For years, Tabitha Karanja’s name has been associated with success in the entrepreneurship arena.
Hers is a story of taking the risk and holding her own in a world dominated by multinational companies.
Mrs Karanja built a business empire — Keroche Industries — which has been a major player for over 12 years in Kenya’s drinks industry.
She was awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) commendation by fomer president Mwai Kibaki for her efforts in the liquor industry, ranked the second woman to watch in 2013 by Ventures Africa Magazine, rated among the top 10 iconic women in Africa, won Global Inspirational Women Leadership award, admitted to 100 Global Women Leaders Hall of Fame, among others.
Yet she has admitted time and time again, that her journey has not been easy citing gender stereotypes, refusal by banks to grant her loans and political interference.
Just last week the business mogul was arrested at her company in Naivasha after Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Noordin Haji declared that she had not paid taxes amounting to Sh14 billion to the Kenya Revenue Authority.
The chief executive has vehemently denied the claims and said the company, which has been in the market for close to 13 years, has been one of Kenya’s largest taxpayers.
“From June 2015 to June 2019, our total turnover of Sh18.5 billion yielded a tax remittance of Sh7.2 billion. Basically, 40 percent of what Keroche produces goes to tax,” she said in a newspaper advertisement.
The advertisement declared that the company owns a 1.1 million hectolitre, state of the art brewing facility valued at Sh8.5 billion that employs 850 people directly and thousands others indirectly.
Mrs Karanja told CNN Business; “People thought it was not possible to break the monopoly of the existing company that was there, because it has been there for 80 years,”
Mrs Karanja was born near Kijabe, in Central Kenya. After completing her studies at Bahati Girls Secondary School, she was employed in the Ministry of Tourism as an accounting clerk.
She later married Joseph Karanja who owned a hardware store in Naivasha town. They both ventured into the wine business and later decided to abandon the hardware shop and focus their energies and resources to the wine business.
By 1997, the couple was already making fortified wine affordable to the lower class. The business blossomed until ten years later when the government enacted heavy taxes on locally made wines. The product that their company was making was priced out of the market.
In a past interview, Ms Karanja admitted that the closure affected her but she rose from the ashes and armed with determination, she ventured into ready-to-drink gin and vodka.
A year later, she tried her hand at beer-making, launching Summit Lager as the first product by the company.
Five years later, her factory began expansion plans to increase beer production by ten percent to produce 600,000 bottles daily.
In 2003, more than ten Keroche Industries depots in Central Kenya were raided by the provincial administration in a crackdown on alcohol-producing companies.
In a newspaper opinion piece, Mrs Karanja said although the crackdown initially attracted public goodwill, the ensuing confusion resulted in the destruction of legitimate businesses, property and loss of trust in government agencies to govern with a measure of regularity and predictability.
She, however, advised the government to regulate the alcohol industry because “it has been in a mess”.
“The benefits of regulation cannot be over-emphasized. It will enhance provision of quality products, level the playing field for all businesses, create more professional jobs, support innovation and remit more revenue to the government. We must do this to restore order and discipline in the industry and be respected worldwide,” she wrote.
Even after the raid, the brewer continued to churn out new products for the Kenyan market.
Early this month, Mrs Karanja introduced KB Lager, whose introductory price stands at Sh120 per bottle.
The product adds to a list that includes Summit lager, Summit Malt, Valley Wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Chenin Blanc, Crescent Whisky, Crescent Gin, Crescent Vodka and Viena Ice.
Mrs Karanja is also the brain behind Keroche Foundation, whose role ranges from mentorship and guidance of young entrepreneurs.
Mrs Karanja and her husband are currently out on a Sh10 million and Sh2 million bail respectively after pleading not guilty to charges of tax evasion.
Their case will be mentioned on September 2 and a pre-trial hearing set for September 24.