For the past 18 years, this determined woman entrepreneur has battled against monopolies, high taxation, industry sceptics and other challenges to create a Kenyan business success story that is internationally admired.
Tabitha is the Chief Executive of Keroche Breweries, the first alcoholic beverage producer to be wholly owned and operated by an indigenous Kenyan – and, a woman. Her inspirational story is one of a woman who started small in business but dreamed big, and because of her determination and perseverance emerged as one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in Kenya and a true force to be reckoned with in the beer brewing industry in Africa.
Tabitha Karanja was born in Kenton Kijabe, Kenya, where she was brought up in a family of 10 children. Being the first-born child, she wanted to achieve at an early age. Tabitha attended the Bahati Girls Secondary School, one of the best schools in the country, and its current performance still inspires her today. There is still a sense of pride in her on the occasion when the national school exam results are announced each year. Even when she had finished her preparatory and high schooling years, she remembers going back to the schools where her sister and brothers were attending, and wanting to monitor their performance to ensure they were also achieving their goals.
"If you find there is something you really want to do, just start it, with whatever you have."
After school she made the transition to work, a smoother process than most experienced at the time. After six or seven months, she got her first job in government, although she had originally thought of being a doctor as she was good at science at school. She resigned early in her career because she had always wanted to be in business in some capacity. One of her earliest business experiences was when she and her husband went into business originally running a hardware shop supplying other local companies, but the desire to manufacture products was where her heart really lay.
It was then that Tabitha started to do some research into Kenya’s drinks market and saw a gap in the local beer industry, to service the lower consumer end of the market in particular. Being a neglected market segment meant that people resorted to drinking whatever they found in their local villages, so she set out to make an affordable, high quality, international standard drink that was moderate in alcohol. It was with this easy to drink, affordable and great tasting beer that she started to penetrate this market initially. The approach was to develop a beer that was mixed for moderate drinking, made naturally and without sugar. The product started moving very well and she worked with the Kenyan Bureau of Standards to ensure the quality was to an international standard.
"From the beginning, do what you want to do, and know that what you are doing is right. So, whatever challenge you face, you know you are right and you have that focus of where you want to go."
There were many challenges along the way, and the path was not smooth for Tabitha and Keroche Breweries in the early days. She had to fight the monopolistic beer environment in the country which had been fiercely guarded for the previous 80 years before the entry of Keroche breweries, and initially there was a backlash from those monopolies. She took a conscious decision to try and break these monopolies, to ensure fair competition in the beer market in the country, and that is what Tabitha Karanja has been doing for the past 18 years with her brewery.
"Think big, do not think small. We are brought up as young women and girls to think that it is men who achieve, it is high time that we must agree that women can be leaders in business."
She went on to build a state of the art brewing facility in Naivasha, Kenya with every part of the plant automated with the latest technology at a cost of 2 billion Kenyan shillings. She felt it was essential to take this route in order to compete effectively with the giants in the market as quickly as possible.
Today, the Summit brand of beers produced by Tabitha’s Keroche Breweries have a loyal following amongst Kenyan consumers and her story inspires not only fellow Kenyans, but women entrepreneurs across the African continent and around the world.