Meet Kenya’s Pioneer Female Brewer, Tabitha Karanja

Tabitha Karanja, CEO Keroche Breweries

VENTURES AFRICA – Eighty and seven years. That is how long it took for a Kenyan to break into the beer brewing industry – one of East Africa’s most lucrative. In a field traditionally dominated by powerful multinational companies and men, one Kenyan woman broke the mould to become the country’s first home-grown beer manufacturer. Tabitha Mukami Muigai-Karanja is the Founder and CEO of Keroche Breweries, the first Kenyan-owned beer manufacturer. Hers is a classic entrepreneurial tale: she has battled with banks unwilling to part with desperately needed start-up capital, wealthy and exclusive competitors, uncooperative government officials and even a shut-down of her offices! Yet somehow, Tabitha, has successfully navigated all setbacks and today controls at least 20 percent of Kenya’s beer market. In her own words,

“We have fought countless battles and we seemed to have sunk at times, but true to the word we believed we could make it, we rose above the barricades and the story is now told of how we made it and won the war.”

Tabitha’s war began in 1997, when she joined the fortified wine industry. She met and married her husband, Joseph Karanja, who owned a hardware store, in Naivasha, Kenya. He went into the alcohol trade business in the 1990s and with a small number of brewery staff he joined the fortified wine business. As demand for their product increased, Tabitha joined her husband in the industry. She credits her personal background with preparing her for the battles she had to face in business. As the first born of 10 children, she was both sister and mother to the group; their defender and protector. The wine industry at the time was dominated by foreign multinational corporations and for the next ten years, Tabitha defended and protected Keroche Industries for a fair chance at making it in the industry.

Tabitha made more enemies than friends by attempting to break into an industry controlled by large multinationals backed by the government. She cried many tears over the threats and tactics employed by powerful competitors and government officials to put her out of business. On one occasion, some notable politicians, either out of misinformation or malice, publicly encouraged consumers to ignore her products! At other times, Tabitha had government officials knocking on her door demanding outrageous fees and even once, they temporarily closed down her business. “The most difficult time was in 2003 when over 10 depots in Central Province were raided by the provincial administration,” she says. As if these private battles were not enough, Tabitha spent many days in and out of court fighting to sustain her growing business and protect it from belligerent competitors. There is no doubt however, that it was worth it. Her enterprise has grown from a small three-room factory with five employees to a million-dollar facility that employs hundreds of Kenyans. Like her motto, Tabitha’s factory, employees and products are ‘Truly Kenyan’.

In 2007 – ten years after entering wine industry – Tabitha was finally pushed out of the wine business by a sudden tax hike on wine products. Not to be deterred, Keroche Industries spent a short time trading brandy, gin and vodka; but in a landmark move in 2008, Tabitha announced the production of a new Kenyan beer – Summit Lager. The new beer was officially launched on October 24, 2008 in a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Raila Odinga. This represented a massive shift in the government’s attitude towards Kenyan-owned manufacturing companies and Tabitha now praises the coalition government which has supported local initiatives like hers. “After so much pain and sleepless nights, my dream had been achieved and this was the best day in my life,” she said. She knows the battle is not over however, as not all parties are happy with her products’ success, now claiming one-fifth of a market previously thought impenetrable. Posters and advertisements from her company are regularly pulled down but Tabitha’s focus remains on the road ahead. The company has since launched more drinks, Summit Malt and Summit Stout and according to her, “for the first time in 87 years, Kenyans have an alternative in the beer market”.

Although alcoholic drinks have been her specialty, Tabitha Karanja’ dream extends beyond the liquor industry. An initial investment of one billion Kenyan shillings ($11.6 million) increased her factory production capacity to 6,000 bottles-per-hour in 2009. For Tabitha, the next frontier to be conquered is the soft drink industry. In keeping with her new vision, a further investment is set to increase its capacity to 15,000 bottles-per-hour.

“When Keroche … commenced operations … fingers were pointed at us and the rumours of they-can’t-do-it was written on the faces of many who never believed a Kenyan company could penetrate in a grid-tight multinational market where the end justified the means even if the means isn’t justifiable,” says Karanja. But she proved everyone wrong and the response to her product has been phenomenal, “we are pleased by how the beer is performing and I want to thank Kenyans for the support and confidence that they have given us”. Having taken on some of the biggest industry giants and won, this should be a no-brainer.

Tabitha will be the first to acknowledge that she could not have made it on this journey alone. Her husband, Joseph Karanja, now the Chairman of Keroche Industries, has been her strong support: “whenever I am down, he is there to pick me and I have a shoulder to lean on as he is always there to guide me. I owe him a lot.” The mother of four remains highly committed to her family time, sharing most dinners with them despite her busy schedule. “Family is the best thing in my programme,” she says. Her advice to women entrepreneurs venturing into male-dominated territory is simple: believe in yourself because you’re not likely to get much help from men if they perceive you as a threat. “I knew what I wanted in life and I worked day and night to achieve it, and here I am.”

Tabitha has extensive training in business management and in 2010 she was awarded the Moran of Burning Spear (MBS) award by his excellency President Mwai Kibaki for her efforts to liberalize the Kenyan liquor industry. Truly, she is a champion blazing the trail and inspiring other female entrepreneurs across the continent. She ventured into something no one has tried and never gave up her dream, now she has started reaping profits, paving way for more to follow in her footsteps – establishing indigenous industries and ultimately, developing the economy.

Indeed, Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained…