LORNA MWEU Finding success in the food business
Lorna Mweu, popularly known as Mamake Bobo, has quickly built a brand name for herself, thanks to her popular online food recipes. The food enthusiast and entrepreneur acknowledges that cooking has always been her passion but it took her some time to commercialise it. She talks to ESTHER KIRAGU about overcoming life’s challenges, venturing into her passion and succeeding.
“M y passion for food comes a long way. I loved cooking from way back in university. I would cook and invite my friends to share the meals with me.
And whenever we had school trips, I would volunteer to make meals for everyone. When I left college went into employment, the trend continued. I would bring lunch for my colleagues. And all this without charging a penny,” says Lorna Mweu as she introduces the genesis of her love for food.
Growing up, Lorna watched her mother prepare meals for her family with so much passion. She says even the simplest of meals such as a cup of tea was done with such finesse that you couldn’t help but notice.
“Up to this day, mum believes that all meals ought to be freshly made and this has rubbed on me as I make enough food for each meal and hardly do leftovers. Also, her love for trying out knew recipes as well as cooking with spices rubbed off on me,” says Lorna.
The second born in a family of three siblings, Lorna was born in Mombasa County and grew up in Mwea in Kirinyaga County where she also began her early schooling. Her dad worked, and still does, in Mombasa and so her family spent time between the two towns.
When she completed her high school education, Lorna got a three-day sales job to promote a brand of toothpaste in a supermarket. She had a target of selling a minimum of 100 pieces of toothpaste daily. This experience became an eye opener that would shape her career.
“Everyone did the usual where you stand at the aisle of the supermarket and try to get the attention of shoppers. I did the same, but hours into it realised it would be impossible to meet my target and so changed tact,” she explains.
She approached a nearby dental clinic and convinced the dentist to buy all the 300 pieces of toothpaste as giveaways to his clients. He agreed. This became a light bulb moment as she realised she was good at marketing.
To further these skills, she later joined Moi University Eldoret to pursue a degree in marketing. Although she enjoyed the course, the freedom within campus was a little too much for her.
“One time I skipped classes for an entire year because there were no strict rules on class attendance, and got away with it. In retrospect I realise this is a huge lapse that many public universities ought to address because at that age many young people end up wasting their lives due to lack of proper guidance,” she says.
On the positive side, it was while in university that she discovered her entrepreneurial streak. She sold jewelry and clothes and also washed and dried clothes for students at very good profit margins.
This success gave her the confidence to explore bigger business ventures leading her to take up a loan from her dad to try her hand at selling merchandise during one graduation ceremony.
“This time round I failed terribly. I hadn’t done a proper market research and was unaware there would be many vendors selling similar merchandise. My dad was upset and told me I would need to work and pay my fees, as the loan was part of my school fees. I did,” she quips.
Overcoming the tough season
During her last year in campus, Lorna became pregnant. This would change the trajectory of her life. Her family was greatly disappointed. “I was heartbroken and felt dejected by everyone,” she explains.
But she remained determined to make the best of her life and on graduating she travelled to Nairobi to look for a job. A friend accommodated her as she planned her next move.
“I knew I had to get a job quickly and get my own space as didn’t want to burden my friend. I was so desperate that at one time I sent out 200 job applications in one sitting,” she says and adds, “Finally lady luck smiled my way and I got a sales job at an insurance company.”
Lorna loved the flexibility of the job and although the retainer was little, she used the free time on her hands to do other side businesses. She would buy electric cables from Gikomba market and hawk them in premises within Nairobi’s central business district. In addition, she sold brassiere straps to supplement her income.
Lorna resumed work after one month after giving birth to her daughter, as she needed the money to support herself and the baby. So tough were those times that there were days she failed to pay rent on time. Her turning point came on her birthday in 2013.
On this memorable day, she could not even afford a meal for herself and slept hungry. Instead of this dampening her spirit, it encouraged her to continue with the struggle in order to get herself out of the hole.
Her hard work paid off. In a span of two years she rose up the ranks to become a senior sales person at the insurance firm. She was later promoted to a relationship officer and eventually became a manager. These roles came with a decent salary and huge commissions.
In pursuit of her passion
In 2015, just when she was at the peak of her career, Lorna quit her job in the insurance industry to the disbelief of many including her family, colleagues and bosses. She wanted to pursue her passion – cooking! She also felt convinced to take the risk at the height of her career, as being self-employed was her life’s goal.
Her first food venture was on social media where she opened a Facebook page Upishi Zone to exchange ideas with the public on different cuisines and also learn from each other.
She used the platform to increase her visibility and get name recognition as a caterer. She used this platform to advertise her catering services but things didn’t pick up as she expected.
“Three months after quitting my job I hadn’t secured even one catering event. My former employer and colleagues supported me as my first clients but I needed to grow my portfolio.
With time I realised it was difficult for people to trust you to offer catering services in their events if they had not tasted your food or been referred to you. And so I decided to throw a party where I served a variety of dishes and invited people over to eat and then rate my cooking on social media.
This helped build my name and within no time I began to get business,” she explains, adding that she would go out of her way to impress her clients and even offer extra services for free in order to build her brand name.
In 2015, Lorna became the first Kenyan to do a local recipe book available on e-book dubbed Mamake Bobo Jikoni Recipe Book. Since then she has two more recipe e-books to her name, which are available on WhatsApp or email and can be paid for on the Mpesa platform.
“When I published my first recipe e-book, I made Ksh 450,000 within a month and this enabled me to invest further into my business. I am now working on my fourth e-book on healthy children’s diet and am in discussions with two brands to sponsor it,” she says.
She also cooks at functions such as weddings, corporate events, birthday parties and graduation parties, among many others. A lover of spices, Lorna is setting up a company to manufacture good quality and affordable spices and signature sauces. She is also working with various brands for endorsements including Soko Ugali, Brookside Dairies, PS Kenya for a cook stove, among many others.
She would like to eventually start a catering school and is currently working on a TV cook show to help women sharpen their cooking skills. This is set to launch soon. Her passion is to see women own back their kitchens by making for their families simple, healthy, tasty foods with a bit of a twist.
Lorna, a single mum of one, says motherhood has been quite a journey and she has learnt most things on the go but would never trade the experience for anything.
“I believe my baby has kept me focused on life. I make all my decisions with her in mind. She is my best critic and cheerleader and will outrightly tell me off if I cook food at home that is not yummy,” she says of her now 4years-old daughter.
She has reconciled with her family who now offer a great support system for her and her daughter. “My mother and I are now best of friends and I draw a lot of inspiration from her,” she says.
Lorna’s words of advice from wisdom gained in her journey: “Fortune favours a prepared mind. You have to be ready for whatever big opportunity you are looking for in life. Also be patient, as life is a journey.”