Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb needed some cash; he rented out his air mattress. Jan Koum, the founder of WhatsApp, couldn’t afford to call his father in Ukraine; he created an alternative way of reaching his father. Both founders used a need they had to create products that have become a hit worldwide. Urban Bites, one of the only brands in East Africa to earn the Superbrands status in less than three years of existence, has a similar story. Faraz Ramji is the managing director of Norda Industries, the manufacturers of the Bites range of products, including Bitez, Urban Bites, TamuTamu and Footballz. Faraz couldn’t get the quality of crisps he was used to when he lived in the UK. “I wasn’t happy with the local potato crisps. ‘Why can’t they make really tasty potato crisps?” he would ask himself. Imported brands were available locally, but they were outright expensive. “I couldn’t pay 10 dollars for a product I bought for two pounds all through campus in London.”
So he decided to produce the kind of tasty, cool, yet affordable potato crisps he was looking for. Faraz thought that he couldn’t compete with companies that had been in the market for more than 12 years, though. So, with his team, he started the brand Urban Bites as a pet project. “We weren’t going to make much, but we were going to have loads of fun,” he says. To start off, he challenged his creative team to come up with what he terms “a really cool crisp brand”, which would have an international feel but be distinctively local. He gave the design team the freedom to be innovative. The only addition he contributed to the process was adding the Nairobi skyline to the design.
“One of the places local brands really go wrong is packaging,” he says. “Many Kenyan products are either substandard or they are packaged really badly.”
He says that investing in branding really pays off in the long run. “A brand speaks to you,” he says. “You interact with it. So, for a brand, first impression isn’t forgotten. Looks, presentation, and packaging matters.” When choosing names for the various brands, Faraz’s team focused
on the youth market. Therefore, they chose brand names and taglines that characterized the general youth-like lifestyle in Nairobi; music, free styling, and fashion. “Packaging only takes you so far, though,” Faraz says. “Visuals attract the customer,but only quality guarantees a second buy.”
He says the base for any business is the quality of product or service being offered. To this end, Norda Industries works closely with smallholder farmers to get the right quality of potatoes.
They use specific varieties of potatoes fit for crisps, which have to be harvested at the right stage so as to get the desired level of moisture, maturity, and size. Also, they sort out the crisps carefully before packaging, so that only the best quality ones make the pack. “The best compliment I have gotten so far: “You can eat Urban Bites in the dark because you don’t need to sort and remove the green and the brown ones,” Faraz says lightheartedly. The packaged crisps are then flushed with nitrogen to remove the air,so as to keep the products fresh for long.”When choosing packaging for Urban Bites, we opted for matte foil packaging which made the product look modern as well as ensuring freshness “Faraz says, before flipping the page to where it all began.
A Grandfather’s Prompt
“I am African with a great passion for the continent. My great grandfather was born in East Africa. So was my grandfather, whose businesses, built for over 60 years, have presence in Kenya and neighbouring countries, like Congo and Rwanda. He is my greatest mentor,” an enthused Faraz says of his grandfather, Tajdin Hussain Jaffer.
Born and brought up in the UK, Faraz studied at the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London. He majored in Development Studies, which unveiled to him how many development agencies had done more harm than good. This killed his dream to work for international development organizations. “I did not even wait for my graduation ceremony,” he says, before touching on how he started a rehabilitation project for street children in Rwanda while still a student. “I was interested in developing my home, and for me, East Africa has always been home,” he says of his decision to start a project in the region.
Faraz worked at the children’s centre after graduation. He loved it, but after he had put up the structures that would ensure that it would grow and stand on its own, he became restless. He needed to get creatively engaged. His grandfather requested him to come to Kenya and start a business. He agreed, pledging to commit two years to building a business, Norda Industries, with his mentor at his side, after which he would consider other options. “Seven years down the line, I am still here,”Faraz says, laughing.What started as a pet project took a life of its own and grew to become a market leader and a company that he now wants to see grow to be like his grandfather’s businesses.
“My grandfather was not formally educated. So he had to work his way up in the business world. Today, he has over 700 employees who respect him. His wisdom and intuition have played a pivotal role in making Norda Industries what it is today.” Faraz’s original intention was to produce five tonnes of crisps a month for the first three months. They surpassed this target, producing three times the amount. Over a span of just seven years, Norda’s brands have become popular across all socio-economic groups: from upmarket supermarkets and restaurants to mini supermarkets and kiosks in the estates and informal settlements. They have also hit the shelves in neighbouring countries Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and South Sudan. Now Faraz has his eyes set on not only the rest of the continent but the international market. “Just like Kenyan athletes, Norda’s brands originate from Kenya and are now becoming recognized worldwide. These are international brands.”