying for the first couple of months in Kenya, April, May, June. Everybody is worried and not sure what’s going to happen. We were forgiving. We understood that people who were going through challenging times. We aren’t going to turn off the pump.
In normal times, not that things are all back to normal, we’ve had to on our portfolio performance. If you don’t pay and it’s connected to all those, your unit automatically turns off. When you top it up and you pay your monthly installment, it automatically turns back on. We made it automate all that in the background. That enables us to scale. If you think back to M-Pesa and how important M-Pesa is to the backbone of the business, it’s incredible.
It couldn’t exist.
It’s not even possible.
You’d be like the dabbawalas over in India or Mumbai, the dabbawalas that brings the food.
You said it’s also about bridging information with this technology with the financing. Is the information side of things that you’re helping these people understand how to use these tools and make money as well? Are you teaching them how to farm and how to use the water?
It’s a broad stroke. We do the training at the time of installation. We have an engineer who shows up, installs the unit, shows people how to work it, troubleshoot it, so on and so forth. That’s a basic knowledge transfer. We also have a platform that we call Ag Optimize. We’re installing sensors on the farm at the point of installation. Those sensors connect back to the controller unit and it will say, “Is the soil dry or is it wet?” That will send a notification to the Cloud and then it sends an SMS to the farmer and says, “Your soil is dry. You should irrigate.” It will sense the moisture in the air and say, “Don’t waste your time irrigating because it’s going to rain.” We have that knowledge transfer there as well.
We do partnerships with other people in the Ag value chain. That might be something along the lines of helping farmers better understand what the market prices are for their fresh fruits and vegetables. Also, a lot of farmer training. We’ve set up an array of demo farms across the country where a farmer can go and maybe learn about drip irrigation and see our products or bring their family and friends to understand better how the pump works. There’s a lot of different ways that we transfer knowledge, both directly at the point of installation through technology and through some of the partners and demos that we do. That continuous training for our customers is key.
I’m thinking about all of your users and what they’re doing with the products and their ability to share what they’re doing with others in a community. It’s like, “Here’s what I’m doing the pump. Here’s how I’m making money off this.” I almost think of it as kids that are sharing their ideas of whatever little small business or hobby is with each other.
When we’ll do an installation, we’ll go install a unit and then all of a sudden, all the neighbors will go over and say, “What is going on here? What are you doing?” It’s incredible. It takes maybe 20, 30, 40 minutes to install a pump, depending on the depth in the water source. We drop it in there and that flips a switch and everybody is like, “How do I get my hands on this?” We say, “We do provide financing if you qualify.” People sign up immediately. That knowledge transfer and that network effect we’re able to have on some of these smaller communities is real. We’re one piece of a broader puzzle but an important piece as it comes to empowering smallholder farmers in East Africa.
In the organization that you’re building, what percentage of your team would be full-time or employee 1099 type? What percent are you outsourcing through partners?
We have a system wrapped on that. We have 130 full-time employees. We have another 150 strictly commission-based agents. We have a call center but we also have our people in the field doing that. We work with a small array of contractors and consultants on some key projects. The 130 full-time employees are the nucleus of the organization. Our field team, our agents and our engineers. The engineers are full-time. The agents who are on a commission are about 150 to 200 and it depends on the month. The business has grown. When I started, there twenty people. The fact that we’re almost at 300 is insane to think about but I’m quite excited.
Are you based in London part-time and Nairobi part-time?
Yes. COVID has thrown me off. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to go to Kenya with the travel situation. Usually, I’m on a plane twice a month, which is insane, going back and forth between Nairobi and London. My wife was head of HR at Andela but now is the head of HR for CVC Credit Partners. She did 2.5 years in Nairobi. She wanted to move up here. We had a kid. We are based out of London. When I can, I’ll go back and forth to Nairobi quite a bit.
I’m sure you’ve probably seen all the businesses you’ve run. The caveat is I’m going through this interesting shift. Before, I was the guy who pressed all the buttons. I was running around like a crazy person, super stressed out. We were living month to month, trying to try to raise capital and do all this stuff. With the team we have, my job is less on the execution side and more on the strategic side. It is important for me to be in Kenya as much as possible. I love going there when I can. It’s cool to see that we’re in a spot where we have strong heads of department. We have an excellent general manager. They’re running the day-to-day business with my help and support but I get them all the credit for everything that they’ve been able to do.
Where’s your team based then? Are they all over there in Nairobi?
Everybody is in Nairobi except for our field team. The engineers and agents are strategically scattered throughout the country. In our international business, we’re starting to open some stuff up in West Africa. Through our distribution partner, we are doing a massive EDF. EDF is one of our big funders, the large French utility firm. They had us moving into Francophone Africa. We have a team of three people over there that are working hand in hand with our distribution partner. We have a small team in Ukraine, some engineers, two guys in Ukraine. Our supply chain, a lot of it is in China. We have a consultancy that works in China. It’s a global business. Our CFO, he’s based in England, UK. Him and I are always flying somewhere.
Where did you raise money? Did you raise money in Western Europe? Are you raising money in Africa or America? Where are you guys raising?
Mainly, Western Europe, EDF, the French utility firm. A lot of our angels were US or England, I’d say, and a couple in Kenya, which we’re thankful for. Our biggest shareholder is a fund that’s based out of Nairobi. It’s called Energy Access Ventures, EAV. What they’ve done is they’ve raised a lot of DFIM, Development Finance Institutional Money. Their whole thing is that they’re focused on off-grid solar. We are one of their portfolio companies but they have been extremely supportive of some culture over the years and an excellent partner. The beauty for EAV and us is having our largest shareholder in town is convenient. It’s a solid fund. The folks at EDF as well, even though they’re based in Paris, they have a global business. Their teams are always in Kenya or in Togo where the cool people are and other places. Mainly, Western European and American money.
This is starting a trend, unfortunately, for me. On an episode I did, I ended up buying stock in the guy’s company. I’m going to end up to a mutual fund based in Nairobi called Energy Access Ventures. You guys are going to be bigger than Energy Access Ventures is going to be. You’re going to be bigger than them. Another member of our COO Alliance, I invested in her Series A, it might even be a pre-series. It was an angel round. I’m bumping into some cool opportunities and cool ventures. What’s it like culturally working with these different countries? What are you learning about executives, not the front level staff but more the executive team, management team? How do they operate differently in Africa or Nairobi, specifically? It’s not fair to talk about a whole continent. How are the executives in Nairobi different from London or China?
It’s more or less the same. The thing that you find that’s interesting in Nairobi is that you have an interesting split. I fall into this bucket, so I’m speaking about myself. They have a lot of post MBAs that moved to Nairobi that want to do something on the social impact side if you will. They’re building a company. They build a lot of executive or director level management. There’s a lot of ex-pats, which is unfortunate. In a place like Nairobi, there’s a ton of talent there, a lot of sharp folks. A lot of people are coming back to Nairobi and Kenya. For people that haven’t been to Kenya, I highly recommend you go. It’s a wonderful country.
The difference that we’ve taken is that we’ve shied away from making it an ex-pat heavy business. Aside from myself, CEO, CTO, CFO, and the director of international BD, the rest of the 295 people are Kenyan and in West Africa. They’re Togolese are Cameroonian. The biggest thing is that there’s not a huge difference in terms of how people go about their day or interact. The biggest thing is that, for us, we built a business with Kenyans and not ex-pats coming in and saying, “You got to do this. You got to do that.” It’s a Kenyan focused business.
I coached a COO from Bangkok, Thailand. His CEO is part of their YPO chapter there and they control 37% of the GDP of the country. This guy’s extraordinary. The COO, running a 5,000-person company, was worried about hurting his boss’s feelings or arguing or telling his boss how he felt. He was like, “You must not tell the CEO that I’m frustrated.” I’m like, “Are you kidding?” It was a subservient culture. Even though his boss was a nice, super friendly human, amazing person, it was different culturally from what I had seen in North America. I coached a group in India and they’re like, “We can’t fire the people. We have to employ them for life.” I’m like, “That’s ridiculous. What are you talking about?”
Culturally, there’s that hierarchy in society, especially with men. It’s a male-dominated hierarchy. From a frustrating standpoint, there are situations where people are scared to break that hierarchy or speak out against the boss, which drives you nuts. For us, it’s making a Kenyan business. My job is COO. To me, I work for my employees as opposed to my employees working for me. My relationship with all the folks that I get a chance to work with around the officer, I try to make it as flat and as open as possible. I try to open up.
It sounds like that’s much the ex-pat MBA culture as well versus the classic Nairobi executive.
In some cases, yes. For us, it’s been putting people in positions where maybe they don’t have the experience or the background but they needed the opportunity. Our GM, a Kenyan woman, probably worked 6, 7 years in the solar home system space. She’s been with us for years. She used to run our finance department. I’ve never met our GM. By all means, I’ve been a good accountant. She’s good. She’s been running the show for months. She’s knocking it out of the park. On the sales side, we have two ladies that we could never figure out like a national sales manager. I’ve been through 4 or 5 of them. In some cultures, they stepped in and they’ve done a fantastic job.
My direct reports, it’s pretty much 50/50, men and women. Both do an excellent job but the women don’t see as many opportunities as maybe they would have. Furthermore, this is how we communicate as a company. Hopefully, it helps empower people to speak up and be creative and make the job their own. The key with our business is that social impact standpoint to it. Yes, it’s a job but there’s also a higher purpose that’s going on here. They feel that we’re a perfect solution to our customers and truly care about the work that they’re doing. Trying to instill that into the culture of the business has not been easy but it’s something that we’ve been successful at.
We go back to Jon Saunders, who’s graduating from college, playing Division One hockey. What advice would you give yourself back then that you know to be true now but you wish you’d known back when you were maybe 22 years old?
Don’t chase money, number one. I tried doing that with the Wall Street thing and it didn’t work out. The quicker I figured out that the currency that I traded is more experiences and relationships and not necessarily dollars and cents, it’s made my life a lot happier. Experiences and relationships are number one. I wish I would have traveled more. I didn’t know anything. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about hockey until the first twenty-odd years of my life. It’s all I did. Opening that up a little bit, it would have been huge. Thankfully, through Columbia, it got me into Division One athlete into working at JPMorgan. My thing was always structure. I wish I would have taken more risks earlier on. I’m happy with how things have ended up. When you start pushing the envelope and get outside your comfort zone, that’s when things get interesting. If can go back, I would tell myself those three things. I’m curious about what would have happened or where I would end up.
It’s going to be interesting watching you and getting to know you and your career. You’re just getting started. You got some momentum going behind you. It’s interesting. You’ve done some incredible stuff. It’s going to be fun to watch your work. Jon, thanks so much for sharing with us on the show. I appreciate it.
About Jonathan Saunders
Jonathan Saunders is the COO for SunCulture, an innovative Africa-based agritech company. SunCulture develops and commercializes life-changing technology to solve the biggest daily challenges of the world’s 570M smallholder farming households. Jonathan has a track-record in building infrastructure for growth stage organizations that leads to institutional and governmental investments.
As SunCulture’s first Director of Finance & Operations, and now COO, Jonathan established the human resources, finance and accounting, sales, supply chain, and IT infrastructure. His passion for creating social impact through operational excellence led him from a five-year career in private banking at J.P. Morgan to nearly ten years in social impact investing and operational leadership in African start-ups. Over his career he has worked for clients and organizations in Central America, Africa, and North America.
Jonathan earned an M.B.A. from Columbia University and B.A. in Finance from Fordham University. In his free time, Jon enjoys playing competitive hockey and currently plays for the Nairobi Ice Lions, after playing Division One in college. He is a New Jersey-native, and currently based between Nairobi and London.