Some Like It Hot: Gillianne Obaso of Ma Phoebe’s Kitchen


When you first get a taste of the amazing aubergine chilli relishes from Ma Phoebe’s kitchen you wonder why you haven’t had this tender, burst of flavor in your mouth more often. We met Gillianne at the Barclays SheTradesKE where she had a stand at the exhibition. The sauce was so good we just had to find out more about this company.

ma phoebe's sauces - Gillianne Obaso

Take the normal cassava, arrow roots or bread that you quickly bite into hurriedly on your way to work in the morning. Once you get a bite from any of them, you can clearly tell the difference between the popular foods, even when blindfolded. But once you have the aubergine relish on them, you get a complete new and much more creative condiment. Meet Gillianne Obaso, a Kenyan entrepreneur with the dream of changing the outlook of simple meals turned into healthy, homemade food compliments that complement Kenyan food.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Gillianne is a multi-dimensional woman. I am a mother, makeup artist and an Agro Processing Entrepreneur.

How did Ma Phoebe’s sauces start?

It’s a funny story really. I almost burned down the house at around the age of 9 when trying to cook on a make-shift jiko. My mother, Phoebe then promptly decided to hire a trained cook to teach me and I’ve been cooking ever since.

My products stem from tried and tested recipes.  I named the company in my mother’s honor and to underscore the point that a child whose passion is supported from an early age will thrive. I am also the mother of an energetic boy and his nutrition is very important for me. My sauces are not just scrumptious, they are also very nutritious and a must for the whole family!

Did you always picture getting into this line of work? Or what did you want to pursue as you grew up?

I was slated to become a conference interpreter and whilst studying in Europe, I would get modeling assignments where I discovered the art of makeup. I switched gears and never looked back. While working in Kenyan film production, I noticed that when the foreign crew inquired about food they were always told our national dish was nyama choma! I felt compelled to highlight the diversity of Kenyan cuisine and set out to produce healthy food condiments to complement our dishes in their diversity, hence Ma Phoebe’s Sauces.

So far, have you seen the vision that you had set out for Ma Phoebe’s sauces take off?

It is a work in constant progress. Entrepreneurship in this space is not for the faint hearted. Sensitizing people to the novelty that our local food is at a par with international fare has its challenges but I find many receptive to my recipes.

What makes your sauces and relishes stand out from others?

Ma Phoebe’s Sauces are homemade with fresh ingredients and are consumable straight out of the jar or can be mixed in ready cooked food for added convenience. I personally prepare everything at home in my kitchen with fresh produced sourced from Farmers Markets.

Sauce preparation ma phoebes sauces

How many clients and orders do you get in a day/week/month? What are some of the biggest clients and orders you’ve made?

At this startup stage most of my energies are consumed by marketing. As awareness grows, so does demand. The Organic Farmers market at Purdy Arms restaurant in Karen every Saturday is the main source of my regular customers. A while back, I did an order from the Jahazi Pier Restaurant in Munyonyo, Kampala for 60 jars of the relish that were very well received.

Are the groceries you use hard to acquire? Shelf Life?

My ingredients are readily available as they are locally produced at affordable prices. My sauces have a 6-month shelf life and once opened should be refrigerated like most condiments where they can stay fresh for up to a month at least.

Do you get people to help you out in the creation of your sauces?

I constantly seek out feedback from customers to make sure I incorporate as much of their input as possible. I am fascinated by the different ways people use the condiments.

What motivates you?

Expressing my creativity and happy customers. It always warms my heart when someone tries out my sauces and I see the light in their faces. It’s a great joy for an artist to see their work not only appreciated but also when that work brings a certain aspect of change to their lives.

Describe to us your typical day of work.

Most of my days involve early trip to the farmers’ market. Sauce preparation then happens in my kitchen, then the process of packaging and labeling. I consult with my distributors to see if stock needs replenishing and do so. I also have many individual word-of-mouth customers to supply. My friends and family are also very engaged and supportive and tirelessly advertise my products.

Ma Phoebe's Sauces

What do you love most about working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do?

Nairobi is very cosmopolitan. People are very open to what I am doing as the awareness of and trend toward healthy living increases & the demand for fresh homemade products gradually increases.

What are some of the biggest and most memorable moments of your life so far?

The birth of my son, which is also the main reason I resolved to maintain a healthy lifestyle starting with my diet. I am a hands on mum and always prepared his food personally in a bid to influence his taste buds from an early age.

What are some of the ups and down you’ve faced in your business?

I have liquidated most of my personal assets and put my savings into research and development of my food products. Capital is a constant challenge but my passion sustains me. I have come a long way and see a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.  I have no regrets about going down this road though with the benefit of hindsight I must say had I known what I was heading into; I may have hesitated a heartbeat longer!

As a woman entrepreneur how has the market received you thus far (especially with a home-made Kenyan product)?

Capital is the biggest challenge. Financial institutions traditionally want bankable assets as a prerequisite to loans. Many women such as myself are at a disadvantage. Banks should go out of their way to literally empower women entrepreneurs and not just pay lip service to subscribing to the ‘Gender Agenda’. They should make it their business to go out of their way to seek us out and support us. Statistics have long shown that women make good borrowers and they repay their loans. It is said that if you empower a woman, you empower an entire community. Enough said.

Do you have any other side businesses or personal ventures apart from Ma Phoebe’s?

I am a professionally trained makeup artist with vast experience in the local film industry, and have just come up with a service offering instruction under the brand Gillianne.O. I give a make-up masterclass course at the Alison Caroline Institute in Muthaiga on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. I also offer individual consultation in a bespoke session addressing the particular issues of the client in a private setting. I come to the client’s house because it is best to see the space in which she applies the makeup; details like adequate lighting are very important in makeup application.

Where do you see yourself as a brand in the next ten years?

The regional leader in locally made nutritious food condiments.

Do you have any pieces of advice you can give to women in business or to those planning to venture into the entrepreneurship field?

Plan. Focus. Stay woke! Keep on your toes, research and learn as much as possible about your field of interest. Find useful mentors. Network. Start now with what you have.

How can SheTradesKE help women in business?

I think women with businesses with financial history or in possession of bankable assets are in good shape. So start putting your finances and structures in order if you want to get loans. Start-ups are challenged because their perspective is futuristic whereas banks want track record and therein lies the catch 22.

Seed Capital is indispensable for growth and productivity so one needs to have savings if not collateral. If banks could wrap their minds around this and provide grants and training the impact will be enormousWhere can one get the sauces?

The Ma Phoebe’s Sauces can be acquired at the retail price of only Kshs 400/- and the aubergine chilli relishes come in a variety of mild, medium and hot. The various outlets where they can be purchased include: Zucchini Abc Plaza, Green Box Lavington Green and Just Desserts Emerald Centre Kiambu Road.

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