How we grew our manufacturing business that almost folded

Sky Labels and Stationers Limited

Employees of Sky Labels and Stationers Limited and its co-directors N.T. Mehta (left) and Palak Dave at the company's printing plant in Nairobi's Industrial Area on 1 August 1, 2023. 

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

In 2008, after having been engaged for more than 30 years in the manufacturing of exercise books and other related stationery, N.T Mehta decided it was time to venture into a different business. He opted to manufacture adhesive labels.

He registered a company, Sky Labels and Stationers, and secured business premises in Nairobi’s industrial area. And then with one machine and a staff of two, including his colleague Whitney Musyemi who had a background in sales, Mehta began to look for new business.

Things were hard in the beginning. Neither he, nor his colleague had experience or solid contacts in the labels industry and they were struggling with everything from artwork, to materials, skilled workmanship and identification.

“It was a new line for us. At some point we were almost selling the company because it was not performing very well and we were experiencing lots of technical challenges,” noted N.T Mehta.

Palak Dave, Mehta’s co-director was at the time studying business management in America and she took the opportunity to conduct research on the challenges and opportunities that lay in the labels industry.

“The labels industry is very technical. In printing, a difference of even 1mm can spoil the job. You also have to consider the materials used. For instance, the material used for any food product that requires refrigeration such as yoghurt should be very different from the material used for other food products,” said Dave.

N.T. Mehta and Palak Dave

Sky Labels and Stationers Ltd co-directors N.T. Mehta and Palak Dave with a digital printer operator Wallace Alvin at the firm’s offices in Nairobi.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

On completing her studies, Dave came back with expertise to help rescue the business. She offered direction on processes including how to do the artwork, how to make a digital plate and how to mix the colours to give certain outcomes.

“At the time, the business only had capacity to print using four colours- cyan, magenta, black and blue. Clients had started asking for other colours such as pantone, and honestly at the time we did not even know what pantone colour is,” noted N.T Mehta.

Due to Palak’s support and knowledge, Mehta says the business was able to soon get on track. They started manufacturing small quantities of labels and received positive feedback from clients, who would refer them to other clients.

Meanwhile, another one of their co-directors, Chintan Mehta, began marketing their services on various digital platforms, enabling them to reach customers they couldn’t afford to reach through door-to-door campaigns or mainstream media marketing.

This saw them achieve exponential growth, and within no time, they were receiving so many orders that they needed additional printing machines and more staff.

“We decided to go for other machines, including a fully automated 8-colour machine, which printed at a quicker pace thus giving us faster turnarounds with more accuracy,” noted N.T. Mehta.

The machine, the Konica Minolta, can deliver up to 10 thousand labels within 24 hours. It can also print small quantities, which makes it ideal for the SME market, which the proprietors say is largely underserved by label printers, despite the potential it holds.

Director Palak Dave

Director Palak Dave during the interview at the company premises in Industrial Area, Nairobi on August 1, 2023. The firm prints adhesive labels, stickers and shrink sleeves.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

“Kenya’s SME landscape is really growing. Almost everybody now is willing to start a business with a small investment. But SMEs do not have quantity. They want to start small and grow. For many label printers, working with smaller quantities does not make financial sense. They prefer to do bulk printing which means their rates are out of reach for SMEs,” noted Dave.

The business, currently comprising 50 employees, services various industries including food and beverage, horticulture, beauty and cosmetics, health and pharmaceuticals. Dave says pricing is an issue because clients are always look for a competitive price, and it is a challenge to balance between making the customer happy and making sure they earn enough profit to keep the business afloat and grow.

Currently with 15 machines, they hope to add more machines to meet increasing orders. They also want to go digital in operations, which they say is the future.