How job loss inspired bakery business from home kitchen

Zilia Lotan, founder Zilly Bakes. [Standard]

When the pandemic struck two years ago, 41-year-old Zilia Lotan found herself jobless after working for seven years.

However, she never allowed this to be a depressing point in her life, instead, she turned her passion for baking into an income-generating activity.

Lotan, based in Mombasa, now runs a bakery from her house named Zilly Bakes. Despite being a young business, it recently beat well-established ones to emerge second during a baking competition courtesy of Mombasa Maize Millers.

Pre-pandemic, Lotan was employed as a customer service or care officer with a microfinance institution in Mombasa. When the pandemic hit, it shut down and all the employees went home.

Without a job, she had to  quickly figure out her next source of income. Finding a job wasn’t easy as companies across the country companies were downsizing if not shutting down.

One of Lotan’s pastimes was baking cakes, and a thought occurred to her to turn it into a business and see how it would go.

“We are passionate about what we do and we ensure that our customers get fresh and beautiful products,” she told Money Maker.

She said that there is a difference between baking as a pastime and as a business. 

“When I began doing it for the market, I would say I was experimenting as the final products were not to the best of the customer expectation. I mean how the shape would come out because you have to be creative. But I managed to finesse the craft of shaping and decorating and the efforts have paid off. It is also fulfilling and has paid off.”

She currently serves the Mombasa market with her core customers being those having ceremonies such as weddings, birthdays, baby showers and anniversaries.

Most of her customers are from referrals but she also does social media advertising which is helping her expand her client base.

One of the biggest challenges in her line of work has been the soaring food prices. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been blamed for causing a global food crisis. Kenya imports most of her wheat from Ukraine.

“We have seen the prices of baking items going up and the situation may get worse. Basically, the prices of everything that goes into the mix had been rising and the costs are then passed on to the consumers. Also, frequent power outages are a worry for any baker,” she said, adding that baking is a competitive business as there are many others in the market with similar products. However, it pays for one to differentiate themselves from the others.

“The market reception for my products has been good and as the business grows, profits are reinvested. The aim is to expand deliveries beyond the coastal towns and diversify to more baking products,” she added.

At the baking competition where she emerged second, she won Sh30,000. She said  that the award was an eye-opener and she injected cash prize in to her business. 

With the economy having since reopened, she never contemplates going back to employment. She’ll stick to baking and perhaps do consultations for her professional training on the side.

Lotan said there’s something more fulfilling in being one’s own boss. “In the nine-to-five job, you have targets to meet or you are overworking and getting underpaid for your services. The pandemic taught me that working in a job without security can see you dispensed away with easily.”

She tells budding entrepreneurs that they can turn those dreams into reality with consistency and determination. “You can turn that hobby into an income-generating enterprise. Employment is not for everyone, you can be that creator of job opportunities for others,” she said.

When not baking, she spends quite a lot of time researching and expanding her knowledge on baking. When she comes across new recipes, she tries them.