Named FORBES AFRICA BUSINESS WOMAN OF THE YEAR 2014, the story of Tabitha Mukami Muigai Karanja continues to be one of Africa’s most inspiring.

Presently, Keroche Breweries Kenya, which was founded in 1997 by Tabitha and her husband Joseph Karanja, turns over $17.6 million annually and has assets in the excess of $200million.

With accolades like the “Beer Baroness”, “Queen of the Brew”, she epitomizes the resilient African spirit.

Born on the 29th of August 1964 in Kenton – Kijabe, Kenya, as the first-born child in a family of 10 children,  she always wanted to be an achiever at an early age. Her purposeful disposition to life was quite evident even as a young girl, when she was  almost playing a motherly role to her siblings, ensuring they not only attended school but also performed well. She was also very adept at helping her mother.

“I ensured whatever we owned thrived; from the crops on our farm to livestock,” she told Kenyan Journalist. Esther Kiragu.

Tabitha’s spirit of enterprise started in her teenage years, as school holidays and spare time saw her knitting shawls for her siblings. This was an art she learnt from her farmer mother. Her shawls were so good that they attracted patronage from around the neighbourhood.

Her journey to the pinnacle of the corporate world has been tough over the past 20 years, but her determination, perseverance and passion to succeed made her weather the storm and the pillar behind her success is her man, a rare man, who would rather operate from the background, Joseph Karanja, the co- founder and Chairman of Keroche Breweries.

Tabitha had her high school education at Bahati Girls in Nakuru before joining Kapkenda Girls for her A-levels, all in the Rift Valley region of Kenya. She worked for a while as a teacher till she got a job with the Ministry of Tourism in 1985 as a Library Administrator. Her stint as a library administrator helped satiate her voracious appetite for reading. She also used the period to acquire a Certificate in Public Accountancy (CPA) and a Bachelors degree in business administration.

Her maturity beyond her age also manifested very early on when she married Joseph Karanja, a man close to 20 years her senior, who owned a hardware store in Naivasha – Kenya, at the young age of 21. She was to resign from her job in 1994 to fully join her husband’s business.

“Although I was familiar with the business, running it wasn’t easy initially, but I found my footing and even brought in a new dimension. The business traded in imported hardware goods and I felt the need to manufacture our products. I wasn’t sure what product in particular we could start manufacturing and this led us to carry out a needs-assessment research in 1997 to find the gaps in the market,” she explains to Esther Kiragu.

This move opened her eyes to the vast opportunities in the liquor industry, particularly in the lower market where illicit alcoholic drinks were heavily consumed by low-income earners whose needs and pockets were ignored by established liquor manufacturers, so they resorted to consuming dangerous illicit brews. . Her other option was to manufacture and sell paint.

In January, her brewery in Naivasha will increase capacity by 10 times in a $100 million expansion plan. Where currently it manufactures 60,000 bottles a day, the upgraded facility will produce 600,000 bottles

“How often will a man paint his house? I have to go in for fast-moving consumer goods.” She told Forbes Africa.

In 1998, the couple closed the hardware store and went into the wine-making business.

“This led to the establishment of Keroche Breweries in 1998 with the aim of manufacturing affordable, hygienically prepared, and well-packaged alcohol,” she says.

With the locally available raw materials the two with a start-up capital of KShs 500,000 ($5,500) decided to venture into Fortified Wines, which were favorable to the low-income market due to the low cost of production.

Keroche built a small, fortified fruit wines brewery. With an initial production of 200 litres in the first month and a new brand Viena, Keroche was too young and its production too small to get noticed in any of Kenya’s liquor books. But Viena gained immediate acceptance

Keroche’s entrance into the liquor business was naturally, not welcome by the more established East African monopolies and a lot of frustrations were thrown their way. Banks were initially lukewarm  about extending facilities for growth.

Then the campaigns of calumny started,

“The competitors used smear campaigns that initially made the public shy away from our brands. In addition, since many people only knew of brands manufactured by multinationals, they were skeptical about locally manufactured brands.  False accusations of producing poor quality alcohol followed by subjection to unfair high taxation that was backdated to five years and unfair trade practices by our competitors were thrown our way just to discourage us,” says Tabitha.

However staying devoted to a niche market is always the unique selling point of a good product.

The challenges were many, as it took a while – and several desperate trips to the financing banks – before the brand finally gained traction.

It was an inspired venture. Within six years the new company had given an additional option of four bottled and quality drinks to persons reeling from the high cost of drinks by multi-national brewers.

For 10 years Keroche Breweries thrived on its fortified wines as the first wholly indigenously owned Kenyan liquor manufacturer, in a market heavily dominated by foreign multinational brands, carving out 5% of the market share for itself.

However by 2007, its seemed the efforts to strangulate local brewers like Tabitha’s Keroche was renewed when the Kenyan government in a bizarre policy, hiked up taxes for alcohol manufacturing. This went a long way to affect the wine brands of Keroche’s, which were targeted at the low income consumers.

Undaunted Keroche diverted to the more production cost friendly gin and vodka.

“So there I thought again and said, ‘what do we do for this same market?. And that is how we came up with ready-to-drink vodka. We make it ready-mixed to precision for moderate drinking,” she says.

In 2008, Tabitha Karanja and her team took the ultimate decision that was to change the fortunes of Keroche Breweries for ever.

She decided to confront the 87 year monopoly of the East African Breweries in the highly lucrative beer production market. Many thought she was crazy, but the soft spoken iron lady was ready to go for broke.

That year “Summit Lager Beer” was born.

The company invested in brand new, state-of-the-art facilities, which started producing 10,000 bottles of gin and ready-to-drink vodka, as well as 15,000 bottles of beer, per hour. The acceptance of its beer product was instantaneous and this translated to good slice of the vast beer market in Kenya within a short period.

By 2013 Keroche Breweries began expansion plans to increase beer production from 60,000 bottles per day to 600,000 bottles per day.

Forbes Africa in a 2014 story on the Beer Baroness captured the expansion moves in these words,

“In January, her brewery in Naivasha will increase capacity by 10 times in a $100 million expansion plan. Where currently it manufactures 60,000 bottles a day, the upgraded facility will produce 600,000 bottles, as Karanja stridently looks to widen her reach in the rest of East Africa and increase her market share to 20%.

She decided to confront the 87 year monopoly of the East African Breweries in the highly lucrative beer production market. Many thought she was crazy, but the soft spoken iron lady was ready to go for broke.

Her top-sellers are Summit Lager and Summit Malt, which started production in 2008 as “naturally-brewed, sugar-free, and hygienic alternatives” targeting consumers in the low-end alcohol market that could not afford elite brands or were more dependent on illicit brews.”

With the expanded, highly computerized factory, today Keroche Breweries boasts of a cross section of alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages like Summit Lager, Summit Malt, Valley Wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage and Chenin Blanc.

In a rare Corporate Social Responsibility thrust, the Keroche Foundation, a brainchild of Tabitha Karanja,  was founded in 2014.

Under Tabitha’s patronage, Keroche Foundation addresses the knowledge and experience gap that confronts young Kenyan entrepreneurs. An in-depth curriculum designed by experts guides the programme through which young entrepreneurs are mentored, inspired, connected and guided towards overcoming personal and business challenges that plague young businesses.

The commitment of the Keroche Foundation Academy is to increase motivation, confidence and the likelihood of business success by connecting

rising entrepreneurs to successful and experienced players in practical, solution-oriented sessions. An intensive five-month programme, it aims at enhancing skills in business leadership, management, technology, access to finance, communication, branding and marketing.

The second batch of young, ambitious and enthusiastic entrepreneurs graduated at a colourful ceremony which held at the prestigious Radisson Blu Hotel in Upper Hill, Nairobi, Kenya.

Five young women entrepreneurs were amongst those being recognized . They included Caroline Wanjiku, CEO Daproim Africa Limited; Jayne Awino Okoth, CEO Rapunzel Hair Affair & Porsh Hair; Catherine Mahugu, Co-founder of Soko & Founder of WaziData Limited; Judith Chebet Mosobo, CEO of Iris Interiors Limited; and Liz Kitua, CEO of Kidosho Apparel.

A partnership between Keroche Foundation and the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) aims at sharing market friendly formulations and technology to agroentrepreneurs and farmers at the grassroots level. This arrangement shall be executed through a fund named the “Hakikisha Fund”. The fund is aimed at facilitating one of Kenya’s leading technological institutions

Tabitha Karanja’s story continues to be a benchmark for the growth of African entrepreneurs, especially women, in the past two decades, as Africans strive to shed many stereotypes and status quos. Her determination, passion for indigenous enterprise growth, resilience and ability to confront decades old multinational strangle hold on Africa’s massive markets, has continued to inspire and motivate a new wave of African entrepreneurs, especially women, towards the vast potentials in the continent’s entrepreneurial landscape.

“I was, however, determined to fight and prove that I could make it. I also knew if I won the battle I would be paving way for other entrepreneurs whose dreams are cut short by established businesses. Additionally, I wanted to build a company that could eventually be owned by Kenyans through sale of shares at the stock exchange. I hope to float Keroche shares in the next five years,” she says with confidence in a 2014 chat with Esther Kiragu.

The queen of brew acknowledges the immense contributions of her husband at every turn.

“He has been instrumental in steering the company and my team and I look up to him for advice and guidance,” she says affectionately of her husband who is also an ardent farmer. The couple is blessed with four children – James, Annalisa, Edward and Tecra.

Tabitha Karanja’s remarkable efforts have been recognized and honored globally over the last few years.

In 2010 former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki honored Tabitha for her efforts with  the award of the Moran of Burning Spear (MBS), one of the country’s highest recognitions

Other awards include East African Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 – CNBC/ Forbes Africa.

African Businesswoman of the Year 2014- CNBC/ Forbes Africa.

The 2017 Industry Champion Award by Food Business Africa.

With a 20% market share of Kenya’s highly competitive alcoholic beverage markets in the offing, plans are underway by Keroche Breweries to expand further into the Eats and Central African markets, in the nearest future.Taking on Africa as a whole is the ultimate goal.