“Kwa mathe” (lightly translated to mean “Mum’s place”) is a very popular phrase in some tertiary institutions and their environs. This refers to the best joint where quality, quantity and price are well balanced in the service of food to the customers who are mostly students.
Virginia Mutwa alias Mama Kendi is one such entrepreneur in the food industry. She is situated next to Maasai Mara University. Hence most of her clientele are the university community.
She moved to Narok County with her family in search for greener pastures in 2016. They had tried different businesses with her husband back in Meru town but failed. Hawking boiled eggs and sausages in Meru town was not putting enough money in their pockets to support their family, especially now that their firstborn was going to join campus.
When their firstborn son was admitted to Maasai Mara University, the family decided to relocate to Narok to try their luck there. Upon moving to Narok, Mutwa and her husband decided to both start different means of generating income for the family now that they were paying fees for their son at the University. Their second born was in form three and also needed school fees.
But as soon as they arrived in Narok, their eldest son Gitonga who had been admitted to Maasai Mara University fell sick.
June 3rd, 2016 is a day that Mama Kendi will not forget anytime soon. Her family received a major setback after their first born son; Gitonga after weeks of complaining about back pain was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and spine infection.
He was bed ridden for six months and that drained all the family income. Despite well-wishers coming to their aid, the situation was worsening every single day. The family was almost giving up as all they were left with was prayer and dependence on well-wishers, as the hospital bill accumulated to over Sh.1million.
After a series of surgeries, Gitonga was slowly but surely recovering.
“I believe there is a God in heaven who answers all the prayers. We didn’t transfer Gitonga from hospital and the doctors were patient with us over the bill. God changed the situation,” Mama Kendi says in a very emotional tone.
Four months later Gitonga was back to school and the hospital bill was cleared by well-wishers. The family now had a major task of recovery and debt paying. Their landlord was so kind as to give them a house rent waiver for half a year.
After the son`s recovery, Mama Kendi started selling fried fish as her husband continued hawking boiled eggs and sausages and they were slowly becoming financially stable. Two weeks into the business and her supplier shortchanged her. She was getting her fish from Naivasha therefore she used to send money and get the fish delivered to Narok but the supplier suddenly stopped delivering the fish. It’s at this point that she stopped the fish business and together with her husband started thinking about a hotel business.
The year 2017 was an election year in Kenya and things were not looking very good, but nevertheless, Mama Kendi borrowed Sh. 3,000 from a friend which she used as capital in her hotel business. She saw a business opportunity in the manual labourers and university community in the area who are her major customers. She got a place and started off with French fries which were consumed by the manual labourers and university community.
She was paying a rent of Sh. 4,000 for the food kiosk. The business picked up well but the fries were not enough for the manual laborers who needed more energy. She slowly started cooking Githeri and Ugali and it was selling more than the fries. She also made mandazis and porridge.
Two months into the business, she dared break the barriers. They had saved Sh. 8,000 from both the hotel and the eggs hawking business. They got iron sheets and other building materials from friends and did expand their business.
They constructed a semi-permanent structure, an improvement of the previous one. They even employed two cooks to help them. Gitonga was also helping when he was not having lectures since the university is within the proximity. Their landlord gave them some chairs and even some cooking utensils from his house to boost their business.
The university students also started becoming regular customers as they loved her food. They continued flocking in and the name “kwa mathe” was becoming even more popular with the university fraternity.
By the year 2018 she named the fast flourishing business; Friends Hotel, in honour of all her friends who had been so instrumental to the success and stood by her side when things were not working.
She had now employed four workers and expanded her menu. The husband now left hawking and joined her in running the hotel. Gitonga was doing well in school as his health was back to normal but not fully.
The year 2019 was the best year for the family. Gitonga did graduate from the university with a degree in Education in Kiswahili and Education. The business was doing so well that she even started outside catering to decongest the hotel. She was now making Sh. 3000 profit everyday translating to Sh.90, 000 a month!
By early 2020, she had increased her employees to nine, then Covid-19 happened!
She was forced to retrench her workers and remain with only two after the country went into the lockdown and the University fraternity who are major customers went home after the university closed. She could hardly make any profit at this point as even the casual labourers were no longer actively engaged and Kenyans became familiar with a new term known as ‘curfew’ and restricted movement from major towns like Nairobi was in force.
Like many other Kenyans, she was forced to stay at home with her family with no income at all. But things are looking up after the country’s economy was reopened, albeit partially.
Upon gradual re-opening, Mama Kendi slowly started resuming her daily routine at her business. The reopening of the universities in early October boosted her business as students streamed back.
However, she says it will be nearly an impossible task to recoup the loss incurred during the lockdown period. As students resume schooling, she is optimistic that she will be able to recover and make some strides this year.
The main challenges she has faced in this business is students failing to pay since they use the mobile transactions to foot their bill which is pay as you order and cheekily reverse the money. Sometimes sales are down to the extent food can go to waste which is a big loss to her.
Her plan is to expand the business into a first class catering business and then live it in the hands of her children in future. She also feels so indebted to the community and friends who helped and still help when she was down and wants to engage in an activity of giving back to the society by caring for the less fortunate one day.
“You always know your best friends when you are at the lowest point and a friend in need is a friend in deed,” she says.
Her golden advice to all who are struggling is: “never to give up and always see hope and opportunity in diversity.”
by Mabel Keya-Shikuku/Jacob Makosi