Boyhood fantasy that grew into a business empire


When is the last time you crunched a cookie? Next time you chance upon a box of cookies, thank the ingenuity of an adventurous boy whose experimentation with hawking honed his skills in Karatina 105 years ago, selling needles and razor blades and safety pins for pocket money.

This is the story of a pioneer industrialist Mandatally Manji, whose journey started in India in 1905 when his grandfather Mohamed Hassam left Kathiawad to Kenya and ultimately settled in Nyeri where he established himself. His children, among them Manji Mohamed, followed suit in 1905.

Mandatally’s quest for financial independence started when he was schooling in Nyeri when he realised that he could increase his 50 cents pocket money given by his father instead of squandering it by buying candies and cookies.

At the time, all the goods sold in shops were sourced from Nairobi and had to be transported on the backs of donkeys and ox-drawn carts to Nyeri and other branches the Indian traders had established their dukas.

The 143-kilometre journey took days as there were no proper roads and travelers had to go through treacherous cattle tracks, fighting off animals and gangsters.

As one of the pioneer trader John Boyes has indicated in his book King of the Wa-Kikuyu, he had bloody encounters with “highway robbers who liked waylaying traders.

Before the government had been fully established, Colonel Richard Meinetzhagen had a field day at Muruka, near Thika after a white trader who had been swindling locals was cornered, lynched and his body turned into a public urinal.

Mandatally discovered that if he dashed to Karatina market during the lunch break, he could buy petty items, which he could retail at a profit.

“By the time I returned to school for the afternoon classes, I was loaded with more money than I could dream of as a child. I would have made a profit of between 50 and 75 cents."

That was a large sum in those days. So lucrative were his dealings, Mandatally explains in his Memoirs of a Biscuit Baron, that he no longer required his parents’ money to buy exercise books, and even rewarded himself with a wrist watch worth Sh5.

From these humble beginning, Mandatally became a household name after his company House of Manji distinguished itself in biscuit making. By the time he died in September 2016, Mandatally had created a business empire with presence in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.

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