In Conversation With Tabitha Karanja: I Started Keroche With Sh500,000

December 20, 2021

Keroche Breweries founder Tabitha Karanja spoke to the Sunday Nation in an interview about Sh30 billion alcohol empire, trouble with KRA, joining politics and more.

Here are some interview excerpts.

When and how did you start Keroche?

That was about 30 years ago. We were staying on the land where the plant is now and we opted to give it up for the investment. We went to rent a house in Nairobi. The company could not afford to buy us a house. From an initial investment of about Sh500,000 and one or two small vehicles we have grown to a multi-billion-shilling investment, not just in terms of money but also technology. Our brewmaster here has experience of over 45 years and has worked in many places around the world. He has told me that the technology we have here is the best. This plant is controlled remotely from Germany.

You have talked of starting with Sh500,000. What is the value of the business now?

Something not less than Sh30 billion. The turnover, before coronavirus, had reached about Sh5 billion but we are currently very low because of the pandemic. We are doing about 30 per cent of that, which is very low. We are hoping things will come back to normal.

On the taxation disputes you have had with the Kenya Revenue Authority, what is the update on this? Have you been treated fairly by KRA and the State?

Let me just say that our challenges are often laced with politics. On the taxation dispute I think where we stand now, we have seen the need to resolve the issue and we are talking, so this might not be the right time to speak about it because we are already handling it. When it is over, I will give the story, but I support Kenyans and they support me.

I was removed from this office and arrested over the dispute but Kenyans stood with me. Their support has been really inspiring and motivating. It goes to say that I have inspired many and I will continue to do that. My prayer is that I can inspire a generation so that more people can wake up with their businesses. Many industries are mushrooming all over the country.

Besides KRA, there have been stories and court cases involving Keroche and its competitors. What can you tell us about this? 

When I got into this market I was coming to break a monopoly that had been jealously guarded. The main competition was throwing so many things at me, including smear campaigns and using Parliament and all that. I had to prove to people that what they were saying was not true. Before they realised it, I was improving and becoming bigger.

I started by focusing on the low-end market but I soon found that the upper market had no choices and ventured into it as well. The fights got a lot of airtime and I decided not to give up on the dream. You remember that we have also had the battle of the bottles? They were saying we did not have our designs right. Nobody can win such a case in any part of the world.

How have you been able to survive that competition?

It is a bit hard and challenging but every time I go through something, I get the energy and reason to continue fighting. I remember a time in 2000, somebody told me that if I gave up it would take 40 years for someone else to do this, and that it certainly would not be a Kenyan. By doing this, I know I have inspired very many Kenyans. This keeps on motivating and inspiring me even more.

Other than Keroche, what other areas have you invested in?

I have put everything in Keroche. I know my husband does farming and a bit of real estate. But for me, my focus is on Keroche.

The death of your daughter, Tecra, was a painful one, more so because it was not out of natural causes. How have you been managing through this tragedy?

That is something that takes time to get over but you pray to your God for strength that only comes from him. The other thing is you need to do things that will make you wake up so that you can live and move on and accept it. So, you can mourn for 10 years but you are living.

The Director of Public Prosecutions had initially indicated that he was going to charge Omar Lali with murder but at the last minute after the suspect had even gone for mental assessment, the DPP backed off. How did you take this?

That was very bad and painful. We are patiently waiting and praying that justice will prevail for our daughter and us.

We understand that you are working on a foundation in honour of Tecra. What is the progress on this?

We are waiting for the inquest to end. You know you can only do so effectively after you get closure on the matter. After that, we will start doing that because we know what she loved and what she wanted so we can continue with that foundation. It is called the Keroche Foundation. At her age, she wanted to retire and take up the foundation. She believed this was something that could be worked out from here.

You have made your name as an entrepreneur but you have now announced your intention to try your luck in politics. What is the motivation for joining politics?

I have been in this market for the last 35 years now, in the public sector and of course in business in Naivasha. Over that period, I have earned experience both in the public and private sectors. I know the gaps and I have realised that the challenges we are going through are because of bad leadership. This bad leadership can only be fixed by people who have the right experience.

Some of the people with the experience I am referring to have been shying off from politics instead of getting involved, perhaps because of how it has been conducted before. I have decided to get in. I know it is not easy but with a 35-year experience, I believe I will add value to Kenyan politics by proving what good leadership can achieve in uplifting people’s lives and businesses.

You have indicated that you are going for the Senate. Why the Senate?

The Senate is all about policymaking of the important issues that affect the people at the grassroots level. I will give one example about my journey in manufacturing. I have seen impunity in the form of punitive taxation introduced in Parliament; and MPs pass those laws yet they do not understand a thing about them and how they will affect the people and businesses. They are just conveyor belts.

Ten years ago when Keroche introduced the Vienna fortified wine, taxes were increased on fortified wine. The taxes were tripled while our competitors’ products were zero-rated. I decided to go to the parliamentary committee and ask them why they did that. They could not even remember that it had been in Parliament. They were shocked that they passed that law. That was in the 2006/7 budget. I have seen more come. For me, I have to be there now to champion these laws to protect these businesses and wealth creation. You can only do that in the Senate.

At the county level, governors sometimes fail because of the lack of oversight that comes from the Senate. Going by my experience in management and leadership as a private stakeholder, I will give that oversight to the county government and hold the governor accountable to the people because the people give us the jobs. I want to be there to monitor, on behalf of the people, what the governors are doing.

At the moment, two major political formations are emerging. One revolves around former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and the other around Deputy President William Ruto. Of these two sides, where do you find yourself?

Unfortunately, our politics is shaping up like that, that we have two horses. They should be three or four. For me, I would like to put my policies to the people first. Then I will listen to what the people have to say about what political platform I should run on because I need a political vehicle to take me where I want. For now, I am selling my policies and that decision will come at the right time.

You may claim to be joining national politics now, but your name has always been mentioned as an influence on Naivasha and national politics. 

I have been championing the interests of local entrepreneurs and showing Kenyans that it is possible to develop the country through entrepreneurship, and that to do that we need a level playing ground. For my business, I have had to compete with multinationals that have enjoyed favourable government support over a homegrown entrepreneur.

Any time I get a platform to speak, I often say that we have to support our own. I represent local entrepreneurs. Maybe that is where they have seen me because even the wars I was fighting in the past stem from a time I appeared at a dinner with ODM leader Raila Odinga. I was asked to speak and I said I have seen Raila support the locals so I believe he is the only person who can support the local entrepreneurs and make them go to the next level. I did not know that statement would be used against me. Now I am a bit careful about what I say and where I stand, but I still hold that we can only develop this country through local entrepreneurship.

How, then, are you going to keep your business out of politics now? 

I have put the right structures and systems for continuity. I have built this business in the last 25 years. You cannot have such a business without having the right systems and the right structures. It is only now that I have thought about getting a CEO.

The good thing is, I have trained people for the last 25 years. These are the people who will be vying for this office (CEO’s position). I am sure I will not mix politics and business. My business will continue as I give service leadership now to the people of Nakuru and Kenya.

But do you realise that the political platform is not as sanitised as the corporate boardroom? Are you ready for the mudslinging in the trenches of politics?

I have said over and over that I am going for change. I would like to change the way we conduct our politics. If I am given that opportunity, you will see the politics of Kenya change. My brand of politics will be about what I’m offering, and for that you do not need to shout. If you are going to work, focus on it. You will not see me where others are shouting. My campaign will be run corporately. I know somebody will ask if that can happen here in Kenya. Yes, it can, and I will be the first one to do it.

You have mentioned the former Prime Minister and have appeared in one of his events recently. What kind of friendship do you have?

Our friendship with the former Prime Minister is that of a brother and a sister. That is how we call each other. It has developed from far and the connection is just about the business and our beliefs. We both believe that we need to grow local businesses. He gives me the story of how he started his own business, the problems he went through, how some of the businesses had to fall because of bad regulations, and where he has reached. Anytime I am crying, he feels me. That is how we are connected.

Raila was the chief guest at the launch of Keroche’s new plant and the Summit Lager in 2008 and there have been reports that former President Kibaki was the one to attend but then changed his mind at the last minute. How did this happen?

We were friends with the former Prime Minister before 2008. It’s true we invited Kibaki for the launch, but he asked Raila to represent him because he had another function to attend. The minute he came, my competitor used that to say that I am an ODM person. This was to divide people. The thing is, this was not about politics, but supporting local businesses.

What are your views about Uhuru and Ruto’s administration in terms of supporting local entreprise?

I feel the Jubilee government never knew exactly what I did here. This has been the biggest private investment during the time Jubilee has been in power but the support from the government has been wanting. Maybe those working around the President have been giving him the wrong information.

That is what I think. I am not blaming anybody. You should perhaps write that to help the next president understand what it takes to put up an investment. You know, a local investment, even if it is just Sh20, means more than a Sh10 billion investment by a multinational.

I am just a business administrator. I am not an engineer but I have managed to go around the world and bring the best equipment here. I expected more from the government in terms of appreciating a local investor.

In all these, there is the role of spouse and family, not only in business but also now that you are joining politics. What does family mean to you?

My family means so much to me because without the support I have gotten from my husband and children, I do not think I would have made it. Even when I thought about politics, I had to sit down with them to deliberate on the best way to do it.

They were hesitant and wondered why I was going back to being dragged in the mud, but later they understood that I needed to give back to the people and offer them service leadership, and they are happy again.

They are okay.

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