Empowering African Businesses

From a janitor to an ardent business magnate

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It’s hard to believe that the founder and the chief executive officer of one of the most noticeable names in the manufacturing business was once a janitor – a tag Mayur Shah is not ashamed to behold.

“I have previously worked as a janitor in a foreign country, I take pride, and I’m glad I did that – the experiences of undertaking odd jobs opened my eyes and pressed me to begin appreciating everyone,” he opens up during an interview in his office.

KENAFRIC’s success started out as a small outfit and is now universally recognizable brand.

The company wasn’t a success right away. In fact, when it launched, there were dozens of highly negative evaluations about its quality and its potential to compete with conventional brands.

“Normally when you start out in the fashion we did, a lot of critics are thrown your direction but you learn to get over them,” says the serial industrialist and a father of two.

Obviously, the Nairobi-based firm overcame those initial bouts of failure and has cemented its name as the most successful trademark in the region.

It is a very different ensemble from the one Mr. Mayur inherited from his father in the eighties. Kenafric is now built around four distinct portfolios — including footwear, confectionery, food and stationery products.

The diversification model reflects the aggressive strategic direction the unassuming, cheerful go-getter Mayur unveiled soon after he became CEO.

By now the story of Kenafric’s business transformation is familiar.

While growing up in a family of four siblings and the youngest son of Mr.Velji, Mayur was somehow bestowed a bit more freedom and benefitted from being the youngest. His father had travelled from Gujarat, India by steam boat in search of better breaks and finally settled in Kenya – a place Mayur fondly calls home.

“Kenya is my home, my family. My dad constantly kept reminding us that we were born here and that this is our destiny,” he says, with a thoughtful expression.

With hardly a penny in his pocket and help of family connections, Velji got a job at a wholesale store in Karatina, Nyeri County, but was hungry for more.

Mayur’s father later moved to Nairobi to offer his children better schooling in the city, from which he settled and set up a warehouse.

Velji worked as a warehouse manager then went into business in 1969 soon after settling down and later converted it into a retail trade that fast grew into a wholesale business and advanced into a supply business.

According to Mayur, the company was very successful in the seventies and early eighties, until an ill-fated tragedy ensued in 1982.

It’s a period he reminisces with nostalgia, a year his father’s empire came crushing down, following a heart-rending coup-d’état.

“We lost everything, but God is great. We picked ourselves up, dusted and rebuilt from,” he recalls. “We opted to help our dad reestablish,” says the alumni of The University of Wichita.

Mayur had worthy intentions to build on his father’s legacy; but his entrepreneurship instincts drove him to a different path, manufacturing.

Inception and initial struggle

The concept of legacy or inheritance has always been a part of most Asians’ DNA – and Velji’s family is no different.

No one in the family had ever thought of converting the family business into a company until Mayur and his eldest brother, Bharat Shah took charge.

Mayur’s story is the epitome of how such a legacy has been preserved after his father started on the efficacious journey.

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As hot sun beat down on his head, young Mayur sat on his family’s business and considered his prospects. He took off his chances and promised God that he would better the company from what he’d inherited.

“We were relentlessly focused to have the business on its feet – it was a divine journey. Our first product was made in house,” he says.

Built on the cornerstone of value-for-money service, Mayur took the baton and inaugurated their first capital acquisition of Sh4.5million (borrowed at I&M Bank) coupled with supplements from personal savings.

During his stay in the United States, Mayur tells me of how the manufacturing industry was flourishing. He thought of replicating similar business in Kenya an idea he says clicked, and in 1988 Kenafric was born.

He had returned in the country in 1987, starting out as Kenafric Shoe Industries.

The firm gained market share faster than Mayur could actually comprehend. His tricks were aggression, innovation and acumens from schooling abroad.

The company started extensive export business in 1995 with entry in Uganda and Tanzanian, with the latter proving a viable market that saw Kenafric recoup in excess of $USD 30, 000 – USD 70,000 a year later (1996) as a single souk.

“At that time, this was a lot of money and this encouraged us,” he opines.

But more was to follow for the young peppy entrepreneur who was beginning to enjoy his time as a full time businessman.

It didn’t take long for the company to enter new markets, and today Kenafric rakes in excess of Sh10billion in terms of turnover and growing.

“God has been with us, and I’ve got to admit it’s been a team effort, my staff, employees and more importantly my family have all played crucial roles in the company’s success,” says Mayur.

But just like most companies, Kenafric still grapples with challenges, such as counterfeits, rigid taxation regime as well the continued perception among local consumers who prefer imported brands to locally-manufactured products.

“The government needs to liberalize the industry to create a level-playing field for all traders,” he advises.

His immediate plans are to see Kenafric products spread across key markets in the continent but have not ruled out the possibility of the company listing at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) – in the coming years.

About Mayur Velji Shah

Founder, Kenafric Industries Ltd

Place of birth, Karatina, Kenya

Married with two children

Written By Steve Umidha


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