How a farmer from Westafrica became a high-tech startup founder


The Startup Founder (middle) & the Nerd Entrepreneurs

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” – quote from Gnanli Landrou, founder of Oxara

For today’s episode we have a chat with Gnanli Landrou, founder of Oxara (meaning ‘community’ in Kabiye). Oxara is a startup that uses construction waste, especially excavation material to build safe, affordable and sustainable housing. It is a low CO2, low-cost alternative for conventional concrete used in housing. Get ready to dive in as we discover Gnanli’s amazing life journey that led him to start Oxara. We also take a glimpse of Gnanli’s unwavering determination and his hopes for the future.


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In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Who Gnanli Landrou is and what Oxara is about

  • What Oxara’s technology is and its global impact

  • Gnanli’s business principles (or the lack of it)

  • Why working in a team and collaborating with like-minded people is good for your business

  • What Oxara’s challenges as a startup are and why it’s important to always go back to your vision


Gnanli Landrou’s family background

Gnanli Landrou comes from a huge family of 21 and grew up in a local village in Togo where they lived in metal sheet houses that required a lot of maintenance and repair because of their condition.


Gnanli was then sent to his uncle who did farming and construction across West Africa. He was able to gain hands-on experience of building a house made out of earth materials. He came to understand the challenges of local construction that take a lot of labor and energy, so he then thought about shifting to something like more of solid concrete. This was the beginning of his idea turning into a product.


Living with a host family in France

With a stroke of good luck, with the help of his family, he chanced upon somebody whose kids needed looking after in France. This became his host family who sent him to University of Limoges (after completing his baccalaureate, of course) where he took a degree in materials science. He also met Professor Guillaume Habert who pushed the same idea of sustainable construction using alternative materials specifically for developing countries.


Developing the technology

Throughout his PhD, he was able to develop the mineral additive that is added to the excavation material which Gnanli describes as nothing fancy and something present in the ground. The material is added to the fluid, processed, and after 24 hours removed from the mould. With the help of ETH Zurich in his research, they were able to patent the technology. And since then, a lot of companies have been knocking on his door.


Plans for 2019

Oxara’s next step is to come up with a detailed plan on how to use it in the construction site massively and to test its usability. At the rate they are in right now, Gnanli says they have sufficient strength for a 2- to 4-storey house. But still they are hounded of the questions of how to go higher, what other applications for the product are there, and could it be used with conventional infrastructure. Discussions with ETH are currently ongoing with regards to its implementation.


Being “alone”

Gnanli admits he has no idea how to get started especially on the business side and hasn’t undergone any startup training when he was still studying. Business model, customer segment, unique selling proposition – business jargon that often makes him chuckle and shake his head. He admits he only knows the technological side.


He shares though that he has some existing support and coaching in Switzerland. As a solo founder and no business degree to learn about how to become an entrepreneur, Gnanli is looking for people with the expertise related to the field of construction and that could complement him and his startup move forward.


Sticking to the vision

Gnanli never forgets that his vision is to bring dignified and affordable housing to everyone especially in developing countries as well as to accommodate the next generation.


He is currently working in collaboration with a company in Togo with the construction and recycling, but oftentimes these companies build in urban areas, and not in rural areas where there is huge poverty and people cannot afford to buy the materials. Gnanli believes that it is through empowering people, training them to build for themselves, and developing their skills; and Oxara’s role then would be to teach them how to use the additive.


Biggest challenges

Oxara’s founder repeats that he could have used a little more help, and he thinks he could have done more with a partner. He’d love to have somebody whom he can have an exchange of opinion, someone with a broader way of seeing the problem and who can think the opposite.

Also, they are continuously working to improve the technological side. They are faced with challenges of making the process work for every excavation material, procuring materials and additives, and even contacting the right companies. They need to come up with a solid business model.


Marketing the product

Oxara is currently in discussion with construction recycling companies that have a lot of excavation material where they could possibly use the additive and implement their technology. There has also been success with CAKE and The Pioneer Fellowship.


Conclusion

There are no hard and fast rules to ensure a startup’s success. It takes a lot more than a business degree, money, etc. For Gnanli Landrou, starting with his vision of making their abode a dignified and livable one back in Togo, he has never looked back.


He continues to move forward, applying the technology he has developed to build better houses that can be used by everyone, all this done with the aim to give back and create a sustainable future especially in his home country.


Humble enough to admit his “weakness” as having no business expertise whatsoever, this is one quality of a true leader. He wants to learn from others and collaborate with like-minded people in the hopes that they could help economically and grow together.


So, what ideas have you helped move forward?


Listen to the episode


Links/Weekly recommendation:

  • Simon Sinek’s podcastGnanli admires Simon who talks about leadership and forgetting about technology, in a sense, as he applies this to his own vision in building houses with his employees and the people that he works with.

  • Jack Ma - Gnanli likes Jack in terms of how he structures his business to have a worldwide presence.

  • The Lean Startup bookGnanli recommends this book to help with your business canvas and understand all the intricacy of what it means.

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