To the indignation of her family, Flora Mutahi quit her job as an auditor to pursue entrepreneurship, an unattractive career path at the time in Kenya, especially for women in the 1990s. Nonetheless, Mutahi persevered despite the lack of support from her family to start her own business.
She started in the salt industry by establishing Kenya’s first free-flowing salt (with anti-caking additives) under the brand name of Melvin Marsh International. Mutahi had no technical skills on salt production and to get the best product on the market, she partnered a local university to assist in the salt processing.
Her first order came from a local hotel that placed an order for 1,200 packets of salt. The order impressed her but to her utter shock, she was told the payment for the product was going to be made in 90 days.
“It sounded like a lot but really it wasn’t,” she tells howwemadeitinafrica. “I was so green in business. When I delivered the salt to the hotel, I thought I would get paid the next day but it took them 90 days to pay.”
At that point, she knew she couldn’t rely on one product to thrive in a field that has traditionally favored men. She went into teabag packing. Before her entry, the Kenya Tea Packers (Ketepa) had a monopoly on the sector.
Her interest was pricked following the liberalization of the sector in 1992 to allow other interested parties and entrepreneurs to participate. In 1994, a conference of players in the tea industry was organized. “These men challenged me and said: ‘You do not just wake up one morning and go against a monopoly,’” Mutahi said of her participation in the conference which was dominated by men.
She doesn’t own a tea farm and so she bought tea from growers in different parts of Kenya and then contract factories to process it with her preferred blends. “We mill our ingredients from scratch and work with out-growers for our flavors such as camomile and lemongrass; we don’t use artificial preservatives or flavors. Our expertise is in the blending and the flavoring,” she said.
She told How We Made It In Africa how she often flavored her tea with fresh ginger. “I wondered how many other people were doing this,” she says. That was how Mutahi gave birth to Melvin’s Ginger Tea.
Within two years, she developed two tea brand products, ginger-flavored tea and a premium tea, which were all listed in big supermarkets in Kenya. And by 1997, she had developed four more flavors to gain entry into an export promotion program offered by a British fund which was unsuccessful.
However, that did not deter her as the new flavors sold out in local markets. In 2004, she achieved a breakthrough: she successfully shipped a consignment of her tea product to the US and later to Japan. Its other export markets include Rwanda.
Today, Melvin Tea ranks third in the Kenya market and also has an e-commerce platform where people can place orders online. In 2017, she received an award for best female CEO in the top 100 mid-size companies.