Nine months into her job as an auditor, Flora Mutahi handed in her resignation and quit. She had tried to find fulfillment in her work, but the truth is she just wasn’t committed to the job. Her family was utterly dumbfounded.
“What is the problem?” they asked. “Did you not find a job? Who do you want us to talk to?” But Flora insisted that she wanted to get into business. While support from her family was lacking, two people gave her some very good advice: the first was a lecture where she was doing her accounting exams. He told her to form a habit that she can commit to for the rest of her life. The second one was her boss at the time who said “whatever you do, build a legacy.”
Flora first started out in the salt industry and established Kenya‘s first free-flowing salt.
She saw a gap in the industry by realizing that the salt that she frequently purchased often caked. That sparked a question, “why don’t we have free-flowing salt that comes out of the saltshaker?”
Flora went to the University of Nairobi and began learning how to produce salt. The brand she established was called Melvin Marsh International. Interestingly, she had no prior experience insult production and didn’t know the first thing on how to produce the highest quality of salt on the market. So, she partnered with a local university to help her produce and process the salt.
Her efforts worked and she was delighted to receive her first order of 1200 packets of salt from a local hotel. The downside was that payment would only be made 3 months later. That experience taught her that she needed to find other ways to make her business work.
During an interview with KBC, Flora said:
“There was no [visibility], I was young, no experience. I put [the salt] on the market and I realized, ‘My goodness, this will never make me money!’ It reminded me that I didn’t do my homework. I didn’t know business cycles. I thought you would sell in the morning and get paid [the next day]. So, I decided to harass them, I went every day to ask, ‘Please, give me my money.”
In doing so, Flora met a gentleman who told her that his mother was packing tea. The monopoly that existed in the market had just been lifted and interested parties had been encouraged to try their hand at producing tea. That monopoly was Kenya Tea Packers. Realizing the opportunity in tea, Flora ditched salt processing and opted to go into teabag packing.
Flora immersed herself in tea production. She went to one of the large tea farms and tasted over 100 cups of tea every day for three weeks.
With the sector opening up to entrepreneurs, the leading question was how was Flora’s company going to compete with one that had achieved so much success? What could she bring to the table that they weren’t? She knew she had to do something different.
Flora had a habit of adding ginger to her tea.
“Then it hit me,” she said in her KBC interview. “Why don’t I do tea and put ginger? Again, I went to the University of Nairobi and learnt how to do that within no time I was off.”
This led to the creation of Melvins ginger tea.
Now she had a product, but the problem: she had no capital. She turned to her parents but hit a brick wall. They had supported her through school and since she had decided to quit, she was on her own, they said.
“It was the best lesson, in hindsight obviously that I got because it woke me up to the reality of what plan do you have? I had none,” she told KBC.
Kenya Women Finance Trust was giving women entrepreneurs money. If you had 100,000 Ksh they would give you 200,000. Flora went back home to her parents and pleaded with them to give her some seed money. They wouldn’t budge. Flora was persistent and eventually her mother caved and put up some money. It wasn’t even a third of what Flora needed but it’s what her mother could afford. Flora would have to make it work.
Since she didn’t own a farm, Flora bought tea from growers based in other parts of Kenya and then signed contracts with factories to process the tea for her business. Two years into her venture she had created two Tea products, ginger flavoured tea and a premium tea. Both were listed in large supermarkets in Kenya.
It took about five years for the business to make enough money to support itself. By 1997 she had four more flavours and had begun to explore the possibility of exporting tea after a British funder expressed interest. That opportunity didn’t pan out, however, her teas were selling out in local markets. That year, Flora received an award for the best female CEO in the top 100 midsize companies.
Seven years later she did make it internationally. She shipped her first product to the US, then to Japan, and later, Rwanda.
She has plans to expand her market across the African continent. Melvins Tea today is ranked third in the Kenyan market.
Aside from funding, Flora said working with people was one of the biggest challenges she faced.
She said to KBC:
“Getting the right people and your ability to recruit the right staff, motivate them and keep them…that was definitely a challenge. And it still remains a challenge to date. It’s something that I’d like to tell SMEs, it’s something that you need to pay a lot of attention to because your people are your biggest asset.”
We’re living at a time when entrepreneurship is largely celebrated and encouraged in most parts of the world. The last quote I’m gonna share with you from Flora’s KBC interview is one that I particularly love because it gives us the dose of reality I think many of us need.
“I’d like to tell young entrepreneurs to prepare yourself, nobody owes you a living. Some will complain saying, ‘we’re not being given a chance…’ but I say, you chose that route and it’s a rough one and it’s lonely, it’s difficult, but it is very rewarding. It’s rewarding when you go out there and you look for answers for yourself.”
1. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road, you have to believe in your idea, stop looking for other people to for that validation.
2. Be willing to adjust. Flora started processing salt and quickly realized that it was not going to take her to where she wanted to go.
3. Immerse yourself into your idea. Tasting 100 tees every day for three weeks was what it took for Florida. What will it take for you to become an expert in your field?
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Vimbai E. is a writer, journalist, ghostwriter and the founder of The Weight She Carries. With hundreds of articles publishing online, in print and for broadcast, her love of language and storytelling shines through every piece of writing that bears her name.