The Startup Interview: Kalitasha
Entrepreneurship isn’t all about profits. That’s not to say that Liita Naukushu (Cairney) isn’t interested in them; rather, it is to say that her vision is much bigger than her own financial stability. At thirty-one, Liita is setting out to bring affordable, reusable menstrual hygiene products to her native Namibia through her startup, Kalitasha. We met on a sunny morning in early April for a chat about her journey to date, why she’s so keen to help and what she’s learnt so far.
The first thing any reader ought to know is that Liita is very polite. Anybody might think that she had grown up as a member of the British aristocracy. Sat in Edinburgh’s City Cafe, she comes across as knowing the waiters personally (I assume that she doesn’t), engages in polite conversation and asks whether she “may have some breakfast”, which, on this occasion, takes the form of a five stack of pancakes. Her personality is, in my view, delightful.
As it happens, however, Liita’s upbringing could not be further removed from the British aristocracy. She was born and raised in Namibia before receiving a scholarship to study at Bard College in the United States where she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and a Master’s in Environmental Policy. “It was a super-liberal, progressive school,” she says, a trait which comes across strongly in her personality. She then moved to New York City where she spent two years working for the Population Council, an International Development organisation, which ultimately led her to study for a Global Health Policy Ph.D. in Edinburgh and begin work on her startup, Kalitasha. “I felt done living in the U.S. But not quite ready to return to live in Namibia,” she tells me. “I didn’t know anything about living in the UK or Scotland but there were a lot of very smart people working for the organisation I worked with, a lot of them with PhDs, which I saw as advancing my career prospects and thinking.”
Liita’s pancakes show up in record time. In fact, it’s taken the staff at the City Cafe a total of three minutes to deliver them. Despite this, they seem to go down well.
Perhaps it is my conservative, old-fashioned mindset, however, I feel slightly awkward whipping out a page of questions to do with menstrual hygiene at this point. I try my best to avoid bringing up the subject directly; “Given that you’re currently finishing up your Ph.D., I assume that you see Kalitasha as the next step in your journey?” I ask. “The overall ambition is to make a profit with my business,” she says. “It’s a decision I’ve thought about a lot, but it seems right. A lot of people pushed me toward a not-for-profit setup given that this issue is related to health, but I don’t necessarily think that things have to be charity in order to good.” Liita is very much of the mindset that her target market will be more than happy to pay for her product if it is affordable yet good quality. She makes the case of cell phones which have seen widespread adoption in Africa despite the continent’s relative lack of finance. “If it makes a difference in their lives, many will pay for it,” she notes.
“I don’t necessarily think that things have to be charity in order to good.”
“So where did your business idea come from?” I ask. Liita tells me that the idea first occurred to her on a trip to Namibia in 2012 where, working with the Ministry of Health, she was collecting data for her thesis. “While I was there, I had a conversation with someone very high up in the Namibian Government [it transpires it was the Prime Minister although Liita claims that the country’s size makes this less of a feat] and I asked them how I could contribute to the economy when I finished my work in Edinburgh,” she tells me. She freely admits that she was looking for some form of government position, however, the advice received in response to her question was to address one of the many remaining poverty issues in the country which can be addressed with very simple solutions. “It was really inspirational. I was always aware that menstrual hygiene was an issue I’d like to address and that conversation was an eye-opener for me,” Liita says before finishing her pancakes.
Although her solution to Namibia (and potentially other countries’) menstrual hygiene issues is currently waiting on a patent and being scrutinised as part of a potential investment deal, I ask Liita whether she can give me some detail as to what she’s been working on. “There are many women and girls in he world who can’t afford disposable menstrual hygiene products like pads and tampons,” she begins. “I recall times myself where, as a teenager, I would have my period without access to such products. Today, I remember the sense of indignity that I felt. Given that this happens to women all the time and it isn’t new, I asked myself why there weren’t any solutions out there.” Liita, clearly well-versed in business jargon, claims that the technology available today has opened up a market opportunity for her although she’s very clear that her solution is just one of thousands of solutions needed to aid development in country’s such as Namibia.
“I recall times myself where, as a teenager, I would have my period without access to such products. Today, I remember the sense of indignity that I felt.”
I can tell that I’m unlikely to get any more detail on the product itself so move on to Liita’s own entrepreneurial challenges. For an entrepreneur (I assume she’d call herself one, I’ll ask later), Liita’s had a relatively easy ride so far through a fellowship from the Royal Society of Edinburgh which allowed her to set up her business while receiving a salary paid for by Scottish Enterprise. “It’s such a brilliant opportunity,” she says enthusiastically — she’s marketing this opportunity well. “You get monthly business training and development from LAUNCH.ed and they really encourage you to make the most of the year working on your business.”
“And how about getting your product into the hands of your potential customers?” I ask, noting that she appears to be settling down in Scotland (she’s recently married) while Namibia and her target market lie 5,600 miles away. “At the moment, we have to realise that the product is a concept. I’m making all of these claims about what I hope to achieve, however, testing my prototype might demonstrate that I need to rethink some aspects,” she says honestly. Her other challenge, she tells me, is to build partnerships with organisations on the ground in Namibia which she can utilise to build her brand and customer base. “I’m hoping to be in a position where I can offer a solution which makes sense and solves the problems they are keen to address within a minimal budget, etc.” Interestingly, Liita sees her distance from her target market in both a positive and a negative light. On the one hand, being in Namibia would be advantageous in selling her product and conducting market research. On the other hand, however, she’s built up a strong support network in Scotland which has enabled her to get this far and, she expects, will help her to grow Kalitasha into the business she dreams of. She also sees Scotland and its EU membership as ensuring that she develops the highest quality product which will then enable her to expand into new markets.
Liita’s vision for Kalitasha goes further than simply solving menstrual hygiene issues in Namibia and elsewhere though. Although she plans on producing her product in Scotland at first, she sees its successful adoption as another opportunity — to help build African economies through localised production facilities in the future.
I steer the conversation away from her business to focus more on Liita herself. “Would you describe yourself as an entrepreneur?” I ask her. “I don’t know if I would call myself an entrepreneur but I’ll define it and you can judge,” she says. “My understanding of it is that an individual recognises that the world has a problem and potentially having a solution to that problem. It’s about changing the world.” On that basis, I doubt anyone would hesitate to call her an entrepreneur. Liita recognises, however, that there are multiple layers involved in entrepreneurship and that ideas don’t count for everything. “Take people like Paul [Liita’s LAUNCH.ed business advisor] or Scottish Enterprise — they’re entrepreneurs too for recognising which ideas they might want to support, etc,” she says. Investors, angel syndicates and even large corporations making business decisions are also entrepreneurs in her view. What she isn’t so sure about, however, is what makes an entrepreneur successful.
I ask Liita if anyone stands out to re as a source of inspiration. After some consideration, she pinpoints Angelina Jolie. “From a distance, she seems to operate and dance to her own tune but she still makes a difference,” Liita explains before adding, “but I don’t think that you have to be an actor or hold celebrity status to make a difference.” Her explanation seems to go hand-one-hand with the advice she offers to fellow entrepreneurs; “as Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean would say, ‘rules are just guidelines,’ but they can give us a common framework in understanding how to build successful businesses,” she says with a chuckle.
“‘Rules are just guidelines,’ but they can give us a common framework in understanding how to build successful businesses.”
I decide to end our interview with a focus on Africa, the problems of which are often ignored in the mainstream media. “Do you think that we focus enough on the problems faced in Africa?” I ask. “That’s difficult to say,” she responds. Having grown up in Namibia both before and after its independence, Liita has seen her country develop its own identity and understand its own challenges but that process is far from over. What she does highlight, however, is that we in the developed world seem too focused on the work of charities in the region when there are many highly qualified natives striving to find solutions as well. “We have a long way to go,” Liita says, but progress is certainly being made. “Ultimately, however, I’d like to see the media recognise that there are smart people who maybe have less experience than us but are making the effort to solve problems in their own environments.” We, the developed world, can aid this process by providing a greater understanding of what has been developed outside of Africa that might help them in their search for solutions, she tells me.