Woman’s simple idea that changed a town

Friday February 28 2014

Ms Mercy Mwende (right) processing banana

Ms Mercy Mwende (right) processing banana flakes at the Sweet N Dried plant in Chuka. Beverly Ndege | Nation 

There were many times in the past when Mercy Mwende and her husband oscillated between hope and despair. During the low season when they were waiting for their banana and mango trees to be ready for harvest, they would be hopeful of good returns.

Then the rude reality would hit once they were harvested. Suddenly, everyone in Chuka, Tharaka-Nithi County, where the couple lives, had enough mangoes and bananas of their own.

The market would end up saturated and, left with no choice, they would give in to market forces and sell their produce at throwaway prices. The other option was to hold on to their harvest and watch it rot in the store. Either way, they lost.

“It was very painful for us to see a big mango that we had toiled for in our farm sell at Sh3,” recalls Mwende.

In 2009, the then 21-year-old participated in the “Jitihada One” business plan competition run by the Kenya Institute of Management in partnership with the World Bank and the Ministry of Industrialisation. Her business plan, about drying bananas to make flakes, went all the way to national level.

Nothing to lose

Mwende and her husband saw a business opportunity in her plan. Since they had nothing to lose by trying it out, they researched the idea on the Internet and via the Kenya Industrial Research Institute (Kirdi).

Together with a few members of the community, they made a one-tray dryer which Mercy used to test the market in order to identify a possible customer base.

“I realised that there was great demand for dry foods, but people didn’t know how to access them,” she says.

Encouraged by the market response, the group registered their company, Sweet N Dried, and started production in 2011 at Chuka Igamba Ng’ombe using what savings they could get together.

Later, the Kenya Institute of Estate (KIE) would provide more funding for the company.

The company started by making banana flour and dried mangoes.

Soon they were receiving requests from clients who wanted sweet potato and pumpkin flour.

Thanks to the increased demand, Sweet N Dried now makes several products including banana flakes, dried mangoes, and flours from pumpkin and sweet potato.

The company has engaged over 244 farmers in the area to supply them with raw materials.

They buy the farm produce at very competitive prices. For example, they purchase arrow roots at Sh45 to Sh50 per kilo while the farmers fetch Sh20 for a kilo of pumpkin.

Before Sweet N Dried, the farmers were getting paid Sh5 per kilogramme for the pumpkin.

While the couple handled production in the past, the company now has over 20 employees, and distributors in Meru, Nairobi and Chuka.

The distributors are an important part of the business since the company does not stock its products in supermarkets but instead takes its goods directly to the end consumer, who include individuals, small shops, hotels, bakeries and health bars.

The venture has not been without its challenges.

The plant lacks enough machinery to meet the rising demand and Mwende is sometimes forced to cancel orders.
Lack of finances to buy additional equipment has also been a huge hurdle.

Then there’s marketing: Without budgetary and technical support, the group relies on references to win over new customers. She says their biggest strength is the quality of their products.

Still, Mwende is upbeat about the future.

“I am comfortable with what I get from the business. It has provided my family with a source of income and also enabled me topursue further education, which I had to postpone after Form Four due toa lack of funds.

“I paid for my diploma in youth and development studies and I am now in my second year at university pursuing development studies,” she said.