The man who made Java tap ‘dawa’ market

Mutie Mbalo 1

Mutie Mbalo, the Group Coffee Excellence Manager at Java House, hands a cup of Java dawa to a customer on March 5, 2024. PHOTO | POOL

No autographs are signed, and not even selfies are taken, but there will be a signature from this. A hot signature, if you may.

Mutie Mbalo, the man who introduced the popular ‘dawa’ at Java House in 2002, has handed me the drink right from the kitchen and my throat was about to witness it.

This is a mix of lemon, honey, ginger, water, and a large serving of Mutie’s effusive personality served hot.

It commands a presence as soon as it lands on the mouth. It is hot temperature-wise and a couple of notches hot in terms of its taste. As it runs down the throat, you feel as if the components of that tube to the tummy are saluting. It is as if they want more time to savour every gulp.

One similarity between Mutie and his dawa is the instant likeability. However, personality-wise, Mutie comes out as laid back, not as outspoken as this drink he created out of one customer’s request.

“There is this particular day a guy came and said, ‘You have to get me something. I feel like I’m dying.’ So, I said, ‘Okay let me fix something for you,’” he recalls.

He was one of the people working at the first ever Java outlet in Kenya, which was at Adams Arcade on Ngong Road. Started in 1999, Java has since expanded to have more than 70 branches locally and in neighbouring countries.

Mutie had left a company that handled catering tasks for the United Nations to join Java.

“I think I was the first barista in Java. The owners were patient with me to train me and show me exactly how to brew coffee,” he says.

“When you get a new job and have an opportunity to innovate, you think outside the box.”

Driven by that ambition, he took it upon himself to make something potent for the customer nursing the flu who said he was dying.

“I went to the kitchen and asked the chef if he could give me four lemons. He only had four, so he gave me two. I cleaned them nicely, cut them, then squeezed manually with a plastic domestic squeezer,” he recalls.

Then he got a little ginger, steamed it, and then went to the kitchen to request honey. For someone whose duty was to deal with coffee, this did not escape the notice of the chef, who wondered what he was up to because the business then was about coffee.

“We were brewing the basic coffees, that is, purely Americano, house coffees and lattes and cappuccinos,” he says.

Mutie grated the ginger, sieved it into a mug and served it to the customer with honey and lemon. "That customer was happy,” he recalls.

The customer returned and asked for the same drink again, which made Mutie approach the management to suggest that they should tap the ‘dawa’ market. Back then, there was no standardised way of making the dawa at Java as it is today.

“By then, you don’t even know whether we need to do like 30 grammes or 80 grammes or whatever; so we started having that. And that is how the dawa was born,” says Mutie.

Today, if you order a Java dawa, there are standardised ratios of ingredients. However, Mutie says, it is not uncommon for customers to ask for variations of one thing or another.

“Some say, ‘Make my dawa a bit strong.’ Others say, ‘I don’t want my dawa too strong.’ So, we still get those kinds of requests that we also fit into,” he says.

Dawa, Kiswahili for medicine, is a drink with various variations in the Kenyan market and abroad. One of its most famous versions has been served at Nairobi’s Carnivore Restaurant since the 1980s, and the man credited for creating it is the late Sam Kivelenge alias Dr Dawa, who—just like Mutie—hailed from Kitui County.

When he died in 2020, Kivelenge was eulogised by many who identified with his dawa—a mix of honey, lime, sugar, ice and vodka.

Dawa has also been bottled for sale. Peptang, for instance, sells a dawa formula that contains, among others, the tulsi herb and ginger.

“You can warm this juice and drink it as a nourishing tea,” says a post about Peptang’s dawa on the Carrefour online sales platform.

Online, recipes abound on how to make dawa, and one of them is how to make a Java dawa imitation.

The components of the Java dawa, especially honey, have been found to have some power over the common cold. A 2014 study at the Aga Khan University Hospital showed that honey reduced the discomfort caused by coughing in children faster than when nothing was administered.

“Honey was most effective in relief of symptoms associated with the common cold,” said the conclusion of the study.

From 2020 when Covid-19 hit and people sought all sorts of remedies to keep chest discomfort at bay, Mutie says there was a rise in the demand for dawa.

“We could see the trend now becoming better towards the end of 2021,” he says.

The father of four says he is ever so proud to see the product he created out of one customer’s request being included in all Java outlets.

“It’s very interesting and very exciting to see an idea (grow) from just one person to a thousand people a day,” he says.

“There is something called people reading in customer service. So, once we get to see everyone is enjoying the dawa, we say, ‘We got it, man. We got it.’ I always go to the counter and tell the barista, ‘I think that dawa right there, people are enjoying it.’ But I usually also get some feedback from them as well.”

Currently, Mutie is the group coffee excellence manager at Java.

“I’m in charge of all the barista counters in terms of the beverages and training. I also take part in cupping (sorting of coffees) for the company,” he says. “You will always find me anywhere (at) the Java branches.”

Mutie’s interest in the field of making unique drinks was sparked by his uncle, who used to work at the 680 Hotel.

“He was a barman there. When he came home, he would talk so much about making the drinks and it sounded like rocket science. So I said, ‘Why should I not try (to be) a mixologist, just to get to know exactly what happens?’ So, this is the guy who inspired me to think about venturing into mixology,” he says.

After completing his secondary school at Kitui Boys in 1994, he took a three-month barman course.

It took some time before he got a job with a company that offered catering services for the UN, which saw him shift his base to South Sudan. When he returned to Kenya, he joined Java and has been there since.

Mutie Mbalo 2

Mutie Mbalo, the Group Coffee Excellence Manager at Java House. PHOTO | POOL

What was it like transitioning from alcohol to coffee?

“(Being a) barman is a bit softer than coffee. Because what do you do in mixology? You only have the syrups ready and you have the alcohol ready then you get to mix. But with coffee, we need to think outside the box and think about what people are asking for,” he says.

Before a product joins the Java menu, he says, it goes through a series of checks. Before it goes to the market, a panel has to approve it.

So, are there new products lined up?

“Ideas are always there. At least every month, we have a new item, so ideas are always there. So, we have a couple of things lined up for April, but I don’t want to say it now,” says Mutie.

To anyone who would like to get into his space, he says, creativity and confidence are the propellers.

“The space for innovation is so big, so there is no limit. The only thing I could urge the young people to do is get out of their comfort zones, try new ideas and bring them to the market. They’ll be where we are with the dawa,” says Mutie.

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