FIP 60: David Auerbach Interviews Samir Ibrahim of SunCulture

This week, Samir Ibrahim is David’s guest on the Finding Impact Podcast. Samir is CEO and Co-Founder of SunCulture which designs and sells solar-powered irrigation systems that make it cheaper and easier for farmers to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. This innovation has pioneered a system that delivers water directly to crop roots, increasing yield by 300% and reducing water usage by up to 90%. They are changing prospects for farmers across Kenya where only 4% of the land is currently under irrigation and yet over 80% of country is considered arid or semi arid and therefore unsuitable for purely rain-fed agriculture.

On this episode you’ll learn:

  • The importance of a “North Star” or guiding principles for your company. SunCulture’s fundamental goal is to increase household productivity. Fulfilling this goal for their customers is at the core of every decision that they make.
  • What problem are you trying to solve? Samir and his business partner asked themselves 3 questions before actively pursuing their business plan: 1) Does this make economic sense for a for-profit business? 2) Does this make economic sense for farmers? 3) Does the technology work? When they got a ‘Yes’’ to all 3 questions, they knew they were ready.
  • Are you ready to take a risk? Samir tells us about what it was like for him and his family when he made the decision to leave NYC and his comfortable job at PWC to move to East Africa and start SunCulture.
  • Do you have to decide between achieving bigger social impact vs. bigger returns? Samir tried not to separate commercial aspirations and social impact aspirations. His team focuses on running a business while simultaneously having as much impact as they can.
  • Samir tells us about the process of deciding on what type of customer SunCulture wanted to serve. SunCulture’s product is very expensive ($5000, which was half the price of competition, but nonetheless, very expensive). He gives the example of Tesla and how SunCulture tried to mimic their model. Start expensive, stay relevant, high-quality product, and overtime bring the price down.
  • How do you measure impact? Often founders and investors have very different metrics. Investors – How many widgets are you selling? Founders – How many jobs are we creating? Important that your investors’ values are aligned with yours.
  • Working with investors (as a co-founder) is a marriage. Don’t try and force relationships. Early compatibility is important and fundamental values must align.
  • Stick with your north star! Samir tells us about the importance of having your investors buy into the long-term view. Help paint the picture for them and wait for the right people.
  • When they were building their products they focused on: relevance -> quality -> affordability. In that order. For example, relevance – what does your customer need? Samir and his team didn’t have enough information to start this design process so they set out to answer this question first and foremost.
  • SunCulture is as customer centric as it gets. They didn’t have enough data points to know what was needed so they put a plan in place to get their data directly from farmers. What is relevant to a farmer? (How deep to you pull water from? How much water? What services? Etc.)
  • He admits they have learned a lot along the way. A big learning is that it is not responsible to let price drive specification. You need to let specification drive price. Investors often want you to make a product for a certain price point, but Samir warns that this is not how you build products that make sense for customers.
  • SunCulture is dedicated to building solutions for their customers with their customers. It’s important that their customers are actively engaged in this process.
  • SunCulture has built feedback loops with their customers in order to keep getting data. When it is decision time – you are not making the decision, but the customer is (based on the data and feedback that you have collected over time.) Important to create and invest in these channels to allow this dialogue to happen.
  • Path to success is through the customer. At the end of the day – Samir and his employees are not farming. His customers are using the products and they know what they need best!
  • If you are not close to your customer, you are going to have a hard time succeeding. It is important that everyone on your team feels this way too.

Links to Resources:

Connect with Samir:

What was your favourite lesson from this episode? Let me know on Twitter by clicking here!

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