Shreenal Ruparelia, the regional manager Jumia Food On-demand Services, left Kenya before the Thika ‘super’ highway was constructed. Mobile money was not even in the conversation. After more than a decade, she returned from Australia on what was supposed to be a three-month sabbatical, completely unprepared for what she would find. She stayed. Doreen Wainainah caught up with her for a chat at Newscafe in Nairobi.
What made you leave your job in Australia?
I was a bit bored with what I was doing there. It’s not that it wasn’t challenging, but you know when you can predict your profession for the next three or even six months, it’s frustrating. I also left because of personal reasons. I had not been home since 2006. Then, there were not so many opportunities in Kenya and most people were leaving. After a while, I started hearing about M-Pesa and people coming back to do their own businesses. I was honestly shocked when I came back and my three months turned into six months and my boss asked me ‘are we extending this sabbatical?’ I said ‘give me another three months.’ I put in my resignation and stayed.
How did you end up in your current role?
Pure luck actually. I was in Tanzania when they were launching Jumia Food. I knew the person who was launching it and it was very interesting to see her interact with restaurants. You have to introduce yourself to restaurateurs, to club owners, to partners. It was quite fascinating watching her build the business from the ground up and overcoming all the challenges. Running a business in Tanzania is not easy. One thing led to another and my now boss got in touch with me to see if I was interested in certain markets and during the conversations, the Kenya opportunity came up and everything fell in place. Perfect timing I guess.
How long have you been back?
Almost four years now.
How did you feel coming back to Nairobi after 13 years?
From the airport, I was in awe. I was asking people, ‘You transact with what? You pay your electricity with what?’ I remember one of my friends teaching me how to use mobile money and I thought it was insane, amazing. I suffered a culture shock for eight months. I spent 12 months in Mombasa. That was the hardest part of my career. Then I went to Tanzania pre-Magufuli.
How did you learn to deal with habits you find in Kenya such as being constantly late?
I realised I required patience and tolerance. I learnt about the people, adjusted and embraced the culture. So if I wanted friends for dinner at 7pm, I had to take into account the one hour and adjust. You learn not to block your calendar back-to-back because things are flawed. I learnt that the culture here was more open, intriguing and that there was a genuine connection.
Mombasa was a pivotal point of my career. It was an unassuming market, small and people do things in a certain way. To really enjoy being in Kenya, you have to embrace the culture but that doesn’t mean your standards go down.
Coming from a food and tech industry, what are some of your favourite meals?
You’d better try these! For Chinese, it would be Chengdu hot crab mixed with steamed cabbage and steamed rice. You’d better have a bottle of cold water nearby because that this food is spicy but it’s so delicious. I enjoy barbecues, the chomas. Kenyan meat is very tasty. To name a few vendors, I think the Hashmi barbecue is very nice, and for Japanese cuisine, Inti restaurant have very nice kai, sushi, gyros. I eat out a lot and test out very many restaurants.
What do you do to let your hair down?
Boxing. It’s a nice way to get rid of frustrations and burn a tonne of calories. I also paint. It’s either abstract, landscape or wild animals. I am not good at portraits. One side of my family are artists. I have a rhino I was painting for six months. It changed faces three time because I can’t paint when I am mad. It will just look angry. I paint with a glass of wine, loud music ... I also read a lot. I enjoy travelling around Kenya, outdoors and spending time with my family.
Where do you enjoy camping the most?
My latest one was Nanyuki. At Ngare Ndare Forest. The waterfall is beautiful. You can go trekking. Then there is Maasai Mara. You can’t beat the wild. I have baked in the wild, enjoyed three-course meals, learnt survival skills like making fire from dried dung when it’s raining. I go camping once every three months. There are so many new places out in the bush.
How did you get into camping?
I grew up in the era of Presidential Awards Scheme. Those days, we slept out in the wild, not eating well, navigating our way. It was rough. But the experience was interesting. I met campers who had blow-up pillows, learnt smart packing styles, how to pass time when there is no electricity. In the wild, great conversations and introspection happen. Over time, you start enjoying and appreciating where you are. Cold showers suddenly become fun.
What are your personal plans for the next five years?
I have always wanted to do a massive charity event. Picking a charity where our family can support a cause where we auction our paintings. Also, I want to pick up a new language and get fitter. It was doing marathons but I realised I was shooting for the stars because I am not much of a running person.
Where is the most interesting place you have been?
That’s a really hard one. New Zealand is beautiful. It is the most breathtaking country I have seen. The people are lovely, very similar to how Kenyans are.
Also, Watamu Tree House at the Kenyan Coast. Once a month, this mangrove float happens because of the full moon. The current is so high that it carries you and you can just float through the mangroves. You just lie there in the clear water and the current takes you. It’s really magical. I also like drinking wine so I have to say the Mediterranean is nice too. It’s cultural, great food and the wine is amazing. You almost feel like your soul is being fed.
Vietnam in Asia is very fascinating. Probably some of the tastiest Asian food I have ever had was in Vietnam. It is chaotic but everything works. I am in search for my heaven on earth.
How many countries have you visited so far?
About 38. Of these, less than 10 percent were holiday travels. I grew up in a modest family so we never said things like ‘I am going to Paris on holiday.’
What did you study in university?
I wanted to be a doctor or a vet or a dancer... I was confused. One part of my family is in the arts and the other in business so I decided to merge the two and my first degree is in economics and finance and the more sexy side I studied Italian and psychology.