Ms Irene Jepkogei, 29, popularly known as Cheptap Oret Age or Black Beauty, has found her passion in cooking. She is the founder and director of Afrikan Eats currently operating as a cloud catering business.
‘I am the sixth child in a lovely family of eight. Growing up in Narok County, I lacked basic things. I recall how my mother at some point resorted to selling local brews to be able to provide for us.
Life was difficult, every night a nightmare and waking up to patrons coming to buy illicit alcohol was very traumatising. Questions always lingered in my mind, ‘Is life this tough to all, and was I born to witness my family ruining people and families with alcohol?’
Since the brew was illicit, my mother would sometimes be arrested. I couldn’t handle the anxiety and insomnia when that happened. After so much frustration, she quit the business and started farming, which was also not easy because we didn’t have a big farm.
Two decades ago, cookery was not on my radar as I always wanted to be a doctor. It took a tragic incident to realign my dreams. In 2008 when I was in form two, my father died of throat cancer, leaving the duty of raising eight children to my mother. I recall talking to my siblings about our father's illness a month before his death; I was anxious of his worsening condition.
His passing was heart-wrenching and the reality that I would never see him took the wind out of my sails.
I recall when my mother borrowed money from her friend and gave away our only cow as security so that my brother and I could complete high school. Luckily, our older siblings had already completed, the last born was in primary school.
I developed a determination to change my story for the better. After high school, I got a job as a shopkeeper where part of my duties was to cook for suppliers and it was not easy. I always admired friends who got the opportunity to further their studies, but that did not stop me from working hard. With so much passion to excel in life, my cooking got better each day and customers appreciated my food, driving me to do more.
In 2015, someone invited me to the ‘Let’s Cook Kenyan’ group on Facebook where people with the passion of cooking meet, and I began posting recipes, stories and pictures of different meals I made. The posts attracted a big following and unexpectedly, I started winning cooking competitions. It was at this point that I met Chef Otuomo Mwafrika, who has been a great mentor. He encouraged me to invest the savings from a cleaning job on a diploma course in food and beverage at the East African Institute of Certified Studies.
I really appreciate the support I have received from ‘Let’s Cook Kenyan’. I don’t regret dropping my passion of being a doctor to become a chef and I always joke with my friend that, ‘I am a food doctor’. I am proud that what I thought was a mess (not being a doctor) became a message of hope and a lesson that one can make it in life despite the challenges.
In 2018, I came to Nairobi in search of greener pastures. I got a cleaning job and was also selling food as a side hustle. My passion for cooking grew tremendously as I was always ready to learn new recipes to attract my clients.
In 2020, we teamed up with two friends, and armed with our savings, started preparing food at home and delivering it to offices. Life was tough as we solely depended on the business, having left the cleaning job. After six months, the third partner stepped down and opted to venture into a different business as we were still trying to make ends meet within the pandemic.
Then we decided to start a restaurant at Zimmerman, although things didn’t go as planned. We struggled to raise rent for the premise, so we ended up closing it and going our separate ways.
Early this year, I started cloud cooking, which has picked up at a high rate. I offer catering services, deliver online orders, provide cooking training for house managers and even get calls to cook for families in their homes. So far, Facebook has been my greatest support system where I market my products and services. I love cooking African dishes as I also encourage people to embrace healthy eating.
I serve corporate customers such as Equity Bank - City Market branch where I deliver breakfast and lunch, besides other offices within town. My food costs Sh200 and above, depending on the choice of food and location of delivery. On a daily basis, I get more than 50 orders and I always do my best to maintain excellence in delivering what the client ordered.
Building trust is the biggest challenge when running an online business. I am glad my clients have gained trust based on what I post on my Facebook page ‘Irene Cheptap Oret-Age, Afrikan Eat’, and ‘Let’s cook Kenyan’. There are times I get setbacks when clients fail to pay. With this, I have ensured that when clients order online, I request them to pay 50 percent of the cost and complete the payment upon delivery. Also, some clients refuse to pay the rider upon receiving their order.
Currently, I am running the business alone but in future, I hope to open restaurants locally and internationally. I would love people to enjoy African meals at an affordable cost. Despite the challenges I faced while growing up, I am glad I can comfortably pay my bills. I desire to inspire young women to work hard and pursue their dreams without depending on ‘sponsors’ to foot their bills.