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Tabitha Karanja: Brewing with confidence

By | Updated Sat, March 14th 2009 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Antony Gitonga

For close to 90 years, no Kenyan dared enter the beer market. Termed as one of the most lucrative industries in the country, the sector was treated with awe even by the rich and mighty of the land, leaving it to the multinationals to reign free.

It took one woman, Tabitha Mukami Muigai-Karanja, to jump into the dreaded ‘unfair playing ground’, for the ground to move and she, to take her rightful place in the industry. At 45 years, Tabitha as she is commonly known is the CEO, Keroche Breweries, the first ever beer factory to be owned by a Kenyan.

Tabitha Mukami Muigai, the Chief Executive Officer, Keroche Breweries.

Hers is a story of pain, anger, threats, intimidation, determination and prayers that have seen her emerge as one of the most successful business women in the country.

Tabitha was oftentimes reduced to tears as powerful individuals both in and out of government fought her using all crude methods at their disposal. She wept when some politicians, either out of malice or misinformation, went out publicly and urged members of the public to ignore her products; she wept when powerful government operatives knocked on her door demanding exorbitant amounts of money and even temporarily closed her business.

"The most difficult time was in 2003 when over 10 depots in Central Province were raided by the provincial administration," she says.

She nearly gave up as some people embarked on a smear campaign to bring down her emerging empire. But instead of bringing her down, this motivated her and even made her strong and ready to venture into any business.

Tabitha has been in and out of courts so many times in a bid to protect her empire from competitors who feel threatened by her emergence.

She has watched her business grow from a small three-roomed factory with five employees to a state of the art brewery employing hundreds of Kenyans.

Her motto, ‘Truly Kenyan’, sums up all her efforts and vision.

Tabitha in her Naivasha office. The first Kenyan to own a beer factory, Tabitha knows too well what it means to break ground and steer ahead in the face of stiff opposition.

According to Tabitha, the journey has been rough and turbulent since 1997 when she ventured into the wine industry. For over 12 years, Tabitha fought a lone battle with giant multinationals in the fortified wines industry.

She had by and large penetrated the local market until 2007 when unexplained tax raise forced her out of the wine business.

"Then Minister for Finance introduced punitive taxes for fortified wines and we had to move to brandy, gin and Vodkas," she explains.

Not one to be intimidated by the new directives, she decided to tackle the bull by the horn, by announcing that Keroche Breweries was going into beer manufacturing.

And so on October 24, last year, Keroche Breweries launched Summit Lager in a ceremony graced by Prime Minister, Raila Odinga.

"After so much pain and sleepless nights, my dream had been achieved and this was the best day in my life," she says as she breaks into a smile.

In October, last year, during the launch ceremony for the beer brand, Summit Lager. Prime Minister Raila Odinga graced the occasion.

Alternative at last

This gave Kenyans other options. She hopes to attract between 25 and 35 per cent of the beer market countrywide. And this, she believes is achievable, given a level playing ground.

"For the first time in 87 years, Kenyans have an alternative in the beer market," she says.

Keroche Breweries, based in Naivasha, has 100 employees, and engages hundreds others in the distribution network. Thanks to the distribution and retail networks built when she specialised in fortified wines. Keroche enjoys a national network, which she hopes to strengthen with the entry of the beer.

Despite the hardships encountered on her way up, Tabitha is confident especially due to the positive response Kenyans have shown to the brand.

"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," she says.

The company has invested one billion shillings in the new plant built by Italian and German engineers. It has a capacity of 6,000 half-litre bottles per hour.

The CEO says that by April this year, Summit Malt will hit the market followed by Summit Stout by the end of the year.

"This is the first beer brewed by a Kenyan investor, and I want to assure our consumers that this is the best product you will ever receive," Tabitha says.

Supports coalition government

She adds: "We do not have the kind of money the competition has but this will not deter us from serving our consumers with the best beer ever."

A light moment as Tabitha shares Summit beer with guests who toured Keroche Breweries recently. Photos: Anthony Gitonga/Standard

Tabitha is full of praise for the coalition government for supporting the local initiative unlike in the past when there was too much harassment from government officials. She, however, says the main battle is not over as these forces are not happy. Posters from her firms are always pulled off. But her mind and heart are focused beyond petty peeves as she talks about the future:

"Despite all the challenges, my dream is to have a soft drink company and maybe I will have achieved my life’s dreams."

Tabitha is full of praise for her husband Joseph Karanja, who is also the chairman, Keroche Industries. He not only plays a crucial role in the business management but is also her best friend.

"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."

A mother of two boys and two girls, Tabitha always has time for the family despite the busy schedule. She says that in most cases, dinners are shared and birthdays are marked in a special way.

"Family is the best thing in my programme," she says.

"At the moment, three of my children are abroad taking their degrees and whenever they are around, we have quality time together".

Her advice to fellow women is for them to be strong and not to shy away from their dreams as nothing is impossible.

"I knew what I wanted in life and I worked day and night to achieve it, and here I am."

She calls on women to believe in themselves as men offer little help to aspiring women whom they perceive as threats.