Tabitha Karanja is CEO of Keroche Breweries and the first Kenyan to own a beer factory. Her resilience has seen her fight several battles in order to turn her company from a small factory to a multibillion-shilling business enterprise. She walks ESTHER KIRAGU through her journey to the top.

On a sunny Thursday morning, I make my way to Keroche Breweries, off the Naivasha/Nairobi highway. The company sits on a spacious piece of land, with tight security manning the gates. I am ushered into one of the offices and immediately notice the variety of Keroche’s drinks well displayed on a counter. A friendly and motherly Tabitha Karanja walks in. We exchange pleasantries and immediately embark on this interview.

Challenges aren’t new to Tabitha Karanja, the CEO of Keroche Breweries. Unwilling banks that refused to part with the desperately needed start-up capital, wealthy and exclusive competitors, uncooperative government officials, and even a shutdown of her offices are some of the challenges she has faced as an entrepreneur. One by one she has fought and made a name for herself. Born in Kijabe, she recalls her growing up being a mixture of both good and challenging circumstances, which built her resilient spirit.

The first of ten siblings, Tabitha took on responsibilities at an early age of 14 years almost playing a motherly role to her siblings. So concerned was she about her siblings that she ensured they not only attended school but also performed well. This excessive concern often rubbed the wrong way with her siblings and they often fell out but they are always grateful that she pushed them to do the best. All the same, it instilled responsibility in her at an early age.

“I ensured whatever we owned thrived; from the crops on our farm to livestock,” she says. During school holidays, Tabitha’s mother, a housewife and farmer initiated her to the art of knitting shawls for her younger siblings, which everyone in the neighbourhood liked  and they all wanted her to do it for them. This she did during her free time in school and in holidays.

Most of her schooling years took place within the vast Rift Valley region, having studied at Bahati Girls in Nakuru before joining Kapkenda Girls for her A-levels. On completion, she taught for a short while as an untrained teacher prior to getting a job with the Ministry of Tourism in 1985 as a Library Administrator.

“I enjoyed working in the library because I would read many books,” she says of her keen reading habits. She felt the need to acquire more knowledge and not too long after she began doing a Certificate of Public Accountancy (CPA), which led her to thereafter study for a Bachelor degree in business administration. This honed her passion for business.

Building a business empire…

Although Tabitha continued with her job at the ministry and was even enjoying it, she still had a desire to do business. At the time, her husband ran a hardware business, which she often assisted in accounting duties and other tasks unaware that this was slowly prepping her for full time business engagement. She resigned from her job in 1994 and joined her husband in running the hardware business.

“Although I was familiar with the business, running it wasn’t easy initially but I found my footing and even brought in a new dimension. The business traded in imported hardware goods and I felt the need to manufacture our products. I wasn’t sure what product in particular we could start manufacturing and this led us to carry out a needs-assessment research in 1997 to find the gaps in the market,” she explains.

The research showed a gap existed in the liquor industry particularly in the lower market where illicit alcoholic drinks were heavily consumed. Tabitha identified her niche after the research showed that there was need for hygienically prepared alcoholic drinks for the low-income earners who had been ignored by established liquor manufacturers and hence consumed dangerous illicit brews.

“This led to the establishment of Keroche Breweries in 1998 with the aim of manufacturing affordable, hygienically prepared, and well-packaged alcohol,” she says, adding that with time the company realised that the high-end market lacked options because the market was a monopoly. This led Keroche to produce premium brands of alcohol for that market.

Then problems set in…

The onset of manufacturing of premium brands was to be the beginning of battles with competitors who tried to prevent Keroche’s entry into the market. “The competitors used smear campaigns that initially made the public shy away from our brands. In addition, since many people only knew of brands manufactured by multinationals, they were skeptical about locally manufactured brands.  False accusations of producing poor quality alcohol followed by subjection to unfair high taxation that was backdated to five years and unfair trade practices by our competitors were thrown our way just to discourage us,” says Tabitha.

“I was, however, determined to fight and prove that I could make it. I also knew if I won the battle I would be paving way for other entrepreneurs whose dreams are cut short by established businesses. Additionally, I wanted to build a company that could eventually be owned by Kenyans through sale of shares at the stock exchange. I hope to float Keroche shares in the next five years,” she says with confidence.

Tabitha believes the struggles she has encountered as an entrepreneur have nothing to do with her gender, as many entrepreneurs face similar challenges regardless of their gender. She urges more women to rise up and venture into businesses because they are just as capable as men.

As a manufacturer of alcoholic beverages, does she feel responsible for the many youths destroying their lives through heavy alcohol consumption? Tabitha says that as one who grew up in the village and was brought up by very responsible parents, she is doing her part as a responsible Kenyan.

“It breaks my heart to hear of Kenyans who have died or gone blind after consuming cheap liquor. You will find that unemployment and poverty lead people to consume cheap, illicit liquor. It is for this reason that Keroche ensures the manufacture of high quality brands that are not overly priced, but this is not always possible because of the high taxation of alcoholic beverages. The government needs to work closely with legitimate and duly registered alcohol manufacturers to provide affordable and hygienically manufactured alcoholic beverages, as the only way to remove the killer illicit brews from the market,” says Tabitha.

Job creation for the youth is also another subject she reckons should be addressed to win the war against drugs and alcohol abuse, as idleness is the devil’s workshop. She is proud of her company’s employment record which has grown from five direct employees to over 200, with many others working as distributors and service providers.

“Although the Mututho laws have made a slight difference, the government should do more to curb illicit brewers before implementing laws such as those that dictate drinking hours,” she says.

Leaving a legacy…

Tabitha encourages young people aspiring to go into business to look for mentors under whose wings they can learn the ABC of business. To fill the need for mentorship, Tabitha is in the process of starting a foundation, which will focus on unlocking the potential of young entrepreneurs through mentorship. She hopes to share her knowledge and experience as she helps young people establish their businesses, thereby creating much-needed employment in the country and also alleviating poverty.

“If I can inspire 10 entrepreneurs to start businesses that are internationally recognised through the foundation, then I will have made an impact,” she says.

Tabitha hopes that through her work as CEO of Keroche Breweries she has inspired Kenyans, and especially women, to believe that it is possible to be successful. Retired president Mwai Kibaki recognised Tabitha for her efforts in breaking into a monopolised liquor industry as a manufacturer with the award of the Moran of Burning Spear (MBS) in 2009. Keroche Breweries is currently doing expansion that will see it launch its brands in the East Africa region.

In her free time, Tabitha gives motivational speeches in schools, colleges, associations and to fellow entrepreneurs. In the last three years, she has been assisting needy but performing students in her former school, Kiambogo Primary School, go through secondary education. She also enjoys spending quality time with friends and family.

Thoughts on family…

“I have my family to thank for motivating me to succeed, in addition to many Kenyans who have continued to stand by us. My employees have also believed in my dream and helped me accomplish it and without them I would not be where I am today,” says Tabitha, who greatly values relationships.

Tabitha has been married for 28 years to Joseph Karanja who is the Chairman of Keroche Breweries. “He has been instrumental in steering the company and my team and I look up to him for advice and guidance,” she says affectionately of her husband who is also an ardent farmer. The couple is blessed with four children – James, Annalisa, Edward and Tecra.

Commenting on marriage Tabitha says, “ Marriage depends on two parties and succeeds if they are both determined to make it work. Friendship, chemistry and love play a big role in sustaining a marriage. A successful marriage is reflected in children because broken families affect many spheres of life and children are probably affected the most.”

Tabitha’s daughter Annalisa runs her own bottled water company and is often assisted by her other daughter, Tecra, who is still in college but helps during school holidays and in her free time. Her two sons, Edward and James have joined her in running Keroche. As a career woman, wife and mother she says it is possible to play all these roles excellently and all it takes is belief in oneself and striking a balance.

“There are no shortcuts in life and to be successful you need to go the extra mile. There is also no time, so don’t waste it and whatever you do, be it as a student, parent, employer or employee, always strive to be the best,” she advises in conclusion.

 Published in December 2013