Tabitha Karanja is in a svelte black dress and seated in the boardroom of her well-appointed Nairobi office. She has a disarming smile and a gentleness that makes it hard to imagine that, in this very boardroom, this soft-spoken mother of four has struck many a business deal and battled feisty competitors. Those who work with her know that beneath the pleasant exterior is a hard-nosed businesswoman with a strong mind and a stronger resolve.
This is evident every morning she revs up her Range Rover to 120kph, driving an hour and 91 kilometers to her Naivasha brewery from her home in Nairobi. This is a woman with a drive few can match. She is the face of corporate Kenya.
Karanja is CEO of Keroche Breweries, Kenya’s second largest brewer (East African Breweries Limited is leader). In all of Africa, she is perhaps the only woman to have founded a beer company. It is an industry for the big boys, but an industry she says she has never felt out of place in. Her heart is in beer-making, and this is where she says she will continue to be, brewing up more action in the years to come.
In August, Karanja celebrated her 50th birthday in Nairobi with close friends and business associates. In many ways, it was a tribute to the milestones she reached in the industry.
“I don’t feel old,” says Karanja. Where most women would have contemplated slowing down after 50, Karanja does not see retirement anywhere on the radar. If anything, the game has only begun.
In January, her brewery in Naivasha will increase capacity by 10 times in a $100 million expansion plan. Where currently it manufactures 60,000 bottles a day, the upgraded facility will produce 600,000 bottles, as Karanja stridently looks to widen her reach in the rest of East Africa and increase her market share to 20%.
Her top-sellers are Summit Lager and Summit Malt, which started production in 2008 as “naturally-brewed, sugar-free, and hygienic alternatives” targeting consumers in the low-end alcohol market that could not afford elite brands or were more dependent on illicit brews.
Today, it is clear Kenya’s social climbers want more. Business is anything but flat.
“We are launching another beer brand in the next six months. I want the Summit brand to be all over Africa. The brand should live beyond my time,” says Karanja.
Beer or paint?
Karanja’s story is one of resilience and determination. Her first job was with the Ministry of Tourism in Kenya. Thereafter, her maiden business venture, with husband Joseph Karanja, was a hardware store, which she ran for 10 years. She wanted to diversify, and began searching the market for ideas, which is when she saw a gap in the beer market. Her other option was to sell paint, but she thought: “How often will a man paint his house? I have to go in for fast-moving consumer goods.”
With a paltry KSh200,000 ($2,200) from her savings and the 30 acres of land in Naivasha that she owned, in 1998, she started manufacturing fortified wines from a one-room facility. After 10 years in the wine and spirit business, she entered the beer market with the Summit brand.
“People were left to drinking anything that was available in the villages. I came up with a product that was affordable, hygienic and met international standards,” says Karanja.
The challenges were many, as it took a whole year – and several desperate trips to the financing banks – before the brand finally gained traction.
“We didn’t have anyone’s support. People did not understand there could be another brewery in this country. We had to fight and break that monopoly by not giving up, and believing that if multinationals can do it, so can we, as it’s good for the country, and good for Africa, so we can create jobs. There was no looking back.”
Over the years, Karanja has taken on the might of the competitors and the many “smear campaigns” against her, but did she face any setbacks for being a woman?
“I guess I am one of the few lucky women in business. I have never had to face discrimination. People don’t see me as a woman, they see me as an entrepreneur. I believe in myself, and believe in whatever I am doing.”
This belief is an attribute she intends imparting to the next generation of Kenyan business leaders. In May this year, her company launched the Keroche Foundation to train and mentor upcoming entrepreneurs and small business owners. Her company employs over 300 people and gives back to the community through youth education.
The young ones in her own family are taking her cue. Karanja’s 26-year-old daughter Anerlisa Muigai is following in her mother’s footsteps. After a marketing degree in London, Muigai returned to Nairobi last year to launch Executive, a line of still bottled water for a niche market.
“I have always looked up to my mother. She has been my biggest inspiration, she gives me hope in so many ways,” says the young entrepreneur. “She is a successful businesswoman because she never gives up. She conquers every goal, is a go-getter and very smart. I like that she comes home and does not make the house an office.”
Karanja agrees that for a woman juggling work and family, there are immeasurable sacrifices to be made every day.
“Being at the top, you have to balance it all. When you sleep, you are so tired, because you have made sure everything has gone right, that you have fed your family, and you have given time for your business. It’s difficult as there are sacrifices you make, like giving up on your sleep. I sleep after midnight, and wake at six.
“Every day after work, I take a Summit Malt. It does not give you a hangover, it’s good for the body,” she says. Even at home, Karanja cannot stay without endorsing the brand she is so passionate about.