In a country where women pioneers are still a rarity, Flora Mutahi is a trailblazer. Flora, the founder and CEO of Melvin Marsh International, was the first person to venture into flavoured tea business in Kenya. She is also the chair of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, making her the first woman to head the lobby group, and is vice president of the COMESA Business Council. She talked to ESTHER KIRAGU on her debut into the entrepreneurial world and some of the lessons she has learnt along the way.
Flora Mutahi’s confident gait as she strides inside Melvins Tea Café in Nairobi’s Lavington Mall for this interview and her unmistakable aura of warmth partly tell the story of how she has successfully run Melvin Marsh International. And the interview wouldn’t have been better without a delicious cup of Melvins tea. It is this Kenyan tea drinking culture that inspired Flora to produce the Melvins tea brand in 1996.
“I wanted to change the narrative of people going on coffee dates by popularising tea dates through providing tea in a variety of forms, as this is the popular beverage found in many African homes,” she starts off this interview.
She takes much pride in her brand of teas that are hand picked and blended to bring out the brisk flavour and bright infusion characteristic of Kenyan tea. She is categorical that Melvins flavoured teas have no additives and use only freshly ground spices, which are first dried before being ground to retain their natural freshness.
Finding her passion…
Possibly, the fact that both her parents were entrepreneurs – her dad a banker and her mum a seasoned businesswoman – rubbed off on her. “I recall having many conversations with my parents that revolved around business ideas,” she says.
Subconsciously, Flora slowly began honing her business skills. At one time while studying abroad, she came home on holiday and an aunt of hers expressed interest in one of her dresses. She ended up selling it to her and made it a habit that whenever she was about to travel back home, she would save up, buy some great apparel and then sell them to her friends. The entrepreneurial bug had bitten her.
With her interest in business, she admits she had a hard time thinking of what career to venture in as no career really felt home for her. Entrepreneurship at the time was not considered as a fully-fledged career and she settled for accounting through a little tipping from her dad who pointed out that she was good at it. She then enrolled for a part-time accounting course at Strathmore Business School and secured an accounting job at an audit firm. The firm mainly dealt with the manufacturing industry spurring her interest in the food industry. Many times at work, she yearned to be the person running the business rather than the one doing the audit reports.
“I didn’t enjoy the career path I was at and found myself skipping classes so much that it caught the attention of James Mcfee, now director at School of Accountancy Strathmore University. He aptly pointed out that I was forming a bad habit of skipping class due to lack of commitment because I was not doing this for myself, a habit that could easily play out in different aspects of my life. Mcfee encouraged me to have an introspection and be true to myself. This turned out to be the best advice at the time,” she explains. That very night, Flora went on to resign from her job and decided to venture into business: much to the uneasiness and distress of her then boss and friend and her family.
Building a brand…
Through an invitation from her mum, Flora attended a talk where the speaker, a successful businesswoman, shared about her entrepreneurial journey and how she never seemed to fit in any career. She totally resonated with the message and this pushed her further into business. A believer in taking the road less trodden, Flora began thinking of the gaps in business that she could address and this led to a needs assessment of sorts.
“The market then lacked free-flowing salt because the salt available was the sticky type and one had to put rice in it to absorb moisture. I purposed to start producing free-flowing salt and went on to learn everything I needed to know about it,” she says. And Melvins Flow Salt was born.
One year into the business, it dawned on her that salt didn’t fetch much money and that it would take years to break even. She began thinking of ways to diversify her business. And when she learnt of the lift of tea monopoly in the 90s, she immediately identified this as an excellent business opportunity. After gathering enough information on tea production and packaging, the company rolled out Melvins teas. Undaunted by competition, Flora took on huge brands at a time when there was mostly one variety of tea. Asked what stirred her to go up against huge brands she says, “It really wasn’t bravery; I was naïve and didn’t view them as competition. I have this ability to turn a blind eye and focus on what I have to do.”
She, however, admits to doing a thorough market research. She spent lots of time in the key markets in Nairobi such as Kangemi, Githurai and Kawangware among others, with flasks of tea requesting traders to sample her tea flavours and provide feedback. “It is this feedback that helped shape our product into the brand you see today,” she says, adding that as an entrepreneur you can’t sit in an ivory tower and expect to be successful; rather, you must be willing to dig in the trenches and do your homework.
Melvins introduced variety of teas blended with natural, freshly ground mixture of spices the first of which was Tangawizi tea. Today, Melvins has carved out its niche in flavoured, herbal and recently, fruity-fusion teas with two brands in the black tea market . Flora’s secret to 20 years of success in the tea business and 22 years in the salt business is, “constant innovation, willingness to learn and being attentive to customers’ needs as they are the consumers of the product.”
Blazing on other fronts…
Flora is also blazing trails in female empowerment. In 2016, she was named chair of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), the representative organisation for manufacturing value-add industries in Kenya, a position held by a woman for the first time in 57 years. She attests that while she has brought on board her extensive experience in strategic leadership, business development, market penetration, and marketing, she has benefitted as well by learning from others. She feels humbled to be in a position that, together with others, enables her to influence industry policies and implementation.
One of the many things she is proud of at KAM is the setting up of a help desk to assist its members through representing their views and concerns to the relevant authorities. She is also glad the membership has grown over the years.
“Devolution is a great opportunity that has brought the cake home and opportunities for many, but I do realise there are a few things such as the cost of running a business that are still a challenge for many businesses. But talks are underway to harmonise and standardise cost of doing business across all counties,” she further expounds and adds that she is glad a lot of business formalisation processes are now easily done online, thanks to technology.
Regarding talks that some industries are dying, she says as an entrepreneur, one has to strive to remain innovative and agile within their industry to remain relevant thanks to the ever-changing market demands. She encourages entrepreneurs to purposefully seek out information and learn from those who have gone ahead of them.
On the value of relationships…
A believer in paying things forward, Flora gives talks on entrepreneurship on invitation and offers mentorship opportunities. She says she hopes many women can open the door for others in whatever capacity they are in. “It is the kind word, the word of encouragement, the advice and the mentorship opportunities that make a difference in other peoples life,” says the woman who attests to being surrounded by a group of women including her mum who inspire and challenge her to be at her best.
Flora has been married for 17 years to Mutahi Wariithi, an architect and entrepreneur. The couple has interests in the real estate industry and as entrepreneurs; they sharpen each other’s skills and support each other. They have three children aged 14, 13 and 7 years. Like many parents, she says her biggest challenge remains balancing between business and family time, but she does the best she can. Her dreams for her children are for them to be independent, hardworking and able to stand up for their values regardless of societal pressures. To relax, Flora loves to travel, play golf and spend time with her loved ones.
Published March 2017…