Vanessa Mehri is the 34-year-old food influencer and author behind the book Swahili Food Made Easy. Published in 2016, Swahili Food Made Easy is a culinary guide that illustrates cooking of the best of East African cuisines more so along the coastal strip.
Vanessa Mehri is the real MVP of hustling. After finishing her O’ levels in Mombasa, Vanessa left Kenya for Switzerland in 2002. She had hopes of becoming a doctor and during her time in Switzerland, she worked for 8 months in a hospital which was a requisite for a special pre-med school program but things didn’t pan out the way she intended.
In 2005, she came back to Mombasa at the age of 18 and then relocated to Nairobi to sell health insurance a year after.
After 1 year, she joined the logistics industry and later, within the same company, transitioned to marketing in telecommunications. In 2009 she had her first child and decided to be a stay at home mum. She started writing DIY and home articles for lifestyle magazines including True Love and Home and Living which she did for a year.
Having spotted an opportunity in the lingerie market, alongside her husband, she founded Hot Milk where they imported new, high-end bras for the Kenyan market but had to close it after a year and a half in operations.
Before she moved to Oman with her family, Vanessa was running a corporate catering business from her home kitchen which ignited the fire for her brand – Swahili Food.
All this had happened by the time she was 31!
Vanessa is the first guest of this segment because she possesses the tenacity and grit in what defines an entrepreneur. During the interview, she shed light on what it took to write a recipe book and market it, the skills she had to acquire to build her online presence, and the lessons she has learned.
How the idea of her book, Swahili Food Made Easy, was born
When she had her first baby, Vanessa and her husband decided that she should stay at home. It wasn’t an easy switch for her because she was used to earning her income and felt a sense of loss even though she was thrilled to have her daughter.
“I had grown accustomed to being in high heels and a suit and now the everyday wear was pyjamas and a t-shirt sometimes decorated with baby puke, and no place to go. This feeling of loss resulted in a slump and after a while, I knew that I had to do something to get out of it.
At the time, it was hard to find new, pretty looking bras locally. The options available were to either complain about it or ask someone that was travelling to Kenya, to bring you bras.
Vanessa and her husband sought to bridge the gap in the market by founding Hot Milk which specialized in new high-end bras of all sizes. She ran Hot Milk for about one and a half years and even though the business was profitable, it was too involving for a stay at home mother with a young child, and so she made the hard decision of quitting and sold all the stock to a salon owner based in Southern Sudan.
They deregistered the business and again fell into a slump. It was during this period, at a visit to the dentist, that she heard complaints from him that there weren’t any decent food delivery services within the area.
“I had always wanted to start a food delivery business and this was perfect for my home situation. I cooked the meals with the assistance of my house help and sought the services of a “bodaboda” to do the deliveries.”
One the days that she made the food deliveries herself, her clients constantly asked for the recipes especially when she cooked Swahili food like Biriani, Pilau and mahamris.
Motivated by all the queries, she started writing the recipes and it was during a conversation about the recipes that a friend of hers suggested she should to turn it into a book.
She didn’t tell anyone she was writing the book; neither her husband nor the friend that gave her the suggestion. It took her 3 years, along with getting the design, to write the book.
“Like most people, I was used to measuring the number of ingredients just by looking when I cooked but now needed specific measurements to write the recipes. This meant cooking all the meals that I wanted to be included in the book and then writing down the quantities and repeating the process one more time.”
Once she had the recipes written down and was confident in the process, she asked a friend who was a designer to design the book.
“I told him that I don’t want it for free and that I would like to pay for the book design, because I didn’t want to take advantage of my friends. He charged me US$700 which is laughable because design is expensive. He took a year with the design since he was employed and did it in his spare time.” After 3 years, she had both the design and the recipes.
At this stage, she needed an editor and luckily for her, she knew just the person; a friend and former colleague at True Love. Without Vanessa’s background in magazine writing, she wouldn’t have developed her craft for writing or made the contacts she needed to produce the book.
“It’s like playing “Jenga”. You need all the pieces to have a proper standing structure. And sometimes when you look at life, it’s like all these steps lead to your destination but you might not know the connection until much later which is fascinating.”
Once the editing was done, she hired another friend to take photos of the book. All of her friends who contributed their services towards creating the book, supported her by charging the bare minimum.
“We shot all the photos in 2 days which means all the meals in the book were cooked in two days. I was exhausted and on top of it, being pregnant – dealing with morning sickness.”
She had friends who came to help her with styling during the shoot and says that without their support, the shoot would have taken longer and cost her more.
She put everything together and finally had the digital copy of Swahili Food Made Easy!
Why did you make a hard copy instead of focusing solely on selling soft copies which would have cost less?
“Despite the rise of e-books, there’s still a large number of people that want a tangible product. They still want to hold it, they want to smell it. I’m one of those people. It can be something that a mother can eventually give to their child. That’s why I wanted to make sure I didn’t skimp on quality.
Finding a publisher
Trying to get a publisher was heartbreaking. No one wanted to sign her on. “I had a good cry about it. Most of what I had, I had sunk into making the book. I call it having my bathroom floor moment.”
By now, her husband knew about the book and was astonished at what she had been able to achieve. He wasn’t going to let 3 years of hard work go down the drain so he suggested that they visit a printer. The printing cost was US$6,000 for 1000 copies which shocked her.
Unperturbed, her husband paid the printer and a few days after giving birth to her second-born, she held a copy of her book. She had a new title – Author.
Selling the books
She had 1000 books, so now what? She hit another hurdle; none of the book shops she spoke to was willing to stock her book or had stringent rules that she had to adhere to if they were going to stock her books.
She began selling the books online and through word of mouth. She sold about 150 to 200 books before her husband got a job in Oman, and her family had to move. Another snag.
It was a lot to take in: all the work that had gone into making the book, the rejection from publishers and book stores, having two young kids, relocating to a new country that she knew nothing about with a pile of books that she still had to sell. It was overwhelming and the books ended up sitting in storage for a whole year in Oman.
Again, she got into a slump, cried, picked herself up and got on with it. “It has been very humbling, this whole experience. I focused on building my platform via Instagram to create awareness about the book. I never thought it would morph into what it is today: a whole brand.”
Vanessa decided to start marketing Swahili Food through her social media platforms because not much was not known about it outside of East Africa. It wasn’t getting a lot of airplay.
“I became passionate about teaching people and through that, people started asking about the book. I’ve sent the book to Australia, I have sent it to New Zealand, Netherlands – to people from there, not East Africans in the diaspora. I’ve sent the book to Texas of all places. There’s some white woman cooking mahamris in Texas and she’s never been to East Africa.”
What things do you wish you had known earlier on about marketing and selling the books in Kenya or Oman?
“You need a community that backs you up. Which is why I appreciate the Swahili Food family and try to respond to everyone and enjoy the connection I have with them.”
It was one of her followers who saw a video of her stressing out about not being able to get a distributor for her books and connected her with someone at Borders which is a former US bookstore franchise with 10 outlets spread over the UAE.
“Secondly, don’t let fear cripple you and don’t be afraid to ask.”
How do you deal with failure now?
Just get on with it. You have a choice; you either let it define you and feel sorry for yourself but that’s never going to help you. It will never bring you anywhere. There’s nobody who become successful by feeling sorry for themselves but what I do allow myself is I allow myself to have that mourning period. Mine is usually about 2-3 days.
I set my alarm and when three days are up, I have to wake up early. I push myself to do my workouts, have a shower and do a complete reset and I pick myself up and move on.
The reset has to have a plan to write a to-do list for your reset. Be kind to yourself during this time and try not to overreach. Celebrate and reward yourself.
You have been criticized for promoting Swahili food because you’re white. What do you think about that and how does it make you feel?
Initially, it made me feel down and depressed but you can choose how you tackle a situation like that. I could have not responded to them and just left it at that but as human beings, if you choose not to speak to somebody and you don’t engage in healthy dialogue, how are we going to be better and learn?
So I went against what everybody told me to do and I wrote to them and engaged in dialogue.
You get trolls and then some are emotional about their culture and I understand it. I respect it and I get it.
There’s a lady that writes about black culture and she posted a picture of my book and wasn’t very nice about it. I communicated with her and we’re friends today. She thanked me for humbling myself and explaining.
And it’s mostly East Africans in the diaspora who have the problem. In all my years, I never had a problem where people in Mombasa would come to me and say, “Ah, wewe Mzungu, usiongee Kiswahili maanake, wewe Mzungu haufai kufanya haya mambo,” ama “Haufai kupika chapati manaake wewe wafaa kutengeneza pasta.”
I know where they’re coming from. It’s such a sensitive subject but the reality is if I can’t share the knowledge I have attained, purely because of colour, does that mean I have to take all the knowledge I have attained, to my grave? That’s completely selfish. I am good at what I do. I make awesome mahamri, I make killer samosas. If I want to share that knowledge with other people, I should be allowed to.
Are there people that have refused to work with you because of your colour?
Yeah, but they’ve not said it directly. I have instances where I have reached out to people in the blogging world and not gotten a response back or tried to work with somebody and not gotten a response back but then when you look at the demographic of the people they work with, it’s clear what they’re looking for.
Your Instagram handle is currently at 55,000+ followers. That’s not an easy feat. How long did it take to get you there?
I actively started in April 2017, so it is not an overnight success. What catapulted Swahili food was in 2017 when I made a video of myself speaking Swahili to get more people to join Swahili Food. It’s only recently when I started putting more love and care into the videos that it has grown.
What skills have you had to learn to grow your brand?
You have to plan out your content as much as you can. It helps you not to procrastinate. It helps you be better organized and have a better roadmap of how you’re going to be structuring things. I had to watch so many YouTube videos on filming, on cinematography- angles, learn settings for the camera. If you miss a step, it will show up later on.
Look at it as a business. If you have a business and you never put money back into your business, your business will be outdated, and it will not move forward. You need to learn new things.
I am currently doing a course in web development and programming. In web development there’s a whole unit on design, there’s a whole unit on app development.
Someone is starting a Youtube channel. What would you recommend that they learn/ acquire early on?
If you’re filming with your phone, get on to Youtube and search, ‘Filming with your phone.’ These devices are so smart and they can do so much. If you’re going to film with your phone, you’re going to need to invest in a stand/ tripod because you cannot be doing this (moves hands) filming with your phone and moving around. It is not a good experience for your viewer.
You don’t have to have state of the art cameras to start with for food videos. As long as people see the passion and they can see there’s not too much movement or anything, they can see you’re trying and you’ve got good content, your family will grow with you. That’s what they are, they are family.
What are the 2 books that have helped you as an entrepreneur?
The Art of war for Women by Ching Ling Chu and Woman Thou Art Loosed by TD Jakes