Inside their MAMA Rocks food truck stationed in the upmarket Westlands area of Nairobi, Kenya, sisters Samantha and Natalie Mwedekeli are hard at work, rustling up burgers for what looks like an army of hungry people queuing up.
They dish out their signature eats with smiles and hellos sporting a crisp British accent. The two are founders of Nairobi’s latest epicurean street sensation.
It was only three years ago that Samantha, 36, and Natalie, 33, were in their home at Old Street, East London, in the United Kingdom (UK), mulling over their mundane nine-to-five jobs.
They made the bold decision to quit their jobs in the non-profit and human resources sectors respectively and start out in the food business.
The idea had been marinating in their heads for a couple of years, and the sisters, of Kenyan and Nigerian descent, figured it was now or never. They decided to start the business in Kenya, their father’s hometown.
Ten years ago, their parents, who had migrated to the UK, had relocated to Kenya, leaving their daughters in the care of their grandmother. Natalie and Samantha would visit their parents every year and these trips helped them see Nairobi transform.
The restaurant scene in East Africa’s corporate hub has grown exponentially in the past decade, especially due to the increase in the number of retail establishments, such as the recently-reopened Westgate Mall, The Hub and urban hotels such as Villa Rosa Kempinski Nairobi and Radisson Blu.
“We’ve always had a drive to start our own business, partly because we grew up with very entrepreneurial parents so they infected us with that bug. They always emphasized to us that if you want to make a difference, you need to make your own mark and they always said that there’s a lot of potential in Africa. So we thought ‘why can’t we come up with a brand that’s born and bred in Africa and also has international appeal’?” say the sisters.
Starting a restaurant is by no means easy, especially for two young women from overseas with no culinary background. Samantha studied law at Kingston University London and Natalie has a business management degree from Royal Holloway. They owe it to their grandmother who is the best cook they know.
To gain some knowledge about the restaurant industry, the two worked as waitresses at various restaurants in London’s West End such as international sandwich chain Pret a Manger, and Patty & Bun, a diner serving some of London’s finest burgers according to TimeOut.
Waitressing for about six months gave them insight into what makes people tick and how good food makes people feel. Using this experience and noting the establishments’ strict attention to detail, they decided on gourmet burgers infused with some African-inspired flavors.
Their parents were not in agreement with this change of career but on seeing the business plan, they soon got on board.
“Our father helped us gather the capital we needed and our mother is now our biggest fan, bragging to all her friends about our food.”
Fast forward six months to late 2014 and the Londoners had officially moved to Nairobi to start the groundwork, finding a location, suppliers and equipment. A chat with Kevin Ashley, owner of Java House in Kenya, made them take a step back in terms of finances.
They had not realized how expensive it would be to open a restaurant – a minimum of Ksh 14 million ($135,000) was needed for one that fit their requirements. Plan B was the food truck, which cut their investment by half.
“It’s relatively inexpensive, risks are limited and you can move around and test the market and see how people respond to you and if anything, that’s your investment because no one can take the truck away from you. It was really exciting because we were bringing something new to Nairobi,” says Natalie.
It took nine months to get the truck assembled; while that was being taken care of, the sisters decided to start testing the market by doing pop-ups in various locations to gauge people’s interest.
Their first attempt at selling their product was at a friend’s Thai restaurant. They did not advertise but ended up having a full house. This was a clear indication of Kenyans’ desire to try new things. Since then, MAMA Rocks serves over 200 customers every weekend including Fridays.
It’s just one of the numerous restaurants and cafes that have opened shop in Nairobi over the past year. Others include Pizza Hut, Ocean Basket, Adega, Dominos, KFC, News Café, Brioche, Nyama Mama and Roast by Carnivore.
Mikul Shah, founder of EatOut Kenya, East Africa’s largest online restaurant guide, says of the industry’s fast progression: “To some extent, the growth in supply might be faster than the demand. With so much competition and options, restaurants have had to focus on providing good value for money. We are seeing lots of deals and promotions to attract patrons. Overall, I feel that Nairobi has seen a boom in the dining culture, however it is a little worrying for smaller businesses as it will be a few years until the demand catches up.”
The MAMA Rocks sisters officially opened shop on New Year’s Eve 2015, their truck parked in the newly-opened creative events space, the Yard, in Westlands.
As word spread of their Africanized burgers, like their popular Mango Maasai Mama and Nollywood Suya Saga, sales soared. Within six months, they were able to pay off the cost of the truck and hired a few more people to help them with preparation and serving customers.
Ingredients for their dishes are sourced locally and they make the sauces from scratch every morning. As for the name MAMA Rocks, they say it came so naturally to them.
“We thought about African culture, the similar aspects to the different cultures across the entire continent. One of those aspects is that the mother is the backbone of the household. We wanted the brand to have a strong feminine energy and to celebrate the mother, hence MAMA.”
Coming from the first world to settle in fast-developing Kenya had its challenges, the biggest being the high level of corruption that hindered ease of doing business.
Transparency International ranked Kenya 139 out of 168 countries in their corruption index.
But when asked why Nairobi and not London or Lagos, Samantha promptly says: “Kenya is rich in opportunity and skills. It feels like a large canvas. There’s so much that can be done here that may have already been done in London. There’s not much left to explore or experiment in London. As for Lagos, it just wasn’t as developed as Nairobi is and food costs there tend to be much higher. But we plan to open there next when we are able to expand.”
The sisters are breaking even after a year in operation and plan on opening a restaurant soon to bring in more profits while still running the food truck. Samantha and Natalie are young, vibrant and eager to change the African gastronomic narrative.