Think pepper shrimp, and it's easy to associate one name with the product Home Choice. The green and yellow labelled bags with dried out shrimps infused with pepper picked up at the checkout in retail stores or bars propelled a young woman into a business that had its fair share of challenges and successes. The woman behind it is Kareema Muncey. Here is the story behind a brand that started with just US$50.
“Dashan, the amount of things I go through building this business from scratch with no loans and God as my guide,” beamed Muncey, CEO of Home Choice — a food manufacturer — as we chatted on the phone in preparation for the interview about her journey as a businesswoman. Muncey is a devoted Muslim and mentions God or Allah as she sometimes says, using the Arabic word for God in almost every sentence.
I heard her story a decade ago, but not in the details she shared a few days later in the compact office of her operations at Portmore Lane in Portmore.
“I got married very young; I got married at the age of 16 and had my children early. So being at home as a stay-at-home mom and a Muslim woman, I was able to work my own money and keep that money for myself. So I worked and saved my money.”
Muncey says she's been “hustling since high school”. She attended “the best, Queen's”, where she said she would hide and sell anything she could.
But her first official business venture was making and selling pot hangers at the Flea Market in New Kingston, St Andrew, using macramé which she learnt in high school. Macramé is a form of textile produced using knotting techniques and in Jamaica, it is more frequently used to hang flowers from in an elevated position. Muncey said she started selling in the Flea Market with her mother at 17 years old because she didn't want to work for anybody. She would also make juices and sell from an “igloo” in the Flea Market as well. Being a Muslim woman didn't cause any issue for her. “To me, I felt special being a Muslim here, because everybody treated you with respect...it didn't affect people's [decision] to buy from us or not to buy from us,” she said after reflecting on growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. During that time she said she would also sell curry chicken with her mother in downtown Kingston.
“I want to tell you something, I don't know how you are going to write this, but things were very rough for us when I got married and had four children. It was so rough at times we didn't have food to eat sometimes. I remember my son saying he doesn't eat green bananas, because he ate it so much growing up, crushed with butter, he was tired of it. But nobody knew, my mom didn't know. That struggle pushed me into business. It pushed me to hustle.”
She said growing up her family was in the jewellery business, which she would sell while attending The Queen's School and even did the graduation rings for the year she graduated.
For her first 'official' business out of high school, Muncey turned to what she knew, selling and repairing jewellery in a small “ten by ten” space near the bus terminus in Spanish Town, St Catherine. The showcase was borrowed from her uncle who was also in the jewellery business.
“We looked big but we were not. We added another showcase and added another shop. Most of the business was repairs. When the Indians came with imports the business went down.”
She said she would take the jewellery and go get them repaired elsewhere, but no one knew. She said her first jewellery in the showcase was her wedding ring, her graduation ring and earrings.
In Spanish Town, she said, there was no problem with extortion. “As Muslims we just believe in Allah being our protector, so when they come to us, we would say 'if I pay you, then I need to stop praying because Allah is our protector', that's my insurance and that's how we got through. Thieves broke into every store at the bus terminus and they didn't break into ours.” Here again she expressed her faith in God and how he has helped her in business.
She said she would soon change to doing the shrimp business which spawned Home Choice.
“I went to Guyana in 1988. I went with US$50 that my mom gave me, the same as she gave everybody else and I used my US$50 and bought 50 pounds of shrimp. I brought it home. I didn't know how I was going to make pepper shrimp with it, which I remembered I loved having as a kid; we also used to get it from the higglers and at the waving gallery at the airport.”
She said as she contemplated what to do, she tried and “ came up with a sauce. It was a winner. I hit the jackpot.” The investment of US$50 turned into US$400. Muncey peppered the shrimp and sundried it. Her first product was packaged in small plastic bags and sealed with a clothes iron. She said she would take the bus or walk miles to sell it at gas stations or cinemas before getting the product into HiLo supermarkets.
She recalls, “They were my first customers. They never wanted to take the shrimp at first. I said that if it did not sell, it would take it back. They agreed.”
At that time, Muncey said she would return to collect the cardboard back to which she attached the shrimp because she didn't have money to buy new ones. The colours were yellow and green “to match the flag”. Those colours are still Home Choice's colours.
Over time the business has seen many ups and downs including theft. “My employees made up with the workers at the jewellery shop and were stealing the shrimp and selling it for themselves. My dad told me they were stealing but I never believed until a product with their name emerged on the market. I called the police.”
The police found the packaging torn up and thrown down where one of the employees lived.
The CEO of Home Choice shared, “The business has gone down about 15 times. I used to do the shrimp business at my dad's house in Pembroke Hall (St Andrew), but decided to move it to the jewellery store in Spanish Town. I put up a partition so I could see the workers.”
However, another blow came one day when she walked into HiLo and saw peppered shrimp by another brand. Muncey said she fainted on seeing it. She reflects, “He (the competitor) locked me down because he had better packaging.”
Another problem occurred when 3,000 pounds of shrimp was spoiled because she could not afford a refrigerated container for imports. The shrimp was being brought in a dry box. In time, Home Choice began importing with 20-foot refrigerated containers.
But with each challenge she would regroup. The CEO says, “I used to take the bus and go and sell with my knapsack. I walked from Half-Way-Tree to Papine to save 40 cents.”
When she eventually bought her first small car, it was done with cash secured from her frugal lifestyle.
When competition from the new source affected Home Choice, Muncey sold her car and paid $250,000 for a packaging house in Kingston, the owner of whom eventually became like a partner in the business. She repackaged and took back her market.
In 2004, Home Choice shrimps was nominated by Observer Food awards as one of the best new products for the year. Today, even though the number of competitors has grown, she asserts that her company still has 80 per cent market share.
The challenges continue, one being the fact that shrimp is now scarce because of climate change. Muncey explained, “It's the sweet water shrimp from the Caribbean which is often unavailable.”
In response, Home Choice has developed a boneless salted fish product which tastes “just as good” as the shrimp and is doing well on the local market. Along the way she also tried and failed at guava cheese and peanuts, making use of a packaging machine acquired through EXIM Bank and the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA).
She has also diversified into lime and ginger juices which are exported under co-packing agreements with companies in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Exports are now 30 per cent of all revenue.
Lime juice is now 80 per cent of output. Muncey is hoping to double exports in 2022. She notes, “We are just waiting on certifications which will allow entry into Europe.
The CEO shared, “ We have 15 products in 30 different sizes. Our business has been increasing by an average 37 per cent for the last three years. In 2021 we closed at $245 million in sales. We have had several approaches from investors. We do at least one interview every month.”
She commends company director Mark Croskery, who she notes “has been helping us with corporate governance.”
For 2022, the company is developing a turmeric ginger which is a spin-off from the pure ginger. Muncey said, “We have a food safety development team which is investing time in this.”
The company is also investing in automation. “We are now at 70 per cent automation and that will be complete this year. Everything was manual before. We were opening at 5 am and closing at 10 in the night during the height of COVID COVID was a blessing for us.”
Home Choice will also be expanding factory space with the CEO noting, “Natural things are making a comeback. They also consider our products to be comfort foods. Ginger, shrimp, lime, saltfish, all already prepared and ready to add to their meals.”
While, like other Muslims, she is forbidden from taking interest bearing loans, she has found other alternatives. “As Muslims it was forbidden for us to be involved in paying or taking usury. We run Muslim business partner. We have also started one at the JMEA. Two draws can buy a vehicle. All of this helps us. We are looking at banking systems tailored to Muslims.”
She added that being a Muslim woman didn't cause any issue for her. “To me, I felt special being a muslim here, because everybody treated you with respect...it didn't affect people's [decision] to buy from us or not to buy from us,”
The practice of reinvesting profit has helped her business. “We plow our earnings back into growing the business. We have 55 employees now,” Muncey said.
Home Choice is also building a warehouse in St Elizabeth with the intent of better access to raw materials. They also have farmers registered with the company under the Government's food security programme. The company is also considering building its own farm and factory in St Catherine before the end of 2022.
Muncey says one big problem is the tendency of larger companies to try to exploit smaller companies. “Our major co-packers non-disclosure agreement was up. They have now put out a product looking exactly like ours instead of renewing. But, whatever God wills will come to pass.”
In two decades of many starts and stops, Muncey says, “Every product that we put on the shelf is a God-willed product. Everything is from him. They are made with our heart, our soul and our mind. Dependability is a good thing. Now when the stores open they call us. We are now in about 3,000 stores.”
Muncey said that the presence of Home Choice products on local shelves was God's will and he would continue to make a way. She noted, “We started 20 years ago and extortioners avoided us. God protects both us and our neighbours. Allah protected us and our neighbors around us in Spanish Town.” Whatever happens in the business and in her life, it is as Allah wills.