Parked at the Alchemist in Westlands, Nairobi. Just a little ways behind the big red double decker bus that serves as an office, is a food truck with some of the coolest artwork I have ever seen.
Naturally, my two friends and I drift towards this cool truck. We are starving and the concert is yet to start. We scan the menu…wait, they have a burger named after Fela, serve plantains and something called Hibiskiss? YASS to everything!
Two of the ladies behind the counter take our orders quickly, their service is quick, clean and efficient, I detect a London accent and return their polite smiles when they ask if I need anything else.
Satiated and finally able to talk now that our mouths are no longer full, we smugly admit how clever we are for finding Mama Rocks. We pat ourselves on the back and repeat this when later in the afternoon, more and more revellers start drifting towards the truck with half open mouths and fixed stares. If this was the Zombie Apocalypse, Mama Rocks would be the brains. I know, I know, terrible analogy.
How Mama Rocks came to be
Born and raised in the UK, founders Samantha and Nathalie Mwedekeli were once both busy at their respective 9 to 5 jobs. Samantha studied law but after doing some work experience realised her heart wasn’t in it. She then began working with a homeless charity and rose through the ranks to become a trainer in the HR department.
“Even though I loved my job, things started to become monotonous and I had always wanted to start my own business,” says Samantha.
For Nathalie who has a management degree, the creative side of business had always fascinated her.
“I also have a background in human resources but I was quickly disillusioned. I had always felt a pull toward creative industries but I was obviously in the wrong section of the creative world, as in the very corporate side of it,” she says.
The sisters begun having discussions about starting a business. They both had a love for Kenya and wanted to create something that resonated with the young African urban movement that they felt was taking place across Africa.
“We wanted it to be a brand that had international appeal but was rooted in Africa. My father is Kenyan and we came here all the time on holiday. We were seeing all these businesses spring up but we were not seeing something rooted in Africa,” says Nathalie.
Their decision to start in Kenya was not only influenced by their roots here (their parents now live in Kenya) but by what they had observed and learned during their visits.
“Kenya is one the fastest growing African countries, it has one of the best infrastructures comparatively and people are always turned on to something new and looking for that fresh take on things. That’s how Mama Rocks came into being, it was effortless, it happened organically. The name came first and then the food came afterwards,” Nathalie explains
Like most start-ups, Mama Rocks evolved from its original idea. The duo started off by printing T-shirts and pursuing the fashion line idea before discovering that tapping into everyone’s primal need for food would prove more fruitful.
“We thought why not use food as our vehicle and we can grow from there. Our ideal is to be Africa’s answer to the Hard Rock Café, we have big dreams!” says Samantha.
They at first wanted a restaurant in an open space so people could enjoy the beautiful Nairobi weather. But the cost of creating something that would encompass what they envisioned in terms of look and feel proved deterrent.
“We sort of explored different options and the truck just seemed like the perfect option. Whatever happens, this is our investment and we don’t have to worry about a lease,” says Samantha. Thanks to the truck, Mama Rocks can move and go wherever their customers are, including some cool and funky festivals around the country. *Heads up* They will Be at Blankets and Wine this Sunday serving up what is arguably one of the best burgers in Nairobi.
How they chose the name Mama Rocks
MAMA: “In our household, the mother and my grandmother are the matriarchs, I mean everyone likes to think the father has a say but really it’s the mother, she controls everything and that’s not just in Nigerian culture or Kenyan culture it’s international thing, women are really powerful,” says Samantha.
ROCKS: “We wanted to Mama Rocks to be this brand where people come and hangout with their friends and connect, but with the edge. The ‘rocks’ part is the youthful energy because our brand is all about expressing yourself, being who you want to be, achieving your life goals and being unashamedly you,” says Nathalie
The super delicious recipes
“We just imagined what would taste really good and also we wanted to celebrate Africa and African cuisine, every one of our burgers is influenced by a different part of Africa not only in name but also in in the ingredients.” Says Samantha.
Their recipes were also heavily influenced by the mother and grandmother
“We have a Nigerian mother, if you did not eat the food that she made, you did not eat. Most of our food was quite spicy, Nigerian food is great so we were happy to eat her food. With her meals even if they weren’t supposed to African she made them African. She’d make pasta but it wasn’t anything like Italian pasta she’d put all types of spices in it and Africanise everything,” recalls Nathalie.
“We have a Nigerian mother, if you did not eat the food that she made, you did not eat”
Laughing at the memory Samantha chimes in: “So pasta with dodo which is plantain and hot pepper soup, and you’re like …’what is this?’ I suppose this is why we came up with this mishmash that is Mama Rocks because we were brought up with food that was just literally anything on a plate. We also ate a lot of Kenyan food like chapati and beef stew, which is my favourite,”
The pair also drew a lot of influence their London upbringing which provided the opportunity for them to sample food from different countries be it North African food or the gourmet burger culture that had just began to gain traction.
“All over the place, burger shops and food trucks were springing up. People would go from gourmet burger shop to gourmet burger shop reviewing and blogging about it. We were definitely influenced by that as well,” says Nathalie.
Growing up in the London
Growing up with as Nigerian/ Kenyan in London vis-a-vis living in Kenya now has been an eye opening experience.
“I feel like everyone wants to put me in a box, I feel like I’m English and I feel like I’m Kenyan, I feel like I’m a combination of everything and I can’t be put into a box. I suppose growing up in London was interesting because London is so multicultural that you just feel like a Londoner,” says Samantha
“In England you never felt English, people would always ask you the question, ‘Where are you from? No, where are you really from?’” says Nathalie.
“They would want to know your background whereas if you were white, they wouldn’t even ask you that even if you weren’t from England so you never felt fully English.”
In Kenya, she has found that some people find it hard to embrace them as Kenyan.
“Some people have highlighted that we are not African even though we have African parents” says Nathalie. According to Samantha such questions are actually positive because they make one question what it really means to be African.
“We are doing this not because we want to sell burgers but because we want celebrate Africa and show the world what’s great with Africa”
The cultural differences they face here have also proved challenging. According to Samantha, the inequalities between men and women when it comes to business have been particularly glaring.
“When you are a man you are given far more time and respect than if you are woman. As a woman you have to push a little harder and be more assertive and resilient. We get ignored a lot, especially when it’s technical things. They will turn to the nearest guy even if he is unrelated to the truck, like our driver, everyone talks to the driver and ignores us,” she says shaking her head at the memory.
Tips for fellow entrepreneurs
You have to be resilient and be willing to learn anything and everything – Samantha
You need to know why you are doing it in the first place, you need more of a motivation to get up every morning and get over obstacles, have a clear idea of what message you want to send out, we are doing this not because we want to sell burgers but because we want celebrate Africa and show the world what’s great with Africa – Nathalie
Sometimes if you don’t see a way, a way gets made if you just start, people come into your life that can help and support you.” – Samantha
“Sometimes if you don’t see a way, a way gets made if you just start” – Mama Rocks
Hibiskiss: Hibiscus juice is popular in West Africa, we just added pineapple and strawberry and tropical fruits to the mix.
Fela Supa burger: We are obsessed with Fela Kuti! Suya is a kind spice mix that they make in West Africa with a peanut base so we kind of played around with spices and came up with the Fela burger. It’s just a bit of imagination really and looking at our raw ingredients and seeing what we can make with them.
Follow mamarocks on instagram : @mamarocksgbk
Follow @bintidiaries on instagram for some great pictures.
Check out their site: mamarocksburgers.com
Or order a burger through Hello Food
This is part of Afrinado’s series on creative African women entrepreneurs, read and share! 🙂