Kenya’s top tea processing entrepreneur Flora Mutahi grew up aspiring to be an air hostess. Instead, she is now a producer of a vital product used in airlines’ hospitality.
An accounting degree from Strathmore University and a certificate from Kabete Campus of Food Technology helped her entry into tea processing under Melvin’s Teas, which one of Kenya’s largest indigenous tea processing company.
“Growing up, I always wanted to be an air hostess, because of frequent travel. Of course, my parents would hear none of it,” says Mutahi who is now celebrating 25 years since she took a leap of faith in business.
“Being good in accounting, I pursued it to degree level and also enrolled for professional courses. However, I found myself skipping classes. James Mcfee, the director of the Accountancy at Strathmore University encouraged me to introspect and be true to myself,” she said.
“I quit my first ever job as an auditor after only 9 months where I had audited large manufacturers. In fact, I was so excited I would spend my lunch breaks on the shop floor listening to the machines and asking questions.”
After her brief stint in formal employment, Flora then first tried her hands in entrepreneurship by trading in free-flowing salt, but soon realized that the returns were low.
“I moved from free-flowing salt to tea blending and packaging in a few months as I noticed that a ton of salt was $100, and thus knew this was never going to make me money in the market as the returns were so low,” she says.
How it all began – Flora
To begin with, she had no prior experience in running a business. She had no capital and no savings to talk of. And her parents were sceptical and unwilling to advance her any money for her venture as they believed that “girls get married, not set up businesses.”
But even with these discouragements which she encountered from the onset, Flora’s tenacious nature and resolve meant that she’s not just about to prematurely give up on a venture she’d already set her mind on. Lack of business and management experience notwithstanding.
Having been born into a family of two boys and two girls, and where everyone was treated equally when it came to household chores no matter their gender, Flora was not in any way intimidated by the men who had formed a cartel around the country’s tea sub-sector.
With her company, Melvin’s Teas, marking its Silver Jubilee this year, Flora looks back at the challenges she’d had to surmount over the years and the lessons – both good and bad – which she learnt along the way.
But the challenges staring directly back at her were numerous. She had no experience running a business, leave alone any stint in manufacturing. And she’d absolutely zero experience in tea as she’d previously not been involved anywhere in the production chain.
“I had no capital and no savings. Borrowing from banks meant we had to have collateral, which we didn’t. And like I said at the beginning, I lacked management experience while the market was also not ready for innovative products,” Flora noted while reflecting back on the modest beginnings of Melvin’s Teas which currently employs over 120 staff.
“First, I sought business advice from people who had been in in the industry before. I also went to Kabete Campus of Food Technology to learn about food technology and processing. Then I got financial support from family, my Sacco and a few friends. I also found a fund for women which helped with additional capital,” she said.
“My mother being a seasoned entrepreneur supported us right through. And we invested heavily in marketing with the team always trying to get into prospective customers’ homes.”
Despite the initial challenges, Melvin’s Teas has since grown and become a major beverage brand. The company’s products are currently available in the majority of the hotels and in most homes. There’s also Melvin’s TeaHouse, owned by the company, where tea lovers can enjoy the beverage.
All this goes to show that the market and consumers have accepted and embraced Melvin’s Teas brands.
“Our product has a health proposition and yes, all the eateries that support this have reached out one way or the other… Being 100% naturally flavoured products, our brands have been well received in the Kenyan market and my business has grown over the last 25 years. Especially during this time when the consumer is cautious careful what they consume, we have found more and more people looking for Melvin’s teas,” concluded Flora.