Delicious, flavoured, high quality teas that are refreshing, is how a tea lover , describes Melvins tea brands that have been on Kenya’s shelves for over 25 years.
Locally branded and withstanding the test of times behind Melvins tea, is however a humble focused and laidback woman who despite the adversities and normally men led industry can sit back and take a sigh of relief for delivering not only for entrepreneurs in the country but for women as a whole.
Flora Mutahi, the CEO of Melvin Marsh International Limited is among leading women entrepreneurs in the country and who says it is possible. For her, it was not just about the culture of tea which is so in the African setting, but discovering and producing tea in not the ordinary form but delivering it in different aromas and flavours
“ Before I started out, I was a full-time employee as an auditor but only worked for nine months. I was not enjoying it so I had to quit, though it was not easy since business then in the 90s was associated with people who could not find work , but I just did not want to do work , after many fights with my parents who thought otherwise, I decided this is what I want and I went into business”, Flora tells KNA in an interview.
She started out with Melvin’s Free Flow Salt but quickly changed to the Tea after she realized one could not make enough profit with the salt as it was taking too long for an order to be paid . 90 days after supply in order to be paid would not have been ideal, she says
With Tea now and with my habit of doing things differently considering tea was a monopoly then and one could not just start out and continue as it was being operated by heavy players, I decided to doit completely different and started out with ginger tea which wasn’t in the market then
The first supermarket that agreed to buy from Flora was Chandanarana supermarket who enlisted her and then Uchumi supermarkets which was national and huge came in but she also used to go to small groceries and just talk to the women running those shops and who became her customers.
“ I can say that is how Melvin’s started and came into being and slowly by slowly we continued to grow even with the challenges in the sub sector such as getting teas from the auction through a trader .
For longest time, she added that they could only buy tea at the auction and one had to be registered which was not easy. For 12 years I had to use the auction or through a trader but now that the monopoly was lifted, we buy direct to the farms which comes to much shorter time in the supply chain and also being able to buy fresh directly from the factories which has seen us improve on the quality of the products.
When it came to marketing, Flora says she only knew that in order to get more recognition she had to advertise and this she did through the famous vitimbi comedian group who together with her in a pick up could go round the country advertising melvins tea brands and slowly by slow her product was accepted by Kenyans.
Flora however remembers that it had not been smooth sailing and twice she had contemplated even selling and had even found a buyer, but she in the process got cold feet but also she had a mother , a business entrepreneur herself who kept on encouraging her and even joining her in the business.
“ My mum is my partner as had been in business, she is a seasoned entrepreneur and at some point I had even left her the company to run it as I hussled out there, but I came back after a year more committed and joining her in making the various flavours of tea.
Currenlty Melvins is the largest company and the first one to bring in flavoured teas and Kenyans want it even more now that every before . Our market has been demand driven and we are the only company whose flavours are natural and that is what is distinct about us”, the Founder says.
Even with the COVID 19 situation in the country taking a toll on people, Flora says that uptake of flavoured tea continues to grow especially because of the natural state the teas are in notably natural ginger tea.
After the Launch of the 25 years in the market, Flora says that they will start packaging the purple teas which is unique as its developed by scientists in Kenya and so it’s a pride,even as flavoured teas is becoming fashionable especially for the youth.
The biggest Challenge, Flora says has been in the retailing of the teas especially for suppliers who delivered but retailers delay in payments. “Governance is key and the government together with all players must come in and regulate the sector and although some of them have self-regulated, we are hoping national and local brands can stay afloat considering we have lost major players like Uchumi, Nakumatt and currently others like Tuskys who are still struggling
Tea Statistics, Flora says are sad for the country with production of around 430 million tonnes and exports of around 93 percent of bulk teas but consumption of less than 5 percent and value addition at only 3 percent
Access to markets albeit slowly, Flora says government needs to do more and assist in the bilateral trades such as the AGOA, COMESA and also the EAC Free Trade Area especially since marketing for products is not cheap
“ Most countries that have succeeded in marketing their products have had governments support, marketing is therefore equired for us to sell our outside and make a difference and also have numbers”, she said .
She gave an example of how the counry produces a lot of tea which find itself in the UK market and yet these countries export more value added tea than we do and even the same teas being sold in the local shelves.
We need to work closely with the ministry of industrialization and even tourism as this will bring in hard earned revenue
Melvins regionally can be found in Uganda, Rwanda, a little bit in Japan, Flora says noting that from where she now seats, her greatest passion has been through the melvins mentorship programme which she engages in by mentoring women and the youth .
This she says it just trying to give back to the community considering that the market is churning out 1 million graduates but not 1 million people get employing and this creates a huge gap. Driven by innovation and design, Flora says there is need to package ourselves
“I believe and know most women are manufacturers because they invest and start out in just but innovating anything and starting small despite the cultural bias in the society that they cannot be entrepeneurs”, she says
I woke up one day , never got a career calling , finished degree and was doing the bare minimum, but getting words of wisdom from certain people I was able to find my niche in business . I always believe that if you have a calling , go ahead and do it and how I wish in our schools we can start training on entrepreneurship
In future, Flora is working towards registering a foundation for mentorship of youth and even women through using her experience and further providing them with an opportunity to start somewhere.
Dare to dream, stay the cours and believe in your course is Floras slogan even as she moves beyond the 25 years of providing flavoured teas to large consumers in the country and beyond.
Melvins will tomorrow , Wednesday 25th be holding a tea garden party for consumers in celebration of the 25 years of existence.
By Wangari Ndirangu