AA Mithaiwalla is reknowned for the mithai (Indian sweets) and savoury snacks that it sells in the Nairobi suburb of Pangani.
It began when Abdulali Alibhai Mithaiwalla arrived by ship in Mombasa from India in the early 1920s.
He was a hardworking young boy determined to make his fortune in a foreign country, and with a family background steeped in the sweets-making tradition his destiny was clear-cut.
Abdulali, the patriarch of the Mithaiwalla business in Kenya, met his young wife, Kulsum, in the coastal town of Mombasa and proposed in the classical, heartfelt manner— long before it was ever popularised by western media —by pushing a ring into a soft piece of halwa that he had made and presenting it to her.
Today, more than a century later, their children acknowledge that the Mithaiwalla business is a result of the strength and selflessness partnership that their parents built.
The young couple, Abdulali and Kulsum, rented a single room in the basement of a building in Pangani where they shared a bathroom and a courtyard with other Indian families. Their first child, Fakhruddin, was born in that single room.
“Our life was very hard, very tough and we were hand to hand,” recalls Shabbir, the second eldest son, “There was a bed and a baby-cot in that room and we would light a jiko to stay warm. Nairobi was cold then!”
Shabbir remembers his father as a great man, “a man who had a big heart” and one who would give out as much as he had sold.
His father was also very involved in his religious community, the Dawoodi Bohras, and for his services to the community, Abdulali was bequeathed with the title of Mulla (a learned and respected figure).
In the same breath, Shabbir remembers his mother. “My mother played a big role in whatever my father did,” he said. “She died at a very early age and my father never recovered from her death. He became a very lonely man.”
At the memory of his mother, Alibhai, the third and youngest son said, “My mum has worked very hard.” Alibhai pulled forward a container of fried moong dal (Indian simmered mung beans) from the display cabinet and said, “She would grind this herself at home— in between two stones, one on top of the other—and then fry them.” He gestured at the shop and said, “This is all their blessings.”
Mulla Abdulali would carry the sweets and savoury snacks that he and his wife had made at home into Nairobi city, and sell his wares from a street corner near the Khoja (Ismaili) mosque.
From selling on a street corner, Mulla Abdulali opened his first shop just above his family’s basement room, on the ground floor of a building in Pangani.
When the building was demolished, he moved the shop to another building less than 100 metres down the road. They operated from this second location for 30 years and then bought a vacant plot directly opposite the second shop, and created their own establishment which they have now operated in for 35 years.
On the ground floor of this building, they built a shop for their business, adjoining it a store which was rented out to a local grocer, and above it four residential flats.
Down the road from this shop, Mulla Abdulali bought a piece of land and renovated the existing structure to make it into a home for his wife and five children.
Fakhruddin, his eldest son, continues to live in this house to date “because it is close to the shop and for sentimental reasons”.
“We lived as a joint family. We all grew up there, got married there and only moved out because of family expansion,” said Shabbir.
Dedication to the business
Mulla Abdulali passed away in 1985 at the age of 84. His eldest son, Fakhruddin, handled the day-to-day running and management of the shop. “During my father’s time, the most effective person was Fakhruddin bhai,” said Shabbir.
“And then I came in at a young age.” Some years ago, on account of age and health concerns, Fakhruddin reduced his commitments to the shop and his brothers Shabbir and Alibhai took over management.
Shabbir explained that when he was growing up, little importance was placed on education and that the business took precedence. “Form 4 was haphazard … and then there was nothing but the shop. We didn’t know what university was.” As they say, I was born in the shop. All he knew, from a young age, was the shop. “I have been in the mithai scenario for time immemorial and I am 60 years old now. Since the days of short trousers. The shop has always been the ultimate thing for me and till today things haven’t changed.”
But the long hours required have taken their toll. AA Mithaiwalla shop is open every day, except Monday, from 7 am in the morning to 7 pm in the evening.
“I work from 7.30 in the morning till 3.30 in the afternoon, all alone. I haven’t had a holiday or a weekend in 10 years,” Shabbir said.
Having joined the business at a young age, Shabbir’s frustration is deep seated. How long will I live this sort of a life?,” he asked. And then falling into introspection said: “The sad thing is that we (me and my brothers) will be the end of the business.”
The generation gap
A customer came to the counter and Shabbir swivelled round and placed some fresh sweets on the weighing scale. A silver and green sticker attached to the scale read “Allah is sufficient for us and he is the best protector.”
He swivelled back and without missing a beat said, “If I say tomorrow that I am done, this business is finished. This business will not carry on with my children.” “As far as I am concerned, another couple of years. I don’t have the strength and the ability to carry on the way I have been.” Shabbir is convinced that none of his children will join the family business.
“If Alibhai wants to … and then Hussein (Alibhai’s eldest son) wants to come in … I don’t know.”
Each phrase is weighed with a breath. Hussein is the only member of the third generation who has expressed some interest in the Mithaiwalla shop albeit intermittently since he runs his own IT related business.
“We are alone without our children. That is the biggest challenge,” said Shabbir. It is difficult for him to accept that without the support of his children, the family business cannot continue.
And Alibhai concurred. He thoughtfully shook some beetle nut into his palm and mixed it with masala before tossing it into his mouth.
“There is less interest (in the business) from our sons. Let’s hope it changes but I don’t know. The picture of the future is not there.”
Unprompted, Shabbir explained why neither his children nor those of his brothers have developed an interest in the Mithaiwalla shop.
“Once you give your child a university education, you have already decided what you want them to do. After university their mind has broadened … or narrowed … or whatever you want to call it.”
His confusion over the terminology describes how with a university education, the mind both broadens to various professions and narrows to exclude a future in the family business. Either way, the option of joining the family business is discarded.
“The Mithaiwalla business couldn’t give the children an individual identity,” Shabbir continued. “The shop is AA Mithaiwalla. It is not, for example, Hussein Mithaiwalla. They (the children) are not appreciated or recognised in a family business which has a name that doesn’t represent them.”
While Mulla Abdulali had arrived in Kenya with the name Mithaiwalla, suggesting that his family were in the Mithaiwalla business in India, he chose not to perpetuate the name Mithaiwalla with his children.
“My father’s name was Mithaiwalla,” said Shabbir. “But we never adopted Mithaiwalla as a surname and my father never put Mithaiwalla on our birth certificates. But the shop has always been AA Mithaiwalla” with AA standing for Abdulali Alibhai, the founder of the business.
Instead, Mulla Abdulali used his father’s name, Alibhai, as a surname for his children and so his family is known as Alibhai while the business is Mithaiwalla.
The identity link between the business and the family is therefore broken.
“None of us took the Mithaiwalla name as a surname. We took Alibhai. So I am Shabbir Alibhai. My son is Murtaza Shabbir Alibhai,” Shabbir explained.
A second reason why his children are unwilling to join the business is what Shabbir calls the uncle factor.
“Our business has always had three owners. The three brothers. Till today, it is divided in three.”
But the prospect of one of Shabbir’s children taking over his share of the family business and managing it in partnership with his two uncles is a daunting task.
The alternative would be to open a shop for each of the three brothers such that the shop passes directly from father to son, and the business naturally expands without any cross-generational decision making “but we didn’t have that source of income to set up shops for each child,” said Shabbir.
“This one shop is serving three families” and while it generated sufficient income when times were good and the family lived as one, “as time went by, the cost of goods increased, competition increased” and this single shop could no longer support the growing families of all three brothers.
In the 1990s, AA Mithaiwalla had for a short while opened a branch in Westlands on Woodvale Grove and Shabbir admitted that while the location was very successful the family had failed in management.
“You need a dedication, love and art when you are running the shop,” he explained and then, reluctant to point fingers of blame, began to discuss the opportunities available which they had not been able to capitalise on.
“We never modernised,” he said. “We never exploited the name of Mithaiwalla.” He voiced ideas that were left undeveloped in both word and action.
“The Mithaiwalla brand … Exports … Different shops with a central kitchen to supply … Even our location has not made us prosper in the last ten years. If we had relocated the story might have been different.”
While their current location was of central importance when the business first started, in the days when Pangani was a focal area amongst the Asian community, with the growth of the metropolis and the development of suburbs, Pangani has been relegated to the outskirts of the city. “We don’t even deliver,” Alibhai said. “People have to come to us.”
Alibhai placed the blame and the responsibility on him and his brothers. “It’s our fault, basically,” he said. “There’s no foresight. Everybody has their own thoughts but they don’t go forward. They stay with it.”
And the ideas that do emerge are not being shared amongst the brothers or openly discussed with a view to actualisation.
As the day wound down, Shabbir said, “Nobody is indispensable. It is the nature of life. Perhaps a person will fill my place and will make a go of it.”
And as he slid off the barber stool and made way for Alibhai to settle behind the counter, he said:
“It is a rosy business and the past was very good. It is just not a rosy time. But this is a personal view of mine. And sometimes it is better to have an honest one to one rather than us (brothers) all sitting together when you will get a rosy picture.”
Fakhruddin has retired and Shabbir is anticipating it. Yet the main business decisions are still being made by the brotherly triad and with no buy in from the next generation.
A clear successor is yet to be identified to determine what happens next to this renowned family business.