“Why Is She Telling Us to Eat Grass?”

Written

“Why Is She Telling Us to Eat Grass?”

The challenge of running a health food company in a country where being overweight is a sign of success.
Tara Gitau | Photo by Anastasiia Sapon

When Tara Gitau’s mother, Winnie, lost more than 40 pounds by eating right and started producing healthy food products in her Nairobi garage in 2003, the prevailing sentiment in Kenyan culture was that overweight people were wealthy and healthy, and slim people were poor and sickly.

You can imagine the marketing challenge.

“The assumption was that a well-off family eats a lot of meats and carbs, and vegetables were just to decorate the plates,” says Gitau, now managing director of Winnie’s Pure Health Products. “The jerk-knee reaction was ‘Has Winnie gone broke? Why is she telling us to eat grass?’ It was counterintuitive.”

Winnie’s now sells 35 products, including flours, herbal teas, seasonings, and even chicken feed and encourages a holistic approach to healthy living. Promoting itself as Kenya’s leading provider of healthy food, Winnie’s now has 120 employees. A picture of Tara’s own 2-year-old daughter, Sierra, adorns Nairobi’s buses as the centerpiece of the company’s baby food marketing campaign.

In 2008, Winnie handed control of the company to Tara, who has a business degree from Baylor University but knew she’d need help. In 2016, she was accepted to join the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (aka Stanford Seed) program’s first cohort in East Africa and spent 12 months learning from CEOs and other mentors how to innovate and grow her business. We spoke with her about her company and the role her Stanford education is playing as she and her younger sister Elsie carry forward their mother’s enterprise.

You signed on as Winnie’s executive director after graduating from Baylor in 2008. Was that your mother’s transition plan all along?

She started the business to create health awareness in Kenya. She’d gone through wellness training and lost all that weight, so she began talking to people about whole grains and healthy eating. But people didn’t know how to get the things she was talking about, so she started to produce them. Fast-forward six years. She felt like she’d taken the business as far as she could, and she was tired. She said we have two options: I could take over, or she could shut down the business and put 50 people out of work. Maybe it was just a ploy to get me to take it over.

So, at 23, you stepped into the lead role?

My mother came in a few hours a week and mentored, but she exited quickly. Fast-forward another four years, to 2012, and my sister Elsie joined. She’s now operations director.

And how’s it going?

At the point I took over, our products were available in about 300 to 400 supermarkets. Today we’re in more than 1,000.

What were the early challenges you faced when you took over?

The first was my assimilation into the business. When I took over, it had a set culture built around its founder, my mom. She was focused on creating awareness, but our systems were not strong enough to produce consistent products. So I focused then on policies and processes. But I also wanted it to grow. We had fantastic products, and the demand was more than we could meet. My sister and I wanted more infrastructure to support the growth and felt we could impact the nation at large. But we needed more skills than I had, so I invested in my personal development at Stanford.

Were you seeking specific skills when you enrolled in Stanford Seed?

We’re a family business, and what was clear to me is that we needed a structured strategic plan. Seed looked like the perfect thing for me at that stage of life: a program to help someone with an already established business create an explosion of growth. When I started at Seed in May 2016, we had 96 employees. As of May 2017, we’re at 120.

The current challenges?

In the Kenyan home, it’s the mother who makes most of the food decisions. So we focus on three things: family, purity of the product, and trust.
Tara Gitau

In the beginning, my mother outsourced the milling process for our flours. But we want to have a bigger social impact, so we’re investing in machinery to increase capacity. We’ve also always had lean management, where my sister and myself made 95 percent of all major decisions. But if we want to grow, we need to bring in people who are smarter and more talented than us to buff up our weaknesses. Plus, right now we’re mostly in urban and semi-urban areas. We want to add rural areas to our distribution model.

So how do you sell healthy food in a culture where people think it’s good to be overweight?

We’ve always done a lot of free biometric testing where we look at someone’s fats, bone density, caloric intake, water content, and body mass index. We do a lot of talks on local radio stations, usually with people who are familiar in those towns, in the local languages. They hear about the importance of eating healthy in their tribal language, from someone they know and trust.

Sounds like your mom understood marketing.

She was exceptionally strong at it. She used to do a lot of free health conventions, where she’d get 200 to 300 people together, mostly women, and educate them about healthy eating. She’d give them a free lunch and have a cooking demonstration. She also did a lot of church and school talks and was very relatable in terms of getting the products accepted.

Are there specific competitive strategies the company employs to set itself apart from multinational competitors?

Definitely. First, our products are locally grown. For example, we grow 100 percent of our teas and can trace everything back to the grower. And we’re a family business, so people feel they can connect to the brand and to Winnie, even if she’s no longer involved. In the Kenyan home, it’s the mother who makes most of the food decisions. So we focus on three things: family, purity of the product, and trust.

Any specific book or books that influenced you on this entrepreneurial journey?

At Stanford we read The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox, about identifying bottlenecks, increasing throughputs, and reducing operation expenses in a factory. I also liked Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard. It’s a powerful book that discusses dealing with change in this evolving business world — a tool that every successful entrepreneur should master.

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