Tanzanian entrepreneur quits banking job for hot ice cream idea

Mercy Kitomari

Mercy Kitomari

Tanzanian Mercy Kitomari quit her banking job in 2013 to pursue her vision of making frozen desserts. She is founder and CEO of Nelwa’s Gelato, an ice cream business operating in the financial hub of Dar es Salaam.

Her interest in ice cream began while she was studying for an MBA in the UK. She worked part time as a tour guide, and after every sightseeing trip she would take visitors to ice cream parlours at Leicester Square in the heart of London.

“There were ice cream parlours everywhere,” she recalls. “[In Tanzania] we drink a lot of tea and alcohol. But my mission is to influence a culture of frozen desserts. I want frozen desserts to be a normal indulgence, not a luxury. And I want to see ice cream parlours everywhere.”

After she completed her studies, Kitomari took up a job at a bank in Tanzania. In 2012 she started making ice cream from her mother’s kitchen and eventually quit her job to run her business full-time.

Today she operates an outlet in Dar es Salaam, sells to hotels and restaurants, and also makes home deliveries.

Since Kitomari cannot currently afford to open many physical outlets, she has also partnered with bakeries to expand her reach. She provides branded freezers to independent bakeries, which then buy ice cream from her in bulk.

“If I see the location has good traffic I just give them my branded freezer and I train them how to make waffles and milkshakes, and how to scoop ice cream. This is the bigger picture. When we get to factory level we will just supply to such businesses. This would make it easier for me to have a wider geographical reach in Tanzania, and Africa. It fits well into my goal to have ice cream parlours everywhere – just like I saw them in Leicester Square.”

Changing consumer behaviour

Kitomari notes there are various factors that make Dar es Salaam a good location to build an ice cream business. For starters, the coastal city has hot and humid weather during most of the year.

Additionally, she notes Dar es Salaam is experiencing fast economic growth with many consumers now able to afford more than just their basic needs. At Nelwa’s Gelato, a cup of ice cream sells for just under US$2 (TZS.4,000), and Kitomari says there are customers who buy every day.

“Some people are getting into the job market and others are running their own businesses, so they are starting to make some money. I even have a few addicts – when their favourite flavour runs out they get really get mad at me. The city is changing very fast. I get consumers who request me to make flavours they saw online. Consumers are paying attention to what’s happening in other markets and they are willing to try new things.”

“Tanzania also produces lots of fruits of different variety. Instead of just making juices, we have an opportunity to make nice desserts too. We even make rubber vine and jackfruit flavoured ice cream – which are not common flavours in other places.”

Going head-to-head with bigger brands

But breaking into Tanzania’s ice cream business is no mean feat. There are some established players with deeper pockets. One of the leading brands is called Azam, manufactured by Bakhresa Group, a family-owned diversified conglomerate.

“My industry is seen as an industry for giants. There are big brands such as Azam and Fairy Delights. There are also other companies that are set up in shopping malls where I cannot afford to lease space at the moment,” says Kitomari. “In Tanzania, people say Azam when they want ice cream. It is a very strong brand. To break into such a market, you really have to engage consumers.

“We have to explain that this is a different product – it is gelato made the Italian way [and] it costs a bit more because it is luxurious. They also have to try it. In our shop you can taste up to five flavours, and usually after tasting people will say, ‘ahh this is different’. That strategy is working.”

The business also faces challenges accessing raw materials due to a shortage of products such as skimmed milk, seasonality of fruits and general supply chain weaknesses.

“I am not where I want to eventually be – but I’ve learnt to work with what I have to get to my vision,” explains Kitomari. “For my fellow Tanzanians, I want them to wake up to opportunities… Many people have ideas but are afraid to go for it. It is a difficult journey, but do it. Don’t wait for investors to come give you money for you to get started on your dream.”