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Society & Success

From selling salt

Melvins Tea founder Flora Mutahi is also the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) chair. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
Melvins Tea founder Flora Mutahi is also the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) chair. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Once upon a time, Flora Mutahi tried selling salt. Then she switched to tea or “God’s gift to the industry,” as they call Kenyan tea it in their circles.

She set up a factory 20 years ago to produce Melvins tea, one of the largest flavoured tea packers in Kenya.

Two years ago, she opened Melvin’s Tea House, a cafe in Lavington with an experimental menu selling a motley of teas in various forms.

“I just want to have fun with tea,” she says. “Tea doesn’t have to be a home drink.”

She’s also the first woman chair of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) since its inception in 1957, the vice chairlady of Comesa Business Council and a director of Azizi Realtors.

In short, burning her candle at both ends— and seemingly loving it. She met JACKSON BIKO at her cafe for a cup of Melvin’s green tea.

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Why Melvin? My sister is called Melvine, by the way…

I thought that was a man’s name? Anyway, the name of the brand has no significance, the company is called Melvin Marsh International. I just liked the name.

How does it feel sitting here in your cafe with your own brand 20 years later?

Uhm, it’s two way; there’s a big sense of achievement because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and so it excites me that I’ve been able to develop the brand and own a café that people are able to come and experience first-hand what the tea is like. Other times I feel like by now we should have rolled out more cafés.

Is this tea business borne from an experience in childhood or socialisation? Why tea? It could have been coffee or even timber…

(Laughs) Good question. When I started my career I knew I wanted to be in manufacturing because I was an auditor for nine months in manufacturing firms and I was very encouraged by what I saw. So I started with salt. Within four, five months, I realised this is not going to take me far.

Then I saw an opportunity in tea. The largest packers of tea used to have a 19-year monopoly and it was lifted and that seemed like a huge opportunity.

Then you have your other hat at KAM...

Well, yes, with a membership base of 1,000 people. It comes with its challenges of course but it’s been a great ride given that I’m the first female chairperson…

I like how it’s okay for you, a woman, to bring up your gender yet if I, a man, mentioned it the tongs would be out because I noted your gender. The ‘female society’ would want me to say chairperson and not chairlady, as if your gender is insignificant. You know what I mean?
(Laughs) I do, yes.

Do you as a business person ever see yourself as a woman?

Very rarely. Usually, when it’s called out by people and sometimes, especially work-life balance, it does show up. For example, sometimes it’s hard to have evening meetings because as a wife and mother I have responsibilities. But when you are in the negotiating room, when you’re doing business, I don’t feel it as much.

You set up a company 20 years ago, that environment back then must have been crazy for a woman getting into it on her own. You must have seen some progression over time?

When I started, this industry was male-dominated. As a child, I was brought up between two boys with everything shared equally, from bikes to cleaning the house, but I have no illusion that that’s how the world operates.

Sometimes I experience that gender disparity in business and I tactfully find someone else to deal with that organisation and it doesn’t bother me because people have their own cultural issues.

But in the last couple of years, there has been a complete change. You find people asking “where is the woman in the room, we need a voice of the woman.” Or boards looking for more gender diversity.

There’s definitely a fantastic buzz about bringing women on the table, which is important. I think it needs to continue. I hear we’re one of the best in Africa in women diversity.

If you were to invite one person for tea for chat, who would that be?

Richard Branson. Because he’s an entrepreneur who has taken risks in very diverse industries. He went from his music business, he’s done his Virgin Atlantic, he’s done tourism. For that kind of a head, I would like to spend some time at his feet.

When were you the happiest in life, talking of which, how old are you now?

I can’t even dare tell you. (Laughs loudly). I think I was happiest when I started my business because finishing school, you end up always doing things for people. This is when I did things for myself.

What part of your day do you enjoy the most?

Uhm...when sleeping. (Laughs) No phone, e-mails, just me and myself. I also like mornings as well when I’m planning the day, when I have achievements before me.

I want you to edit a section of your life, what part would that be?

Wow. That’s a very interesting question. (Long pause) My failures. You know, when you do an international trip and come back with nothing. (Laughs) Then there is fear. I also think I have not taken great risks as a woman in business.

What do you find to be your greatest regret in life so far?

My mum ran a secretarial bureau for 20 years, but I never learnt how to type. Another one; while in college in the UK and during the holidays I spent time just hanging out with Kenyan friends instead of buying the ticket being sold for 19 pounds, which allowed you to go around other European countries. That was a wasted opportunity.

If you were to get a chance to apologise to somebody, who would that be? They don’t even have to be alive.

My staff when I started out. I was very hot tempered, I wanted things done my way, I didn’t listen to alternative views from them, so I let them go too quickly. I was too young. If I was to give my younger self advice it would be “life is a journey, sometimes you need to stop and smell the roses.”

Are you smelling your roses? Are you slowing down?

Unfortunately no. (Laughs) It’s because I’m thrown at more responsibilities. But what I am doing though is learning to work smarter, of course. So I’m investing a lot of time in myself to try and just work a little more strategically, and more through people.

If your life was a pie-chart, I want you to apportion family, work, play...

Play for me is my travel even though I haven’t done personal travel in a while. And golf. That one is suffering. Work would be 60 per cent, family 30 per cent and play 10 per cent and that includes playing golf which I love.

What do you dream of at this point in your life?

To see my brand leave the country in huge containers. (Chuckles). And to rest in the beach playing golf daily.

What do you find harder, raising children or doing business?

Wow. (Laughs) They are both very challenging but the difference is in business the results will show on the spot while in children they won’t. With children you might see the results later and go, “Oh my gosh!” But I’m a firm believer in equipping yourself for whatever you’re challenged with so from the moment my children were born I went for a parenting course. Right now my husband and I are going for classes on how to raise teenagers. (They have 15, 14 and 7 year-olds).

What do you think it’s your one trait that really annoys your husband?

My lateness. (Laughs).

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