Sixty years ago, a budding entrepreneur named Anjarwalla bought a Mombasa-based cotton processing firm at an auction from a British colonial family that was leaving the country.
The company, Absorbent Cotton, was soon after renamed African Cotton, a name that may not stand out to users its cotton-based products under the brand names like Tena, Flora, Medicott, Dove or Tendercare.
Mr Anjarwalla is the first generation member of a family that is today well-known due to Anjarwalla & Khanna (A&K), a leading law firm in Kenya founded by one of his sons.
“African Cotton has run through three generations within the family. I am the fourth generation,” Khalil Anjarwalla, the company’s 32-year-old managing director, told Enterprise.
Khalil is the nephew of Karim Anjarwalla, the managing partner of Westlands-based A&K which handles a majority of big-ticket deals in the country and on the continent.
For the past 20 years, the duo’s father has headed African Cotton and is now passing the baton to Khalil who joined the company in 2010 as the sales director.
During its formative years, the company supplied cotton — under the Dove flagship brand — to hospitals for surgical use and the rest for sanitary protection.
In the late 1970s, the company expanded and installed a sanitary towels line, becoming the first company in the region to own such a facility, according to Khalil.
The maternity towels, which trade under the brand name Medicott, are still being used but the company is also producing sanitary pads for regular use under the Flora brand.
Flora sanitary towels are also sold in neighbouring countries like Uganda and Tanzania.
“Medicott was our second product outside cotton. It has been a market leader for years until other multinational brand set foot in Kenya,” said Mr Khalil.
African Cotton is today a sizeable company, with Mr Khalil indicating that the firm’s annual turnover ranges between $10 million (Sh1 billion) and $15 million (Sh1.5 billion).
Growing competition from international manufactures including many from India and China, Mr Khalil adds, forced the company to improve its efficiency and enhance its product portfolio to say afloat.
Luckily for all players, tissue paper and sanitary pads are important personal care products whose scarcity, as happened in Argentina recently, can result in a full-blown national crisis.
African Cotton now uses approximately 50 tonnes of cotton a month to make ear buds, baby diapers, sanitary towels and maternity pads. This is one of the reasons the company launched Tena toilet paper in the early 2000s in an attempt to secure a “high-end” market.
Other than Flora and Tena, the company has tissue products under brand names like Jento and Fiesta brands and which include toilet paper, kitchen towels, serviettes, cocktail napkins, spread rolls, facial and pop-up tissues.
In 2011, the company landed a Sh300 million three-year government deal to supply sanitary towels to needy girls who would otherwise miss school due to menses.
Some of the firm’s major clients include the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority and county governments like Bungoma, Pokot and Kakamega.
The company also produces Nakumatt Supermarket’s range of tissue papers. African Cotton has also partnered with companies such as Kronex Chemicals Ltd, the manufacturers of kitchen and bathroom cleaning products, to offer bathroom solutions.
The company still uses its original factory in Shimanzi, Mombasa, located near Port Reiz, mainly to produce tissue products. This factory employs about 150 people.
African Cotton bought space in Mlolongo on Mombasa Road six years ago where a newer plant produces hygiene products, including its Medicott and Flora sanitary towels.
The company imports raw materials from Tanzania, saying they cannot depend on the volumes produced in Kenya.
Raw materials for its sanitary pads are sourced locally and supplemented with those from the US, Europe and Asia.
The country has a potential production of 300,000 bales per year, according to the Cotton Development Authority Kenya.
Mr Khalil was recently picked, from among 31 African entrepreneurial leaders, to be part of the first cohort in the region to receive a 12-month training through the Stanford Seed Transformation Programme.
Formally launched in Kenya this month, the programme is a Stanford Graduate School of Business initiative.
“Getting first hand coaching in development for the East African context is a nice feeling for businesses such as ours who are going into a different transformational face,” he said.
“The training is important for us as it will guide us with ideas going forward to impact the economy.”
The managing director’s parting shot is a call to policy makers about industries: “Manufacturing in Kenya is not given the preference it deserves.” This should change in the “near future.”