Young mentors from UBC Sauder School of Business team up with an ambitious Kenyan entrepreneur to adapt to pandemic

Rachel Irungu

Entrepreneur Rachel Irungu, of Kibera, Kenya, started a local business with the help of students of the UBC Sauder Social Entrepreneurship program.

Posted 2021-05-18

First published by the Globe Content Studio.

When Pavani Chugh first traveled to Kenya with 20 other business students in the summer of 2019, there was no pandemic, and nobody could have predicted how the world was about to change.

Chugh had been in Kenya to teach business, marketing and financial management skills to residents of Kibera and Mathare, two impoverished areas of Nairobi. The educational trip was a component of the UBC Sauder Social Entrepreneurship (SSE) program. When COVID-19 hit, Chugh, now graduated and working as an account development manager of The Coca-Cola Company in Toronto, instantly thought of Rachel Irungu, a budding entrepreneur she had met while in Kenya.

She knew the pandemic could have a disastrous effect on Irungu’s new business so she mobilized and set up a Zoom meeting with her fellow alumni to figure out how they could partner with and support Irungu and her peers once more.

“We were all wondering what we could do to make a difference,” says Chugh. “We knew these ambitious entrepreneurs were [already] struggling.”

A first action for Chugh and the group was to organize food and supply packages as an immediate, short-term solution. Soon after, Irungu reached out to SSE Kenya program director Jeff Kroeker and, together, they brainstormed options that would allow Irungu to pivot her business and address the needs of her community during the pandemic. Their solution? Move away from Irungu’s current enterprise of selling car wash detergent – to produce and distribute much-needed hand sanitizer instead.

The new product was called Rachel’s Refills: reusable bottles of multipurpose sanitizer for cleaning homes and businesses.

“The business skills developed in the SSE program became even more paramount once COVID-19 hit and this required Rachel to make a pivot,” says Kroeker. “The sales environment and her customers’ needs had changed, so that sparked a change to her value proposition.”

Irungu says the training she received from the UBC Sauder group in marketing, pricing, customer relations and bookkeeping helped her to figure out how to change course and meet the new needs of her customers.

Back in Canada, Chugh, along with fellow SSE grad, Zahara Foyston, a marketing specialist at TELUS in Vancouver, designed a new label for Irungu’s refill bottle, which clearly displays a telephone number to call when it’s time to refill it. They also incorporated a discount plan to encourage repeat customers.

Chugh says she isn’t surprised that Irungu has pivoted her business model to create Rachel’s Refills. “When we were in the classroom together back in Kenya, her optimism was so apparent. She saw opportunity over barriers, she possessed an innate resilience. Her enthusiasm and will to fight COVID-19 in her country, motivated me to work with her again.”

Yes, we were in Kenya to fuel entrepreneurship, but in return we gained valuable perspective on how businesses run in other contexts and places.


Toronto-based Pavani Chugh went to Kenya to teach business, marketing and financial management skills to local entrepreneurs. The educational trip was a component of the UBC Sauder Social Entrepreneurship program.


Kroeker says it’s clear the program is all about teamwork. “Technology enabled us to maintain communication with our SSE entrepreneurs and it drove partnership and knowledge exchange to a new level,” he explains. “Collaboration was and is very active to this day, and this is based on the foundation of friendships between these amazing entrepreneurs and SSE.”

Irungu’s positive spirit may explain how, in addition to running her business, she is also a well-respected health-care volunteer in the community, where she helps patients suffering from tuberculosis or who are bedridden, and people with HIV who are unable or unwilling to go to the hospital. She has also brought other families into her home and cared for them.

She says she has tried to run other businesses in the past, but her community commitments can be overwhelming. This time is different, she says, as the sanitizer business aligns with her values about caring for her community.

The SSE Kenya program aligns with Chugh’s values as well. Before moving to Canada from India at age 18, she taught disadvantaged students in high school and middle school as a volunteer.

While earning a Bachelor of Commerce with a specialization in marketing at UBC Sauder, she learned about the SSE program from Kroeker and decided to apply.

While the Kenyan students learned valuable lessons from Sauder’s SSE instructors, Chugh says she learned just as much from the students. Eating lunch together and connecting on a human level gave her an understanding of different cultures that still resonates today, and has helped her, in her sales position at Coca-Cola, relate to a number of clients who are newcomers to Canada.

“It was a two-way exchange,” she says. “Yes, we were in Kenya to fuel entrepreneurship, but in return we gained valuable perspective on how businesses run in other contexts and places.”

Kroeker adds: “It is truly amazing to be able to work side by side across the globe, in a virtual sense, to facilitate business expansion, creation and in such, create economic betterment and hope.”

In late spring of 2020, UBC Sauder partnered with other Kenyan SSE entrepreneurs to produce 12,000 masks to fight COVID-19 in addition to producing household disinfectant in reuseable containers. As SSE Kenya program director Jeff Kroeker says, “Tuko pamoja, we are together.” Please see video for more on this collaboration.

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