Biscuits maker House of Manji had humble beginnings from a bakery in Nairobi’s Ngara area, manufacturing bread. The bread business flourished for quite some time until the wheat rationing of World War II and proliferation of similar businesses that brought in stiff competition.
The founder, Madatally Manji, saw a niche in the market for biscuits and thus House of Manji was born. House of Manji (HOM) was set up in Industrial Area and was officially inaugurated by then governor of Kenya, Evelyn Baring.
House of Manji grew to become a household name in Kenya and the East Africa region in the biscuits, pasta and confectionery industry. The “Family” and “Marie” biscuits won the prestigious La Monde selection gold medal awards in Brussels, Belgium.
Under Manji Food Industries Limited, which took over the mantle from November 2002 under the chairmanship of Dr HP Dawda, the company retained its prominent position to date. Manji Biscuits has over the decades managed to achieve the position of market leader in the industry and extended it to Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.
As it were, the biscuits company was founded by Madatally Manji, an Indian immigrant born in 1918. The company has an inspiring history tied to its founder who started off as a hawker at Karatina Market. To make an extra coin, young Manji capitalised on the needs of traders who were ever busy at Karatina market, in Nyeri County.
Manji, who was the first man to manufacturer biscuits in Kenya, documented his humble beginnings in his autobiography – Memoirs of a Biscuit Baron – published in 1995. Manji writes how he discovered that the traders were unable to get supplies for their stalls as they were always held up in the ever-busy market on Tuesdays.
He recalls that farmers and traders were so busy at the market selling wares that they had no time to go to the stores in Karatina to make their own purchases. “I decided that I could sell them some of the things they would require at the stores and shops without having to leave the marketplace,” he says in the book.
So on market days, he would utilise the two-hour lunch break from school, between 12 noon and 2pm, to embark on his small business activities. After school, Manji tried out his entrepreneurial skills working at various business in Nyeri and Nairobi.
He gravitated towards the pastry industry and found a niche. After establishing himself, in 1941, Manji bought the Ngara Bakery at a cost of Ksh10,000, then a fortune. The business tycoon figured there would be demand for bread given that some Kenyans were taking part in World War II (1939-1945).
“It dawned on me that when the thousands of Africans were discharged and returned home they would prefer to eat bread as well as traditional foods like maize meal,” Manji writes.
As demand grew, he purchased land along Haile Selassie Avenue where he later built the Whitehouse Bakery. Despite the many challenges he faced, such as the restrictions of certain ingredients such a wheat flour, which was only planted by white settlers at the time, Manji made his biscuits known for their dark brown look.
He bought jaggery (brown sugar) from Kisumu and began experimenting with it for biscuit making and supplied to the army canteens. “They found them very appetizing, despite the fact that they were darkish brown and quite unlike the biscuits they were used to. We went into production full throttle,” he stated.
Additionally, his biscuits got international attraction that London-based newspaper, The Sunday Time, referred to him as the biscuit baron. Now successful and more adept at the business, Manji moved to Nairobi’s Industrial Area in 1953 to establish the House of Manji which remains an iconic business to date.
The company still produces Manji biscuits and the popular multibix. After serving the business world for over 60 years, the father of three passed on September 9, 2006. He was married to Fatima Hajee and had three children – Julie Zulekha, Salim Manji, and Firoze.
Manji was a third-generation Kenyan of Asian origin. His parents migrated from Bombay in 1908. His childhood was in Nyeri, Karatina and Murang’a where his family operated a chain of shops and groceries.
Manji brought into the country the popular breakfast cereals, Weetabix, built the Baring Arcade on Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi, in 1968, among other buildings in the city, and set up food companies outside Kenya.