“If you have in you a desire to do something, find someone who’s really doing it, and learn from them.”
This is just one of the insights that Mercy Nenelwa Kitomari has for young entrepreneurs – and she knows what she’s talking about. The owner of Nelwa’s Gelato has seen her business grow exponentially since 2013, when she began making gelato in her Dar es Salaam kitchen.
Committed to using local ingredients and spices, Nelwa’s Gelato has now become one of the most popular ice cream brands in Tanzania; its products can be found in local shops, restaurants, and high-end hotels like Serena and Hyatt-Regency Kilimanjaro.
The success of Nelwa’s Gelato is what lead Ms. Kitomari to become a featured speaker at the Scale Tanzania Forum, an event which promoted youth entrepreneurship for social impact. Held in Dar es Salaam from 27-28 September, Scale Tanzania was organised by the Aga Khan Foundation and Aga Khan University’s East Africa Civil Society Initiative. The Scale program addresses a pressing need in East Africa: youth unemployment rates are surpassing 50% in some regions, and many young adults are turning to entrepreneurship as a result. Scale aims to leverage the potential of these youth by bringing together stakeholders who support an enabling entrepreneurial environment for youth employment and social impact innovations.
Future Scale forums are slotted for Kenya and Rwanda in the coming months, and preparations for an East Africa regional forum are also under way.
Ms. Kitomari recently spoke to The Exchange about her successes and challenges as a business owner, and offered more kernels of wisdom to young entrepreneurial minds.
Q: Where did the idea to start a gelato business come from?
A: I had many ideas; I wanted to do furniture, I wanted to do makeup, I wanted to do clothing.
During my dissertation, I started writing about impulse buying and consumer behaviour on ice cream purchases. I was going through the whole history of ice cream, and thought “oh, okay – why not do it as a business?”
Q: What makes Nelwa’s Gelato stand out from other businesses?
A: I use many local fruits and spices. When I tell you, for example, this is an ice cream made of jackfruit, it will excite you. The key thing is being consistent, and being available.
Q: Have you ever worked as an employee for someone else? If so, what was it like?
A: Immediately after I finished A-Levels, I worked in a call centre. I didn’t like the experience at all; I didn’t like signing in at work, I didn’t like having a boss telling me what to do.
Q: What made you decide to be an entrepreneur?
A: Once I was in the UK, pursuing my MBA, I said in my head “I don’t want to go back to that. I don’t want to sign in at work.” My lecturer in told me point blank: “Don’t go home and be employed. Think of a business. You don’t fit in to be employed.”
Q: What was your experience like as a speaker at the SCALE Tanzania event?
A: The preparation for the talk was amazing. I felt like a TED speaker already; like I was ready to do a TED Talk.
The audience paid so much attention. They really wanted to hear the story. Many of them were locals, and they didn’t know the details of my story; they only knew the colourful parts.
Q: Can you give us an example of a challenge you have you faced as an entrepreneur?
A: I’ve had quite a few. The first challenge was getting an investor.
I tried with an investor who is American. By the time I was done pitching my idea he decided. “I’m taking this idea and doing it on my own without her.” Then he opened a business; he has opened like 6 outlets in all the big shopping malls. People keep thinking it’s me, and no it’s not. I was fine, but it hurt. I cried for two days.
Q: How did you deal with this setback?
A: It was a tough challenge. But it gave me the ability to say: “You know what; I’m going to work with what I have. I am on my home ground; I cannot fail completely.”
For me, it’s more than just an idea or a concept of making money. It’s about building something that you can look at ten years later and be like “We built this, we employed a lot of people, we supported farmers.”
Q: Tell us about a time when you had to stand up for yourself as a small business owner?
A: I rented a gelato machine, and after being interviewed one day, they said “We want the machine back, you’re getting too famous.” They wanted me to work for them because I was using their machine. I said “no, that’s not going to work.” So I got somebody else to rent a machine from. And then that person, last year, called me and said, “I want my space and machinery back in 3 days. I’m closing you down.” I was so blown away. After that, I bought my own machine with funding from an award. Now, I produce from home.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses?
A: I believe everybody has something in them. My degree did not tell me how to deal with business not being successful. No school will teach you that. No school will teach you – when you’re trying to start a business – how the community won’t accept it because they don’t know who you are. Trust and consistency are not taught – it’s who you are.
By Caro Rolando