A drive from Nairobi to Chuka is refreshing, especially for a first-time visitor, as one enjoys the spectacular views of hills yonder.
Then there is the sight of women selling ripe mangoes and bananas on the roadside whetting one’s appetite for a fresh, juicy fruit.
This is the norm in Chuka and the rest of the towns along the way as they are huge markets for bananas and mangoes, with many farmers selling them to traders at low prices to avoid losses. The traders in turn ferry them to towns and make a killing.
It is this gap that Mercy Mwende saw and filled by setting up a company that dries the fruits and vegetables for the local and export markets.
Her Sweet and Dried Enterprises, which she runs with her husband, is located in Kamutiria village in Chuka, Tharaka-Nithi County.
A scent of sweet, ripe mangoes welcomes us to the processing plant, where we meet a jolly Mercy.
“We processed about five tonnes of dry mangoes this year up from two in 2016 to meet growing demand both locally and abroad,” she offers after a few pleasantries, adding she exports through an agent.
Mercy takes us on a tour of the processing plant. Our first stop is at the ripening chamber, which is a room with a cemented floor and partitioned to host mangoes at different stages of ripening.
This is the place where all mangoes from farmers are kept first until they ripe before they are turned into flakes. They are later weighed before being taken to the washing place, where they are cleaned and rinsed with running water. Thereafter, the mangoes are peeled and sliced.
“We are currently peeling and slicing manually, but we hope to get these two stages mechanised for speed and to reduce the human-contact with the fruits,” says Mercy, 30, noting hygiene is key, thus, everyone must cover their hair and be disease-free before working in the processing plant.
DETERMINATION, FOCUS AND SUPPORT
The mango slices are, thereafter, dried either by solar power or using an electric-powered machine to make the flakes, improving their shelf-life to a year.
The former takes some 12 hours while the later about four hours.
“Thereafter, we pack the dried fruits in labelled packs and ferry to the market. Our main markets are supermarkets in Chuka, and through distributors in Nairobi, Meru and other parts of the country,” she says. It takes 20kg of fresh mangoes to make a kilo of flakes.
Mercy’s dream of owning a processing company started sometime in 2006 while working as a fruits trader, where she would buy mangoes from farmers in bulk and sell to small traders.
She realised that most of the fruits went to waste as supply was so high during peak season.
“Yet, during off peak season, there were barely any fruits in the market.”
It was until three years later that she started the process of actualising her dream. The company was registered in 2009 and later Mercy and her husband Mageria Migwi invested Sh10,000 into constructing a makeshift dryer, buying and packaging raw materials. Today, she says Sweet and Dried Enterprises is worth over Sh20 million.
“Initially, we tried drying mangoes, avocados and bananas on a one metre square dryer, but the avocados turned black,” recalls Mercy, adding that they have never thought of revisiting avocados value-addition since then.
The company has grown out of what Mercy describes as determination, staying focused and support from friends, relatives and well-wishers who include agri-NGOs, who trained her on issues such as Global Gap certification, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points.
From one worker, she now employs 25 people at the factory as the couple work to make the firm a premier food processing business, and grow it to 250 employees in five years.
Mercy works with 500 farmers from Tharaka Nithi, Meru and Embu counties, who supply her mangoes.
Jane Muthoni, a mango farmer based in Meru, notes that she used to sell to brokers at Mitunguu a piece at between Sh2-Sh5. Sometimes others would flee with her money after promising to pay when they sell.
PRODUCE AVAILABLE ON AND OFF SEASON
“But I now supply to Mercy who buys a mango for between Sh10-Sh15 depending on size,” she says. Besides, she does not incur transport expenses as the company organises for the fruits to be picked from the farm.
Jane, who has a three-acre mango farm, says she used to earn about Sh250,000 annually from selling the fruits in the local market and through brokers. She now makes an average of Sh500,000, being one of the main suppliers at Sweet and Dried Enterprises.
“I like the fact that I accumulate money and collect it in bulk, and can therefore be able to have a budget to control my expenses.”
When mangoes are out of season, Mercy switches to producing other foods including pumpkin flour, carrot flour, dried ripe banana and raw bananas flour.
“Young people do not have to necessarily go to the farm, let them instead concentrate on how they can use modern farming technology to earn a living,” says Jasper Nkanya, Tharaka Nithi Executive in-charge of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Water
Nkanya encourages small-scale farmers, especially in the mango sector, to use Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) as this will make their produce more marketable locally and internationally.
Among the requirements to operate such a processing factory include a business licence from the county, Certification by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and public health certification. All employees must also get Certificate of Good Health, which should be renewed every six months.
Lillian Jeptanui, a horticultural specialist at Egerton University, says value addition increases earnings, product shelf-life, reduces post-harvest losses and enhances food security.
“Value addition ensures produce is available in the market on and off season. However, not many consumers have embraced the idea of value-added produce like mango flakes. The cost may be higher but the benefits are huge.”