She baked her first cake at the age of 11 years and the rest, as they say, is history. Sixteen years later, she is following her baking passion and making a good living out of it. This pleasant, bubbly young lady tells her sweet story to EDNA GICOVI.
“I don’t like cake for my birthday,” says a smiling Murugi Wanjama, adding, “I’d rather have pizza or anything else.” And it is expected, looking at all the cakes that surround her almost on a daily basis in her quaint little shop tucked away on 5th Ngong Avenue, off Ngong Road in Nairobi. Beautifully decorated with pictures of cakes, and a poster on the wall urging one to ‘Keep calm and eat cupcakes’, I couldn’t help but salivate at the tasty-looking ones on display right next to me.
Despite not wanting cake for her birthday, Murugi loves cakes and loves the process of coming up with different types even more. She says that since it was not possible to always get cake from the supermarket when she was growing up, she started playing with her two young brothers in the kitchen and experimenting cooking things they desired but couldn’t get. This was how she learnt to bake. At 11, she baked her first cake, a lemon cake that, to her dismay, stuck to the baking tin, as she had not greased the tin as is required before pouring in the batter. This lesson stuck with her and with time she honed her baking skills.
“We did a lot of baking with my brothers using whatever was available in our mom’s kitchen. We often had a lot of explaining to do when mom asked why her eggs and flour kept running out,” she chuckles. When she became quite good at baking, she started making cakes for her friends and relatives on their birthdays and other special occasions. To Murugi, this was a hobby she enjoyed and not at any one time did she think of making it into a business until her father suggested.
After completing her ‘O’ levels at Alliance Girls High School and working for a short while, she enrolled at Daystar University to study computer science. She had an interest in IT (information technology) and web design, hence her choice to study computer science with a bias in Internet programming.
From hobby to business…
As a student at Daystar’s Athi River campus, Murugi noticed that a lot of students brought cakes from Nairobi, about 40 kilometres away, when they had an occasion to celebrate such as birthdays. “The cake would be all smashed up by the time they arrived in campus because the road was very bumpy,” she says.
This gave her an idea to follow up with her father’s suggestion and towards the end of her second year she started baking from her small room outside campus. After some research and perfecting five cake recipes, Murugi was good to go. “My parents and then boyfriend, now husband, put their money together and bought me my first oven, baking tins and icing kits, among other baking items,” she says.
Her cakes were received quite well. A lot of people couldn’t believe that she baked them in her room out of campus. “It was convenient for students to order cakes from me. They would either call or text their order and I would make sure it was ready and delivered promptly. This was a great and convenient way of having their fresh cake without having to carry one all the way from the city,” she says. In time, Murugi’s cakes became quite popular with both students and members of staff.
As her business grew, so did her small room seem to shrink. She recalls one Valentine’s Day eve when she spent all night baking, as she had many orders. “Because the space in my house was very little, I put a covering on my bed where lay the cakes to cool. Even if I had wanted to sleep, I really couldn’t have,” she says, observing that her cake business has grown by leaps and bounds since that time. She continued baking even after graduation, mostly serving her old customers in school who had also graduated and moved to Nairobi. With time her clientele grew to include other people who had heard about her cakes or tasted them.
She baked from her parents’ house until she got married and moved the business to her new home. After one year of marriage the business literally took over her house and it was time to move. “I had so many orders and there were cakes almost everywhere in the house. Sometimes our friends would want to visit but we couldn’t host them because there was nowhere to sit!” says Murugi animatedly.
While the couple were happy with the business growth they needed their house and privacy, which was not possible with cakes everywhere. With her husband’s help, Murugi started looking for premises to move the business to. This was no mean task. What they thought was the perfect location was coming with a goodwill tag of Ksh1.2 million, money they didn’t have. They found many premises but each had a story – too expensive, too small, landlord will not allow a bakery, and so on. It was a most frustrating search.
At a point of giving up and re-strategizing, perhaps moving into a bigger house, Murugi was walking down a road she used often coming from church and became curious of what happened behind some blue gate by the roadside. She believes this was God’s doing as behind those gates stood the most perfect location for her business, rent was affordable and all it needed was a coat of paint. “It was like God had brought the miracle they had been praying for,” says Murugi.
She opened her cake shop, Cakes.co.ke, in May last year. “I have come from far since my little bakery in my small room at Daystar University, where I baked a cake a day and sometimes no cake, and today I do more than 10 cakes a day. I thank God for bringing me this far,” she says.
Cakes.co.ke bakes all types of cakes, from black forest, white forest, red velvet, pina colada to passion fruit, chocolate fudge, chocolate orange and fruit, which Murugi says are popular with weddings. She also makes various cup cakes. She caters for many events including birthdays, graduation parties, corporate events and weddings.
Interestingly, Murugi has never had any formal training in baking. Her skills are self-taught and are inspired by her interest in baking. She learns a lot from books and the Internet. She has a large collection of books on baking and cake decoration. She worked briefly at Valentines Cake House, a cake shop in Nairobi’s city centre during school holidays to improve her skills.
Cakes from the net…
“Not many people were doing business online a few years back and so after graduation, the first thing I did was to create a website for my cake business. I designed the site and put up an online payment system where anyone could register, make an order and pay via money transfer platforms like Mpesa and Airtel money,” says Murugi. Ninety percent of her business comes from the website, which shares the same name with her shop – cakes.co.ke.
She also gets orders from Kenyans in the Diaspora for delivery to family and friends living in Kenya. “These are some of the benefits of having a website. How else would such people reach us?” she asks. Last year Google Kenya approached cakes.co.ke to be ambassadors for small and medium business enterprises (SME) online. This was to encourage more businesses to get online. She explains that anyone can register and create a site for their business for free on kbo.co.ke, a site hosted by Google Kenya.
“Anyone who can create a Facebook account can easily create a site for their business and put images of products they sell,” she says. As a person who runs a small enterprise that has presence online and is a success story, Murugi encourages people, regardless of the business they are in, to get themselves a website. “It has a lot of benefits including the fact that your business still works for you even when you are sleeping. You are also able to reach more people and, as the Internet is global, you never know who may be interested in your products,” she says.
Having an IT background has been of great help to her cake business. She is able to know what people are searching for using her website’s online statistics, which also help her to add new products to the site and take away products that are not fast moving. She is looking to increase her staff this year to cope with growing demand. She has trained all her staff and hopes to open a training school in the future, in addition to opening branches of her cake shop in different parts of the country.
She advises anyone looking to start their own business to stop thinking and get started. “We think too much and at the end, we only see how our idea will not work and so we don’t get started,” she says. “Once you have a basic business plan, move to the next level of research to establish if your business is viable, and if you think it is, just go ahead and do it. It is only by starting that you will ever find out if your idea works,” advises Murugi in conclusion.
Published in February 2012