CEO making tea drinking cool, one cup at a time

Flora Mutahi, the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Melvin Marsh International.[Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

Underneath the fruity scent lies the homely smell of loose tea that hangs over the hallways of the Melvins Tea headquarters in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.

At the corner office, Flora Mutahi, one of the pioneers of flavoured teas in Kenya, exudes regal composure as she faces a TV camera.

It is hard to imagine that 25 years ago she was hawking tea in open-air markets – sometimes brewed and kept in a thermos for potential customers to taste. The founder and chief executive of Melvin Marsh International now runs her own firm, and media interviews are but a small matter.

Millions of Kenyans and other tea lovers across the globe enjoy a cup of Melvins Tea, with the brand offering about 20 flavours.

In 2019, Melvins won Kenya’s Top 100 Mid-sized Companies Survey, which ranks firms with a turnover of between Sh50 million and Sh1 billion.

When Financial Standard caught up with her, Mutahi insisted she’s just getting started despite her achievements in growing the brand, having come close to selling out twice.  

“The way I do things is that I often take the road less travelled, which is how I came up with the flavoured teas,” she said.

“We’ve been growing over the years, but have we achieved our wildest dreams? We are now challenging ourselves on value addition. We really want to crack the export market in a big way,” added Mutahi, who was recently appointed the first female chairperson of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance.

An industry titan, she has also served as the first female chair of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers.

She said the focus now is doing larger export volumes on the back of growing demand abroad and getting the packaging right for these markets but won’t divulge the volumes Melvin does at any given time. As the interview progresses, one of her handlers advises against certain responses in a bid to protect what they term “trade secrets.”

“Some of your questions are trade secrets… what if her competitors read the interview?” poses the handler.

Mutahi lamented Kenya’s lax patenting law, especially when she was starting.

This is unlike in other markets, particularly in the developed world where they are keen on protecting brands and ideas.  She claimed some people have tried stealing her ideas.

For example, when she was looking for packaging for her free-flowing salt in the late 1990s, the company boss inquired what she intended to use the packaging for.

According to Mutahi, he would go on to steal the idea and run with it as his.

A former employee, she further claimed, formed a company with a name similar to Melvins Tea and started selling his own brand of tea in the Rift Valley.

“He eventually withdrew the product, but he had already harmed our market share,” she said.

The tea industry has been known to operate in a “cartel-like” manner, but Mutahi said being different has set her apart. “My success came because I went for the flavours… at the time, there were about 50 registered packers, but before I knew it, we were 200 and now we have over 1,000,” she said.

She pointed out that the younger generation does not appreciate the tenacity it takes to build a brand.

“You have to push. I used to make my tea in the morning and sell it at various city markets such as Kawangware and Githurai,”  said Mutahi.

Working alongside her team of marketers, she would serve traders from thermos flasks. The first flavour she ever made was ginger, which became popular as it is believed it can fight the common cold.

“I used to walk into a market and tell myself: I’m going to sell to 400 people for Sh20,” she recalled.

As part of her marketing strategy, Mutahi at one point hired members of the popular Vitimbi group to entertain crowds during market days.

But why the choice of Melvins and Marsh for a local tea firm? She laughs, noting that people are still shocked that it’s a Kenyan brand and run by a woman. Mutahi said when she registered it in the mid-1990s, Kenyans were very aspirational and responded well to foreign-sounding brands.

“I said let me have something that sounds interesting, but if I had set it up in the early 2000s or even now, it would probably have an African name,” she added.

The firm also produces free-flowing salt, a type of high-quality salt that does not absorb moisture even when left exposed, which was one of their first products. Twice, she almost sold her company. The first time was just five years after launching.  

The second time she left the running of the company in the hands of a manager for a year.

“When I came back, I was quite impressed by what they’d done. I went to the bank to sign some documents, and I wondered, ‘you mean they have all this money?’”

In the late 1990s when she was starting, adding simple flavours such as ginger, noted Mutahi, was a laborious process and uncommon.

Since then, the flavoured tea market has moved to other innovations such as herbal and fruit infusions.

“We became a more discerning country for different tastes,” she said.

The teas have gained popularity because of their health benefits. Some of the 20 brands in the market include herbal tea infusions that can palliate digestive issues, while others have benefits to the heart and help with insomnia.

There are at least a dozen varieties of teas that come from the green bush, including black, green, yellow and oolong tea.

The latest rage is the purple bush whose tea, which contains more antioxidants and fights cancer cells, helps bring down cholesterol, weight loss and regulating sugar levels in diabetics.

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