The UK born sisters celebrating Kenyan food with a fast-food twist
For Natalie and Samantha Mwedekeli “ Mama Rocks” is not simply a burger shop, but a way for them to show the world a glimpse of modern-day Africa.
In 2014, the sisters packed up their homes in busy Central London and set out to Nairobi, Kenya. There, the pair started the, now cult favourite, Mama Rocks Burgers food truck (3 locations). As one of the first street food vendors in the city of Nairobi, Mama Rocks quickly garnered attention for its delicious transcontinental African menu and thoughtful modern branding. The sisters have used their platform to showcase the stereotype-busting cosmopolitan youth culture and vibrancy of their maternal homeland of Kenya.
We had a chance to sit down with the charming Mwedekeli sisters during quarantine to learn more about their unique partnership.
Where they come from
As children, Natalie and Samantha experienced culture shock for the first time when their parents moved them from their east-end council estate flat to the rolling green pastures of suburban London. The sisters, born to Nigerian and Kenyan parents, take a lot of inspiration from their upbringing. “We credit our parents with our ability to hustle. They moved us to the outskirts of London so that we could get a better education and have better overall opportunities”. They went from living in a very diverse environment to being the only 2 black students in their school. Although far away from their peers, Natalie and Samantha remained connected to their culture through daily chats with their maternal grandmother. She became their after-school caregiver and instilled in them a love for African flavours; everything from hot pepper soup to jollof rice. Both Natalie and Samantha honoured their parents’ sacrifice by attending university in surrey; Natalie, earning a degree in Human Resources and Samantha completing a degree in Law.
Before moving to Kenya
Fast forward to 2013; both sisters found themselves living fast-paced lives in central London. “ Funny enough we both were working in Human Resources. I was working for a charity organization that supported vulnerable people by helping them find work, while Samantha worked in recruitment for major media houses and creative agencies. Yes, we went from working in HR to making burgers”. Natalie went on to point out that despite having successful and fruitful careers both she and Samantha felt unfulfilled.
“We knew that we eventually wanted to build something for ourselves and that London did not feel like the right place to do it. We would get up every morning and work all day (sometimes through lunch) and come home, only to do it all over again, the next day. At the end of the month, we would have just enough money to pay bills and go out once [Laughter]”.
Every year the sisters travelled to Kenya to visit their extended family. Eventually, their parents ended up moving back there. Like an increasing number of first-generation Brits, the Mwedekeli’s found themselves drawn to their parent’s “homeland”.
Samantha shared with us how they focused on the branding and ethos behind the business before coming up with the product. “We were annoyed with the imagery that was always being sold to us about the African continent. We were like, “hang on”, when we visited Kenya, we would see a different Africa than what was presented to us, by the west. We say simply “Africa” intentionally because that’s how the west views Africa, as one culture. It has always been a very one-dimensional view. We wanted to show the world the modern diverse beauty of Africa and we thought food would be a great vehicle for that.”
Mama Rocks’ first and busiest food truck is located at the bustling Alchemist bar in West Lands, Nairobi. The Alchemist is the capital’s cultural hub for food, fashion and music. Each of the now 3 Mama Rocks locations features a queue and a menu touting 19 signature burgers. Every Burger is influenced by different elements of regional African culture. The Mango Masai Mama burger is layered with a bright mix of colourful veggies to reflect the robes of the Masai women, while the Nollywood Suya Saga burger has a bold peanut flavour, reminiscent of the famous Nigerian peanut stew.
“We didn’t start off Mama Rocks saying that we were going to start a restaurant. We started it off because we came to Kenya every year and could find an Italian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant etc. but nothing that reflected the youthful vibrancy of Nairobi”.
At S’able Labs, one of the questions we like to ask every partnership is, “Why did you choose to work together?” For the Mwedekeli sisters, their response was, “ it was never even a choice”. Natalie and Samantha being just two years apart (we will not disclose who is the elder) they are and always have been such integral parts of each other’s lives. “To be honest, I don’t think I could work with anyone else [the way I work with my sister]”, said Natalie. The pair was looking for a creative outlet for their values and recognized that they have always had great synergy and that’s what makes this venture work for them.
Samantha says that “working with my sister means that I can be really open and honest in the way I communicate. We know how to disagree. We are sensitive but know how to speak to each other without tiptoeing or hurting the other person.”
Natalie explained that they, “brainstorm together and assign tasks according to whoever is better suited for a particular assignment. “While we have the same values, we are very different. Samantha is much more detailed oriented [than me] when it comes to budgets and financial management. I am more creative and conceptual, a bit more out there. We really complement each other”.
Nairobians have the opportunity to see their culture celebrated through Mama Rocks and have supported the sisters tirelessly because of it. Although not fully Kenyan, the women feel deeply rooted in their East African heritage. It is an honour for them to provide jobs for young people and especially young African women.
“People are often surprised to see that women own Mama Rocks, and, at that, black women. Being black female business owners; that is something we are really proud to represent in Kenya”.