Dressed in a white overcoat and her hair covered with a white cap, Elizabeth Gikebe, 26, puts a branded empty packet on a weighing scale and fills it with flour.
She adds more flour in the 500g packet as she checks the scale, getting the accurate weight before sealing the packet and moving onto the next.
Elizabeth, a software developer, is the founder of Mhogo Foods, a value addition start-up based in Banana, Kiambu, which processes cassava into flour.
Cassava flour is gluten-free, which means unlike wheat or barley, it cannot cause abnormal body reactions, some which damage the small intestines.
The flour is suited for people with diseases like asthma or eczema, often triggered with foods eaten.
“I started the business in July last year after doing market research and noticing that there was a gap in cassava flour.”
Some seven months later, Elizabeth says she supplies her product, which has a six-month shelf-life, to over 10 supermarkets.
“I also supply my Kenya Bureau of Standards certified flour to Kaldis Coffee House, which uses it for baking. Cassava flour can make bread, pancakes, ugali, brownies and cookies.”
With the help of Farm Concern International, she was able to get about 40 farmers, who she contracted to supply her dried cassava.
After harvesting the cassava, the tubers are bulked at a central point, and then the farmers select the healthy, mature and firm ones, which should have no bruises.
DROUGHT RESISTANT CROP
“The farmers are spread in Busia, Makueni, and Embu. They supply monthly up to 30 tonnes of dried cassava, which is processed and distributed to shopping outlets in Thika, Nanyuki, Gilgil, and Kiambu in 500g, 1kg, 2kg, 5kg, 10kg, 20kg, 50kg and 100kg packs,” says Elizabeth, who started the business with a capital of Sh800,000 and has a monthly turnover of about Sh300,000.
The capital, which came from her savings, went to her getting legal certifications, buying machines, printing packages, raw materials and renovation of the premises.
Last month, her start-up processed 5 metric tonnes (MT) of flour and this month, her target is 7MT.
The company currently employs seven workers, four who are in the sales department, and the rest in production.
“We also use social media to popularise the flour and reach more customers. Our Mhogo Foods Facebook page has over 13,000 likes, and facilitates quick interactions between us, and customers. We even get enquiries from as far as Australia,” says Elizabeth, who holds a Bachelors in Business and Information Technology from St Pauls University and is employed at a city firm as a software developer.
The value addition bug hit her at an early age as her parents ran a maize flour milling business.
But her interest was on roots and tubers. “Cassava is a drought resistant crop that needs little care on the farm, the reason I love it. I process the flour to make it more palatable to consumers as many think it is a poor man’s food,” she says.
To learn how to process cassava, she enrolled for a one-month course at the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute in Nairobi, where she learnt various aspects of value addition that made her confident of starting the business.
Soon, she plans to start processing flour from other traditional roots and tubers.
But it is not an easy ride. According to Elizabeth, most of the top supermarkets with a wider reach, and huge customer base, view her start-up as a small company that they frown trading with though she can supply tonnes of cassava flour.
“There is also the challenge of limited capital, which has hindered me from hiring more sales persons to market the flour.”
Ruth Oniang’o, a professor of nutrition, notes that any effort to make cassava to be widely consumed is welcome.
“During the colonial days, I remember my mother having to grow it at the instruction of the government to serve as a food reserve. We used to add cassava to millet during food shortages. Then it used to be known as the “hunger” crop, perhaps the reason why consumption went down.”
She, however, adds that the crop is versatile.
“In Western Africa, cassava leaves are eaten as well and are available when other leafy vegetables are scarce and they provide excellent nutrition. Cassava leaves are rich in proteins, Vitamin K and are low in calories.”
She notes that cassava provides gluten-free flour and is a good addition to other grains like millet, for variety, and economic reasons, and serves as a viable food reserve.
“Cassava can also be an excellent industrial money-making crop for farmers and for the Kenyan economy. Through cassava value addition, one can get glue, cassava chips, starch and flour. From the flour one can make flour based foods like cookies, cassava ugali and brownies.”
Kenya’s annual cassava fresh root production is estimated at 662,405 tonnes, against an annual demand of 301,200 tonnes of dried cassava, and 1,204,800 metric tonnes of fresh roots, according to 2014 data by Food and Agriculture Organisation.