BY FLORENCE BETT-KINYATTI
“What drives you, Jazeera?”
“I’m afraid of being poor. I’m always afraid that I won’t have money in my pocket that’s why I work so hard. I know that sounds crazy but that’s my motto. We’ve been there as a family, we’ve been through bad times and I don’t think I ever want to go down that road again.
“And this is something I will tell everybody – the moment you instil the fear of being poor, the fear of not having that 100 shillings to buy something to eat, is when you are going to be focussed enough to say, You know what, I’m never going to be poor. So don’t be afraid of trying, be afraid of being poor.”
It’s a day of firsts for me. I’ve never met a chocolatier before Jazeera Suwani. Much less a chocolatier that trained and practised as a physiotherapist for nine years to 2014. Jazeera, 32, is the proprietor of Say It With Chocolate, a local brand that makes chocolate by hand.
I’ve also never been to Baba Dogo before today. This Tuesday is my first time here and Prabhaki Industrial Park, where Jazeer’s cottage factory is, reignites a fickle hope in me, one that waxes and wanes as the political and financial seasons of the country unfurl with an unpredictability that surprises even the wisened old. There’s always a general sinking feeling that this country is going to the dogs, isn’t there?
Did you read last week’s Sunday Nation? The headline story was about Jirongo’s debt and that sweet deal he’s getting into with the Arabs for his 1,000 acres in Ruai. They’re looking to build a megacity there. Yaani the Arabs paid for the groundwork, did soil tests and drew up designs nini nini, and the smarty pants Jirongo – in all his handsomeness and brilliance, glassy eyes and gap in his front teeth – forgot to mention to them one teeny tiny detail. That he doesn’t have the title deed. Can you imagine how hard the Arabs rolled their eyes at this news? Hahha.
University lecturers are still on strike fighting the CBA. Will, our videographer, has missed two classes since last week and is at loose ends with himself in the digs. He’s done all his term paper assignments, and is now booting and rebooting his machine, and idling with the mouse.
Still in the Sunday paper, there’s that ridiculous debate about whether polygamy can “rid the society of single mothers and children who grow up without a father-figure and are susceptible to crime”. My goodness, who comes up with such cacophonic rhetorics?
You’ll barely have caught your breath when there’ll be that hot-off-the-CMA case of the managers from National Bank who window-dressed their books and stole one billi.
Then there’s that storo about NSSF and the Chinese contractors, the ones who are constructing that mammoth tower, a metaphor of their egotistic aspirations, where Nakumatt Lifestyle is. Nakumatt itself is now in the obituaries. You can’t even park at the Lifestyle basement anymore.
Then there’s the global question of small data protection laws. Which is totally valid. Did you watch Zuckerberg at the Senate hearing yesterday?
Last Saturday, I Googled ‘newsboy hat’ – it was right after my pal had chewed my head off when I told him how debonair his beret is, “It’s a newsboy hat not a bloody beret,” he hissed. When I opened my Pinterest later, the images on the home page were all of newsboy hats.
You and I, we watch the news and read the papers and it leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth. A sinking feeling that there will be no pieces of floating debris for our kids to hang on to when everything we’ve built has capsized like a ship at sea. Because we are a ship at sea, water is slowly sipping into the deck and our leaders are doing little to bucket it back to sea and steer us to safety.
Then you come to a business hub like the Prabhaki Industrial Park in Baba Dogo, and your hope is restored – rows and rows of neatly-lined godowns in fresh white paint and pathways paved with carbro. The industrial atmosphere of Kenyans in the grind reassures you that everything is not lost: A new nation will arise from the ashes; the flames won’t completely flicker.
While the politicians are plundering resources with one hand, entrepreneurs like Jazeera are giving those resources back to its people. They rebuild while others plunder. It’s the cycle of modern economics.
As I mentioned earlier, Jazeera trained and practised as a physiotherapy before becoming a certified chocolatier.
She says as we chat in her office, “I graduated from the University of Johannesburg in 2008. I returned home, worked the next three years in Kenyatta Hospital, JKUAT then I went to Doha in 2012. I practised in Doha for a little over a year.
“My life’s plan changed when I returned home beginning of 2014. Adapting was a problem, I was not getting the job satisfaction from it I was getting initially. The difference between practising in Doha and at home is this: patients in Doha respected and appreciated the work we were doing and were willing to pay top dollar for the service; it wasn’t like that here, most of my patients were even ‘Google doctors’ always looking for discounts. That’s what started to upset me. I was doing it part-time and delving into other things.”
Jazeera swings around in her seat. “I think I was made to work for myself, I was not made to work for people.” She snots. “I wanted to set up my own clinic but there was too much politics. But my heart was no longer in the practise.
“I met one of my childhood friends and she used to do chocolate part-time and was working –”
“Sorry, what was she working as?”
“She was working as an accountant, I guess, but it was a 9 to 5. I saw a business potential, I knew there was something here. When I was in South Africa, I had gone to school, a holiday course actually, for ‘Bean to Bar’, for making chocolate from the actual cocoa seed.”
“How long was this course for?”
“It was about three weeks, it was more like a fun course, because to become a chocolatier it takes about three to four years of school. So we worked together, me and my friend. She was doing the production, I was doing the marketing. But what happened was she couldn’t cope up with the production from the orders I was getting. Number two, it was never consistent. One day it was like absolutely awesome, and the next it’s like, What’s this shit we’ve made.
“And it got to a point where she was feeling overworked and I asked her to show me what she was doing but she said no. So we split probably a month later. I’d put in a lot of money for the packaging and we’d already named the business.”
Jazeera and I chat some more about this split and the warning signs she didn’t want to ignore.
She continues, “Then I went to Dubai, there’s a chocolate school there, it was a four-day intense course. When I came back, I started making small chocolates. They were not bars,” Jazeera chuckles, “they were these bizarre shapes, different kinds of huge abstract shapes. Like a flower, just a different moulded chocolate. I sold five for 200 bob. I was experimenting with different flavours like coffee and dark chocolate, almond, orange.”
It was now around October 2014. She had a product, a business and a factory in the extra room in her parents’ home. She found a market in one of those organic farmers’ markets. “That’s how I started,” says Jazeera. “There’s always be someone I’m grateful to, her name is Linda, she makes nut butters. She showed me that there are these markets and you can go here and go there with your chocolate…”
“Mmmh,” I say nodding my head.
“I got my first order in 2014, from one of these markets. It was from Technobrain, her name was Rachel, Rachel Nyamai,” Jazeera giggles, “I’ll never forget her either. She saw my product and asked if I do corporate boxes. I said yes. I went to her office the next week, we had a meeting and she said she wanted 200 boxes with 12 chocolates inside.
“So I had taken the order but I didn’t have the money to buy all the boxes, just a part payment my father had loaned me, and that’s what I collected. The balance was about 114 thousand and I didn’t have the money. Anyway, the boss called me and when I told him I didn’t have the money, he said to give him PD cheques and collect the boxes. It took me about eight months to finish paying him but that’s how I started my company.”
“And what did your father think about you starting this company?”
Jazeera chortles. “He was very upset with me initially because, I mean,” her voice changes into a faux reprimand, “‘You have a white-collar job and you’re going to make chocolate to sell on the streets!’ I told him let me just try.” She chortles some more. “But as much as he was upset with me, he still supported me.”
“Tell me about the equipment you were using to make these chocolates,” I say.
“I was using things in the house but it became very tedious because I was doing it constantly. I showed you my hands earlier,” Jazeera spreads out her palms and flips them over, “they had calluses. It was like I was the man in the relationship because I had rough hands.” She chortles. “I didn’t buy a lot of equipment, just enough to work – I had a small tempering machine, a spray gun, a micro-cooker and stainless steel bowls.”
Jazeera adds, “With this equipment I’d take about three hours to complete one gift box. I didn’t have any employees, I was doing everything by myself. It was a bit chaotic but it was fun.”
Jazeera says, “The first craft fair I attended was in Malindi, but I only made 2,000 shillings. I asked myself, ‘I travelled all the way to Malindi to make 2,000 shillings. Oh shit.’ It was an all-day fair and I only made 2,000. Then came Watamu, it was three days long and I made 5,000. Oh shit.”
I like how Jazeera cusses without malice as she talks, it comes so naturally and so unexpectedly. I hope I sound like that when I cuss.
“I don’t know if you know Busy Lizzie?” I shake my head. Jazeera says, “She does crafts. One evening she took me out to dinner and told me how stupid I was.” She laughs. “Lizzie taught me a lot of things about these markets. She told me, next time, don’t share a table with another exhibitor – your product needs to have its own table. She also told me to come prepared for the market; to have the wires and pins and stationery and scissors… Now I always have my market box ready.
“She also said I should package my products well because people didn’t know what I was selling. Remember my chocolate wasn’t in bars, it was in these big moulds. Ha-ha.
“There was a fair we went for where my chocolate started melting and I was like, Oh shit, all this chocolate is going to spoil. So Lizzie told me, don’t panic, open the boxes and give the melted chocolates for people to taste. Once people started tasting the chocolate, they started buying the chocolate. I made 20,000 from that fair and learned a very important secret: when people taste the chocolate, they’ll buy.”
The year ended and Jazeera went into 2016 armed with Flea Market 101. She paid for tents of bigger spaces, took about 1,000 pieces of chocolate with her on every weekend market, had testers and learned to have fun. “People were more attracted to your tent when they saw you laughing and playfully engaging with your customers. They want to know what you’re laughing at.
“You must enjoy your work.”
The exposure from these markets meant that she sold more and made more chocolate. So much so that she hired an employee to help her package and label the chocolates bags, tie the bows and tag them with the hand-written ‘thank you’ notes. Her name is Risper, and she’s the only one whom Jazeera has taught a few of her chocolate recipes.
“Have you written these recipes down anywhere?”
Jazeera shakes her head. “Nope. They are all here,” she taps the side of her head with her index finger.
Jazeera was so cautious that she didn’t let us see how she made any of the batches that were cooling in the refrigerator. Much later, as we’re chatting, she tells me that she even arrived extra early so she could clear the workspace and put away her ingredients and tools. She can’t trust anyone to figure out how she’s making her chocolate.
“Those recipes are your trade secrets, huh?”
Jazeera nods and chuckles. “There are people who buy my chocolate and try to figure out what I’ve put in there but they can’t. No, they can’t even reverse engineer even if they tried.” Jazeera adds when I ask, “What makes my chocolate different from the others is that it’s made by me and I’ve made it by hand.”
Right, I was telling you about the markets.
So 2016, Jazeera was in every flea market and organic farmer’s market this town had to offer.
But they were only effective in pushing her product to a certain degree – by June, there was a new problem of familiarity. There were too many outdoor markets, Jazeera says. Folk that regularly attended the markets had seen her and bought her chocolate and bought it some more. They’d had enough of the chocolates and of these markets.
Jazeera was making 32 different flavours of chocolate at this time but her enthusiasm for chocolate didn’t spill over to her customers.
Sales numbers took a nosedive. Orders trickled down to almost naught. So did Jazeera’s patience with the growth and the positivity that’s required to keep a passion-driven business as hers on its feet.
“To be honest with you I lost hope.” Jazeera is silent for a moment as she exhales. “I even took up a job somewhere, I went to work in a hotel as a reservations manager. But within two weeks I’d given in my resignation. In as much as I was working my heart was still in chocolate. I was not doing production, though, so the business started to suffer – I was only supplying at the farmer’s market over the weekend.”
“Mmmh,” I say nodding. (I can see Will cringe from the corner of my eye. He doesn’t like it when I say ‘mmhh’ and ‘aahh’ because it ruins the video footage.)
“It was really demoralising. I was getting over-saturated. I was starting at six in the morning and working until nine o’clock at night. It was like, Is this my life? I didn’t have a life. It was chocolate from Monday to Sunday. I’m not complaining but what I’m saying is that those are two years are the years I put my sweat, blood, sleep and tears into my chocolate. It’s not been easy, it’s been very hard actually. Even right now it’s still hard but not as hard.”
“How did the year end for you?”
“It was OK,” says Jazeera reflectively. “It wasn’t too hard. Remember Malindi and Watamu craft fairs? Yes, I went back again and I was the highest seller in those markets and I was like, yeeeaaahhh,” she squeezes her face into a cartoonish mask and punches the air like a boxer making an undercut to his opponent’s jaw. “I’d learned the tricks of the trade.”
The game-changer came in 2017.
Jazeera says, “So in 2016, I’d started doing Wines & Chocolate with Baraka Israel, they bring wines from the S.A. I told him I wanted us to do a wines and chocolate pairing, because they usually pair wines and cheese. So we tried it and it was a success. We started it like that then we started doing it every two months. Now we have it at dusit [dusitD2 Nairobi hotel], it usually sells out. It’s like an interactive evening, and you go through the whole process of where the wine is made, how the chocolate is made…
“It’s at Wines & Chocolate that I met quite a few of the people where I stock right now, the coffee houses and also the hotels, I do a lot of hotels as well. I also got my KEBS certificate that June .”
I sit back in my chair as I listen to Jazeera. “How did that change the business for you, getting that KEBS certificate?”
“I got a complete changeover because I could supply to whomever I wanted. With the hotels it became a lot easier because they need a KEBS certification. What happens with the hotels is that I make the mini-bars for them and it’s branded for the hotel. They allow me to put a sticker with our name.
“These orders came with a whole new problem because I couldn’t keep up with production and packaging. Everything was being done by hand and I had only one employee, Risper. It was crazy, production was ongoing everywhere in the house. Wow. Let me tell you…”
We chuckle. Her laugh is infectious so I chuckle even if I don’t see the humour as she does.
“That Easter 2017,” she chuckles, “I took an order for 22,000 Easter eggs for two companies. 22,000! I didn’t sleep that Easter, for four days. I think I lost 3kgs. Ha-ha. My mother and my brother were helping me instead of taking off. Then you get KPLC takes away the electricity and for one whole day I didn’t have electricity. I bought dry ice from Carbacid and stuffed it in the fridge because, you know, chocolate has to cool at a certain temperature.”
“Yeah. And this order was in addition to the hotels you were still supplying?”
“Yes, can you imagine! It was chaotic, it was craazy!”
She catches her breath then she continues. “So, much later, my brother, one of his clients was looking to invest money. I always kept my books because I was doing KRA.”
“And you were keeping your own books, you are your own accountant?”
“Oh yes, I went for a course. I had to do it, when you can’t afford anything…” She chuckles. “So I met the investor, told him about chocolate because he didn’t know anything about it. So we talked and talked and talked. I was to get into this factory in October but it was delayed because of construction issues. But he finally got the keys in December and got the machines and we moved here in February, two weeks after my birthday.”
“Where are the machines from?”
“Germany, and we’re bringing in another one from Italy.” Jazeera adds when I ask, “There’s a whole science behind chocolate. The tempering machine brings the chocolate to a certain temperature. Then you destabilise it then you stabilise it again. So you keep playing with temperature until you get a consistency to start making the different flavours.”
“How were you doing all this at home?!”
“I had a food thermometer.” Jazeera guffaws. “I had bought something which was taking the temperature as I was stirring the chocolate. It wasn’t always accurate but luckily, it always somehow worked out.”
We talk more about how she cried as she signed over some of her company’s shares to get the investor on board, and how she’s fortunate to have gotten, from him, not only the financing but also the mentorship. It’s his injection that got the company to where it is now. Literally and figuratively.
We also talk some more about what-next for the business. Exporting and what not. Promoting Brand Kenya. We also talk about where she sources the cocoa from, and how the tones of Ghana’s and Ivory Coast’s cocoa differs from that of Madagascar’s and Brazil’s. It’s fascinating.
She currently has three employees who help with the packaging, deliveries and managing the stock – Risper, Eliza and Alex. Jazeera is the only one that makes the chocolate.
“What have you learned about yourself from your journey thus far?”
She scoffs. “That I can actually do something with my life. A lot of people think it’s easy to do what you’re doing – I didn’t know I had this much patience and perseverance, because everyone who knows me knows I’m very impatient. I’ve been very patient with this business. I was too serious as a physiotherapist; if it was me as physiotherapist five, six years ago, I don’t think I would have continued when I hit a couple of blocks.
“The business has made me…me.”
What Say It With Chocolate offers
– 63 different flavours of chocolate
– Miniblock at Sh50
– 50gram bar at Sh300
– 100gram bar at Sh500
Gift box for occasions and holidays
– Six pieces at Sh600
– 12 pieces at Sh1,200
– 24 pieces at Sh1,600
Phone number: 0738-450106
Watch the video on our YouTube channel here >> Jazeera of Say It With Chocolate
Photo credits: All photos by Aegean Will, for Craft It.
Image copyrights apply. None of these photos should be used elsewhere without the express permission of Craft It.