Mary Cherop Maritim buying raw corn just after sunrise at Nairobi’s Kangemi market
Name – Mary Cherop Maritim
Age – 44
Work – Entrepreneur, Cherubet Company
Lives – Westlands
DONHOLM, April 18, 2011 (Daily Dispatches) – Mary Cherop Maritim launched her frozen food company by going straight to the managing director’s office at Kenya’s biggest supermarket chain with 11lbs of sample produce in a borrowed cooler. Four years later, now shipping 2,000lbs a week, she talks to Mike Pflanz about starting out, expanding her firm, and why financial independence is important for Nairobi’s young businesswomen.
“I have learned through my business that there are so many things that are required by people, so many necessities that are not there in the marketplace. When we say we want to go into business we only look at the things that already exist, we never try to see the spaces in between, what can I make to fill the gap. We don’t do that.
“For me, it would all have been very different if I had gone into business doing something that others were doing. I don’t think I could have made it. My company is selling packaged, ready-to-eat frozen vegetables, mostly corn and different kinds of beans which are very popular here in Kenya.
“The idea came one night, I was working as a civil servant for a senior official, and that night I didn’t leave the office until after 8pm. On the way I home, I was thinking my family would be hungry, what will I feed them? I used to pre-cook corn and beans and freeze them to eat anytime. That night when I got home I found these beans in the freezer, I fried them up, and soon my hungry family were all eating. Suddenly I thought, wait a minute, can’t this be a good business idea?
“Most Kenyan women, we prepare this food each day. We buy fresh corn, or beans, but they must be boiled for two hours before eating. They go rotten in two days. Now we are becoming more busy. Maybe people like me could benefit from this ready-to-eat food. That night I woke in the middle of the night and I knew I had to do this.
“The next day I walked and walked in town until I found someone to make packaging for me. Then I went to the market, I had so little money, I could only buy 2lbs of corn and beans each. Then I cooked it all up in my kitchen, and then cooled them in the freezer.
Cherop Maritim buys raw corn each morning to fullfil orders from supermarkets across Kenya
“I was so determined, I never asked anyone how is the right way to start a business. I just borrowed a cooler, packed the products in there, and took off to the head office of Nakumatt. That’s the biggest supermarket chain in Kenya. I asked to speak to the person in charge of buying new products. She saw my things and said, ‘We don’t sell this, but it looks like a good idea’. The next minute, I was in a very big office meeting a man I found out later is the managing director. I’m pleased I did not know he was the managing director at the time or I would have been too nervous!
“But he looked at the products, he said they look good, can he see my papers. Remember I told you I didn’t know how to start a business? I said, what papers? He laughed and said he can’t do business with me without papers. He was very patient and told me what I had to find.
“It was too expensive to get all the papers, more than $600, that was out of this world for me, it was too much. A friend helped me, and three weeks later I was again in the managing director’s office. He said, let’s start with your products in two branches for 60 days.
“Before the 60 days were even over, the managers of all the other branches were calling me asking me to supply. I had to move out from my family kitchen where I started and instead work on the veranda, on a stove burning firewood, you can still see the stains from the smoke on the roof there. Those days, I was still working at my civil service job, then coming home and cooking beans and corn until 2am or later.
“My first order was only for five packages, and I remember in the first days I would to go to the freezer in the supermarket to see them there, to make sure they were arranged nicely. I felt so sad, it’s like no-one had even seen them. A guy working there, he saw me coming each day, he said, mama, don’t worry it will pick up, someday it will pick up. He told me about the owner of a bottled water company, she used to be just like me, coming every day to arrange the bottles, and be sad. Then from the day it picked up, he said they’d never seen her again, they’d only see the lorries here delivering her water.
Cherop Maritim at her new cooking and packaging premises, where employees are packing orders
“I’m not saying now I can deliver on lorries, but it’s definitely moved from where it was. Now my business is doing well. We are moving something like 2,000lbs of products per week, and I am supplying supermarkets all around the country, and some restaurants, too. I have six full-time staff.
“My real reason for getting into this business is financial independence, I really value that. For a long time, I didn’t have sufficient finance, and I don’t like to be depending on my husband. There was a time I had to tell my daughter to sneak into the back of a school disco, because I could not afford to give her the money for the ticket. That is so frustrating, you are in a desperate situation with a lack of money, it really scares me.
“It is more difficult as a woman to be in business in Kenya. For example, there is a financial challenge: sometimes you need to borrow money, but when you borrow money as a woman, people don’t trust you. They believe women own nothing. That is true, even my house is just under my husband’s name, there is not one day I will be able to take the title deed to a bank and say look I can borrow and here is title deed as a security.
“One thing I am always telling my daughters – I have three, aged 17, 14 and 11 – and in fact I am telling any young woman I meet. I say women need to work hard to be independent before they get married, so they can get married for love, not because a guy looks like he is wealthy and can take care of them. Too many girls here are dependent on someone, on a man. It makes for a dangerous situation.
“But I know people can succeed. My experience has showed me that you just have to try, don’t give up before you start. It’s very common in people they imagine it’s not going to happen and they just give up. I don’t say I’m special, but I look back sometimes and I do wonder how I did all this!”
© DAILY DISPATCHES: Nairobi 2011