Kombucha is a fermented tea that is experiencing a recent surge in popularity around the world, owing in part to its purported health benefits. Eoin Flinn, who founded Kenyan kombucha company Booch in 2016, talks to James Torvaney about building the business and trends in the country’s fast-moving consumer goods industry.
Give us an overview of what Booch does.
Booch is a locally made kombucha, which is a healthy alternative to soda, coffee, tea and alcohol. I started making it in 2016 as a hobby, and became pretty obsessed with how healthy and energetic it made me feel.
There was no kombucha on the market in Kenya at the time so I developed a brand and started knocking on the doors of a few local restaurants, and then grocery chains. I was working as a consultant at the time but became more and more passionate about Booch. Eventually, I left the consulting world and my wife and I went all in with the business.
Discuss the steps you took to grow the business to where it is today.
We still have a very long way to go but getting licensed was the first big milestone. That allowed us to get into retail, and then last year we moved production from a small residential space into a proper food manufacturing facility. Last month we closed our first round of external financing for $500,000 between Booch and another business we founded, Grounded, which sells non-toxic cleaning products.
We were just getting started with in-store activations and consumer sample tasting at the beginning of 2020, but the lockdown put an end to that. That definitely slowed things down, but we have seen good organic growth in sales and we’re excited for what we can achieve going forward as we are able to engage with more consumers, and begin selling in restaurants and bars.
What was the ‘tea treasure’ craze? And how does it affect what you are doing now?
Kombucha has been around for 2,000 years. It had a run of popularity in Kenya in the 50s and 60s, and it was then called ‘tea treasure’. No one was packaging and selling it but they were brewing at home and sharing cultures with neighbours. All Kenyan communities are familiar with traditional live-cultured products, for example cultured milk, porridge and alcohol. These products have been a big part of their diet (and microbiome) for generations but are less consumed today, especially in big cities like Nairobi. So I think having a potent, unpasteurised kombucha on supermarket shelves is filling a gap in the market to some extent.
Who are the key customers you are targeting?
My kids drink Booch all day, but I don’t think we’re really limited to any one demographic. Older people are often more health conscious and may have been advised to look out for kombucha by their doctor. We also sell well in gyms and yoga studios with young professionals.
Ultimately I would love for the majority of the population to be drinking healthy products like fresh juice, kombucha and water, not all these denatured and sugar-loaded sodas, boxed juices and pasteurised beers – these things do nothing but degrade our health, and they don’t taste great either.
We sell a lot through word of mouth and our only marketing is the product itself on supermarket shelves and what we do on social media. We’re not big enough yet for above-the-line marketing, but with persistence, we will get there.
Describe the biggest challenges you have faced.
Cost is always a big challenge. Our commitment to glass bottles, fresh fruits for flavouring and not pasteurising the product (which reduces the shelf-life and necessitates refrigeration) in a very price-conscious market all make life very difficult. But this is the product we want to be making and our dedication to that quality wins us loyal supporters.
Raising money was hard because literally no one seemed to think it was a good idea to start a raw kombucha company in Kenya, but we’re hustlers and it’s always good to be ahead of the curve.
Your five-year plan for Booch?
We see lots of opportunity for lowering unit costs without sacrificing quality as we get more economies of scale. Our goal is to become more of a mass-market product while retaining the full health benefits.
What are the trends you have noticed within the Kenyan fast-moving consumer goods industry over the last few years, and where do you see things moving in the future?
There is clearly a shift towards choice. There is a huge range of options on the market now and big players are all bringing out multiple brands whereas 10 years ago they were comfortable with a few widely distributed brands. There is a shift towards healthy products as well but that is challenging for consumers as big companies tend to make some pretty questionable health claims and it can be hard to make the best choices.
Identify some of Kenya’s untapped business opportunities.
The reason I came to Kenya was to be involved in manufacturing, it just happened that I ended up getting involved in fast-moving consumer goods (in addition to Booch, Flinn also co-founded cleaning goods company Grounded and craft brewer 254). For me, manufacturing is the key. Africa has all the raw materials but they get shipped around the world, value is added elsewhere and we pay high prices to import the finished goods. So if you are an entrepreneur in Kenya I would encourage you to look at what you can manufacture profitably locally. But a recording studio would be fun too.
There’s an epic amount of cool start-ups in Kenya: music, fashion, tech, you name it. People have better ideas than me; I’m just happy to be here.
James Torvaney is a business consultant and financial advisor specialising in West Africa. He has worked with clients across a number of sectors, including technology, manufacturing, consumer goods and hospitality.