Photo via Flickr user Mary Wu

Meet the Man Kenyans Call 'Mr. Rabbit'

Diana Hubbell

With no personal wealth or degrees beyond a basic high school education, Moses Mutua has managed to create a market for rabbit meat—a once unknown commodity in Kenya—and to control virtually all of it.

Photo via Flickr user Mary Wu

"My name is Moses Mutua and I'm a graduate of the Google School of Hard Knocks," says the smiling, suited man vigorously shaking my hand. He laughs, but he's only half-joking, and adds in a more earnest tone, "Everything I know I learned from that search engine."

His name may be Mr. Mutua, but when I'm struggling to find the entrance to his office in Ruai, on the fringes of Nairobi's urban sprawl, his neighbors know him by a different moniker: Mr. Rabbit. It's clear they've heard this request before and they look rather bemused as they direct me towards an unassuming back door that leads to the headquarters of Rabbit Republic Ltd.

They aren't the only ones to express skepticism about this small enterprise. In a country where commercial rabbit farming was all but unheard of a decade ago, launching into the business seemed challenging, if not downright foolish to many Kenyans. Cows, chickens, goats, and sheep have traditionally been the primary sources of protein here, with the demand for anything else all but nonexistent. ≠ His company now processes three to six metric tons of meat per month, which ends up at grocery stores such as Nakumatt, five-star hospitality venues including Tribe Hotel, and upscale restaurants like Carnivore. More than 1,000 Kenyan farmers contribute, with hundreds of others selling to sister companies in Tanzania and Uganda.

His success is all the more remarkable given Mutua's humble beginnings in Machakos, roughly 40 miles from the capital. "I went to school without shoes, even secondary school," he tells me. His publically reported company turnover is now roughly KSH 10 million (approximately $10,000 USD) a month, a small fortune. "There's a food we call githeri [boiled beans and corn]. You know githeri? Well, we ate githeri every single day for lunch for four years."

Although his grades were high enough to earn him a place at a university, his family could never have afforded the tuition. He contemplated becoming a policeman "because I was tall," but settled into a security guard position at Wells Fargo instead. Some might have been discouraged by a monotonous job that paid less than $100 a month, but Mutua harbored the spirit of an entrepreneur, even if he lacked the training of one. He scraped together enough money to start a taxi service, then to open a modest shop, only to lose everything in the financial crash of 2008 and go back to being a security guard. "I was stressed, because it is hard to be poor and become rich, then go back to being poor," he recalls. "I had to move to a place where nobody knew me."

Even after suffering a serious blow, he continued to see opportunities where others could not. Upon noticing the shortage of other guards, he set up a successful recruiting company within the organization. In his spare time, he scoured the internet for information on startups. When a government stimulus package offered money to aquaculture farmers, he researched the topic on Google and invested his meager savings into opening another business.

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Moses Mutua. Photo courtesy of Rabbit Republic Ltd.

He stumbled upon the idea of rabbit farming entirely by accident. While paying a house call to a woman to sell her fish fingerlings, he noticed a pair of particularly plump cottontails in a hutch behind her property. She was guarded about giving away any details, but as soon as he got home he hopped on his laptop and began to Google. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, rabbits convert 20 percent of the fodder they consume into protein, making them roughly twice as efficient as cows. They're also about as low-maintenance as livestock can be; they thrive with minimal space and virtually no attention. While more demanding farm animals require valuable cereal grains, rabbits will happily munch away on just about any greenery you throw their way. And unlike cows, which give birth only once a year, these little guys breed like, well, rabbits, producing litters of roughly eight kits at a time.

"I started with only six rabbits. In the beginning, I was the farmer, I was the vet, I was everything. I was small, but I had a big vision, a serious vision," Mutua reminisces. Unfortunately, his vision was one that was often met with ridicule. "If you tell people, 'Raise rabbits, there is a future,' they will tell you, 'No, rabbits are for kids.' It's challenging to change somebody's tastes. The Maasais give rabbits to dogs. I spent two years going to trade shows and giving away rabbit meat for free, saying, 'Taste this!'"

Little by little, interest began to grow. Mutua appeared on television, at hotels, beside malls, relentlessly pushing his product. At one point, President Uhuru Kenyatta stopped by at an event to try one of his rabbit kebabs. A framed photo of the moment hangs proudly in the center of his modest office.

From the beginning, Mutua never intended to focus on raising rabbits himself, but rather to encourage others to do so and sell the meat to him. Because rabbits offer a high return on a relatively small investment, they offer ordinary Kenyan families a viable supplementary source of income. Children can watch them in their spare time, and unlike cattle, who can often be seen picking at the parched grass by the side of the road, they can fit in almost any space, be it the backyard of a colonial mansion or a slum.

"If you want to feed your family, you can buy one female and one male. Keep the first two rabbits until the pair matures, around five months, and after that the breeding speed of the rabbits keeps up with the eating speed of the family. You will always have enough meat," boasts Mutua. "If you want to do it commercially, you'll need at least five female rabbits and one male rabbit. That can earn you KSH 20,000 [$200] or even up to KSH 40,000 [$400] per month." To put that in perspective, KSH 20,000 is already more than many manual laborers in the area earn.

"We're fundamentally a business, but we're also improving the lives of people involved." In order to help a farmer get started, Rabbit Republic Ltd. builds a hutch, offers basic training, provides the initial rabbits from their breeding stock, and sends over a vet several times to ensure that the animals are properly maintained. Animals are slaughtered in a hygienic facility and either sold by the carcass or turned into burgers or sausages flavored with garlic, herbs, and chilies. Most importantly, regardless of the demand, the company agrees to buy the meat, no matter what.

"It used to be that you had Farmer A here and Farmer B there. They were all so small and far apart," he says. "The name 'Rabbit Republic' came from the idea of bringing those people together and making them into a community."

Business is booming compared to 2013, but like any startup, Rabbit Republic Ltd. has had its share of hurdles. Years of buying meat and giving it away for free burdened Mutua with considerable debt. And while the demand now exists—he claims to be able to sell up to two metric tons a day—Mutua's supply is inconsistent and there are months where he struggles to meet it. When I visit his production room, the equipment is in pristine condition but sits idle, waiting for the next shipment to come.

"Last year we almost closed down. Just try going to a bank for a loan and tell them you're selling rabbits," he says. "Everything I've made, I've invested back into the business. Thursday this week is when I finally make my first shilling."

Still, Mutua, who once swore he would never work for someone else again, refuses to give up. "Eventually, we'll make huge profits, I know it. My time for reward should also come," he says. Then, with a slightly weary laugh, he adds, "Hey, if you see Google, tell them they've got a good student."