Your Everyday People- Interview series
Tell us your name, what you do and how long you have been an entrepreneur.
My name is Mildred Nafula. I own and run a small business where I cook and sell viazi* karai to my local community. Viazi Karai is a dish made from potatoes. Whereby, you first boil the potatoes, then slice them into sizeable pieces, coat the sliced potatoes in food colored green gram flour and then deep fry. The result is what we call viazi karai. It is then served with mild to hot chili and or tamarind sauce, commonly known as ukwaju or any sauce of your choice. You can then accompany it with tea, vegetables, juice, or any accompaniment that you desire. Viazi Karai is a much-loved local delicacy, popular within the Coastal community. I have done this business since the time my first-born daughter was three years old.
It is 19 years now.
How did you get the idea to start this business? Take us to the beginning.
I came from a humble family background, hailing in Busia County, Western Kenya. My family struggles and having not gained an opportunity to finish school, drove me to seek a better life. Not just for me but for my family at large. Armed with a determination to make something of myself, I saved the little cash that I got from doing odd jobs in the village and took the first bus to Mombasa. All I needed was a job. Any kind of a job that would help me put food on the table and help me take care of my mother and my siblings back home.
During my stay in Mombasa where I was working as a house manager, I met a handsome young man who I would later fall in love with, got married to and sire with him two beautiful children. A girl and a boy.
Tourism in Mombasa back in the ‘90s was really booming. My husband worked in one of the biggest popular-tourist-loved night clubs in the region as a barman. His decent salary combined with the daily generous tips he got, was able to carter for all our basic needs. I enjoyed my role both as a housewife and a mother. My husband was our sole provider. We were comfortable. I was settled.
One day, trouble knocked my marriage door. My loving husband’s focus shifted elsewhere. Without a warning, he stopped honoring his responsibilities and subsequently, became a stranger in our home. This was the beginning of the end of my marriage and the bills started piling up. I was unsettled.
Then tragedy struck. My older brother died. I was devastated. It crashed my soul in ways that I can not put into words. I asked my husband to facilitate my travel upcountry so that I could join the rest of my family in giving my brother a warm send off. He denied me.
This incident of not being able to bury my brother, was a moment of epiphany for me. I was greatly disturbed. I did not want such a tragedy to strike twice and I was not able to travel upcountry to bury my loved one due to lack of funds, especially if it were my mother. It was then that I knew I had to start earning my own money. Real quick.
One sunrise, with 500 shillings borrowed from a friend, I walked into the market and bought a crate of potatoes. I came back home and shamelessly, set up a fire right outside my residence.
That was the start of my viazi karai business.
Tell us more about your business. How does an ordinary day look like?
The early morning cries of the first cock, finds me at the market. I usually buy a sack of potatoes directly from the supply trucks that deliver from upcountry. I must be there on time as they are offloading. This enables me to get fresh quality potatoes and at a discounted price.
On days that I have stock, the first cock-a-doodle-do will find me setting up at my work area. Any household, that wakes up in the morning to get their kids ready for school, can buy ready made viazi karai for breakfast. You can imagine, on a daily, by 6 AM, I have already set up fire and am preparing breakfast orders. On a regular, you will find me boiling, frying, taking orders and packing viazis for different customers at any given time of the day.
At 7 PM, I wrap up.
How do you market your business and which tactics have been most successful?
One thing that I have mastered, is the art of customer service. Not to thump my own chest, but I have exceptional customer service skills. I listen to my customers and put myself in their shoes. I take their complaints to heart. Where I need to improve I do so without hesitation, where I need to apologies and make amends, I do so gracefully.
My aim is to exceed my client’s expectations. I make sure my viazi karai’s are tasty, well cooked and my work area is clean. As a result, I have attracted a huge customer base and built a great rapport with them. What this has done for me is, the customers, in turn, tell others about me- Mama Viazi and how much they love my viazis. So, word of mouth has worked tremendously for me.
I have customers who come from far off neighborhoods and some call-in advance to make orders. I couldn’t have done it any other way.
What are some of the mistakes that you wish you could have avoided in your entrepreneurial journey?
This busines is not easy. I wish I knew how to slice the potatoes correctly. At the beginning the slices were too big and at some point, they were too small. In both cases I lost money.
I also took a loan for the business from a financial institution, instead of channeling it to the business, I used it to meet some personal obligation. This costed me terribly. I paid off the loan with interest without making any money from it.
Savings was unheard of when I first started. I was not keen to put some of my earnings aside. In cases where I had emergencies, it was difficult to bridge that gap. I struggled quite a lot.
What challenges do you face in your business and how do you overcome them?
Like I had mentioned earlier, I have mastered the art of customer service. I listen to my customers, I take their complains seriously and I make amends gracefully where I should. This way, I ensure that my customers leave not only happy but satisfied.
As you know having a strategic location for your business is key. Getting such a location for me was hard at the beginning. I kept shifting from one location to the other before settling to the current one.
There are times I may buy potatoes in bulk and get some rotten ones somewhere in the mix. You can not cook such and sell to customers. So I am forced to buy more potatoes from local retailers to cover the bad ones, I do this so that my customers do not miss their daily order, but from my end, I incur an extra expense that cuts into my profit.
Competition in this business is stiff. My next-door neighbor just here across the street does the same business and several others around the neighborhood. I therefore find myself putting in more work on not just the quality of the viazis, but also on my overall services. There must be that one thing that must be outstanding so that customers can keep coming back for more. It is probably in the way I talk to them, perhaps it is in my way of greeting, maybe my parting shot or the extra sauce I add to their serving. Whatever I do, I give it my best. That one thing is what I work for that will give me an edge over my competitor.
How has the COVID Pandemic affected your business and what adjustments have you done to combat it?
COVID has slowed down my business. Most people as you know have been affected in one way or another. Some have lost jobs, others have taken a pay cut, schools and churches that are my clients have closed. This has decreased my sales especially at the beginning of the lockdown.
However, with all these on goings, never have I ever stopped working. Neither has my work ethics changed. I still wake up at the crack of dawn to carry on. So over time, I see people are becoming accepting of the new norms, by and by customers are returning. My being open has renewed trust in my customers and slowly they are coming back.
When it gets tough in your business, what motivates you to keep going?
This business of mine has taken my kids to school. Single handedly, I have struggled from cooking viazis just to ensure that my kids stay in school, and not just any school. I took them to relatively good government schools. I was determined to see my kids get a good education that I never got a chance to attain.
My kids have never got any scholarship, any form of sponsorship or any private or government bursary to see them through their education. I did not borrow from individuals or any government body to ensure that my kids learn. All I did was turn my face away from any kind of shame and I stopped pestering their father to provide for them. Then, I accepted my circumstances, took stock of my life, and got to work.
For almost twenty years now, I have endured the hardships and joys of cooking viazis in open fire on a daily. My daughter and son have finished secondary school successfully. I am working on their further studies. My business has enabled me to pay my rent for both my house and my work premises. My kids have never gone to bed hungry. I save on a regular basis. I support my mother and my siblings back home. I am now able to travel upcountry, comfortably, for any family functions.
What more motivation do I need?
What are your future plans?
I am confident that my future is bright. I have faith that I will achieve the goals that I have set for myself. Where I have come from was the most difficult part of my life and I overcame it. The rest of the journey is much bearable. I have since joined a local Sacco where I save money daily, this will help me get a loan of a certain amount that I am aiming at and gift myself a piece of land. I have plans, which are underway, to expand and diversify my business.
What advise would you give someone who wants to start a business and they do not know where to start?
My kids will tell you that, I always instill in them, to focus on their lives and how they can get better. That they should appreciate where they are and what they have and with all that they can, work on moving forward. I remind them always to never compare themselves to anyone. They are unique and with a specific purpose on this earth and they need to get out there and find it.
Likewise, do not compare yourself with anybody. You are in your own journey. Get up. Start where you are with what you have. Do any menial jobs if you have to. Start with the little money you have if you must. Do not stop. Build progressively from there. Work hard. Work smart. Be goal oriented and each day work to became better than you were yesterday. It does not matter what kind of work or business you are doing. Take pride in it. Shamelessly.
Surely, why won’t God bless the work of your hands after all the effort you have shown?
Finally, How can people get in touch with you for your services?
I will be delighted to serve you. I am situated a few meters from the Shanzu Gospel Revival Church, just come and ask for Mama Mercy.
Keep it here for our next interview next week!
It gets better, if you or someone you know, think that they should be featured, send us an email below. We look forward to hear from you.