Pick N Peel owner joins club of Kenya’s top industrialists


Kevian Kenya proprietor Kimani Rugendo. Courtesy photo

Kimani Rugendo is probably better known for his political pursuits than his business acumen. But beneath the veil of a post-independent Kenya political activist is an astute businessman whose latest moves have seen him stake a claim to a place at the high table of Kenya’s industrialists.

“I now consider myself to be an industrial leader. It is my wish that when I am gone, the country will have at least 55 per cent of all businesses being Kenyan-owned through entrepreneurship,” said Mr Rugendo in an interview with the Business Daily.

Now in his 60s, Mr Rugendo has set politics aside and is channelling his energies to building a soft drinks empire through his Kevian Kenya Limited, the manufacturer of Afia and Peek ‘N’ Peel juice brands.

Kevian began production in 1995 – at around the same time Mr Rugendo was the Ford Asili Nairobi chairman –  with a capital injection of Sh25 million in savings and contributions from his friends.

“The journey has been rough but enjoyable. When I started out, the perception was that locals, unlike foreigners, did not have what it takes to build successful businesses,” said Mr Rugendo.

The company, whose value is now in billions of shillings, has grown into a formidable competitor of international brands like Coca-Cola and Del Monte.

The businessman has recently injected Sh3 billion into the upgrading of the company’s Thika and Nairobi factories. The upgrade is part of the firm’s diversification into production of non-alcoholic malt drinks that will see Kevian enter the turf of Coca-Cola and East African Breweries Limited (EABL).

This puts Mr Rugendo at par with successful self-made Kenyan industrialists like Tabitha Karanja of Keroche Breweries, Paul Kinuthia of Interconsumer Products Limited and billionaire businessman Chris Kirubi. Other individuals who have built industrial conglomerates are Vimal Shah (Bidco Refineries chief executive) and Manu Chandaria, the chairman of Comcraft Group, both family-owned businesses.

Mr Rugendo’s first stab at commerce was in the early 1980s when he started Sterling Craft Limited, a manufacturer of industrial equipment and military regalia. The company is still in existence supplying berets, medallions, ceremonial swords, medals and other symbols of office to the Kenya Police and Kenya Defence Forces among others.

Sterling Craft also supplies milking machines, pipes and fittings as well as generators. In the early 1990s, Mr Rugendo also operated Jeans Bar in Nairobi West, a business he said he started as a “hobby” and which he later exited.

Kevian Limited started production in 1995 as one of the country’s first manufacturers of bottled water under the brand name Mt Kenyan. “I started out producing mineral water and the company really struggled in the formative years,” Mr Rugendo said.

The water was mainly sold to Mombasa tourist hotels and some of it to Nairobi supermarkets and restaurants.

The water company then diversified to producing Pick ‘N’ Peel  ready to drink juices, and later on, Afia. Both drinks are sold as far as Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan and Zambia. When Mr Rugendo’s business finally picked up, even local banks which had in the past shunned him lined up to bankroll his ventures.

Equity Bank, IDB Capital Limited (formerly Industrial Development Bank) and National Bank of Kenya are some of the local lenders that are listed as having given financial backing to the businessman over the years.

His main source of funding however, – including the latest Sh3 billion injection for the factory upgrade -- has come from international lender DEG, a subsidiary of German government-owned KfW.

With increased demand, Kevian Limited built a second factory in Thika in 2005, increasing the hourly production capacity of Peek ‘N’ Peel to 20,000 litres from the original 5,000 litres.

Afia is now produced at the rate of 40,000 bottles per hour, up from 10,000. Mr Rugendo has now started producing eight carbonated variants of non-alcoholic malt drinks, including Plain Malt, Energy Malt, Lemon Malt and Orange Malt.

“The product is less than a month old in the market. The soft drinks segment is a very wide area with a lot of opportunities if you narrow the preference on what the consumer wants, including the quality,” he said.

READ: Afia juice maker takes on Coke with new malt drinks

Mr Rugendo can now hold a candle to the likes of Mrs Karanja of Keroche Breweries Limited who, 15 years ago, dared to take on Diageo-backed EABL in the alcohol market by building a brewery in Naivasha.

Mrs Karanja launched Keroche Breweries in October 2008 and today, the company has several brands of beer, wine and spirits, including its flagship brand Summit. She is currently undertaking a Sh2.5 billion expansion of the Naivasha-based firm to address distribution challenges. The State recently feted Mrs Karanja for her ambitious fight with Diageo-backed EABL for control of Kenya’s beer market.

The Kevian proprietor also compares to Mr Kinuthia, the managing director of Interconsumer Products and one of Kenya’s latest entrants into the exclusive billionaire club. Mr Kinuthia last year made a fortune after spinning off a section of his company and selling it to global cosmetics giant L’Oreal in a deal estimated to have been worth more than Sh1.5 billion.

His entrepreneurship journey began in 1995 when, with a working capital of Sh3,000, he bought chemicals to make one of Kenya’s home-grown shampoos.

“We broke even in 2001 and that is when I formalised its operations and hired professionals to help run the show,” said Mr Kinuthia, whose company won Business Daily’s TOP100 SMEs in 2009.

Other Kenyans who have made it big in the Kenya’s industrial space are 85-year-old Chandaria’s Comcraft Group, a multinational firm whose core business is steel, plastic and aluminium manufacturing.

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