In the middle of a dry village in Kajuki, Tharaka Nithi County, a growing fruit and vegetable processing factory is proving Kenya can add value to fresh produce, increase farmer’s earnings and reduce post harvest losses.
A confident Mercy Mwende, the brains behind the trade name Sweet ‘N Dried Enterprises talks endlessly with eloquence about a project she started through trial and error seven years ago driven by desire to preserve mangoes in a dried form to prevent the losses she witnessed as a fresh fruits seller in Chuka town.
Her efforts have gradually paid off and this year, USAID, through the Kenya Value Chains Enterprises (Kaves) project has funded an automated air drier to boost the factory’s processing capacity.
Kaves Chief of Party, Dr Steve New says the grant is part of the USAID support to value addition and product diversification in Kenya to cut post harvest losses and increase incomes under the Feed the Future program. “Our studies indicate that we cannot increase production without embracing technology in production, processing and preservation.
There is a huge demand in the US and Europe for processed mangoes and Kenya can tap into this opportunity”, he said. Due to sanitary and phytosanitary regulations, the US and Japan do not accept fresh mangoes yet the market for processed produce is huge, the studies indicate.
The installation of the air drier comes at a time Sweet ‘N Dried is in the final stages of fulfilling safety certification standards for export markets, according to Ms Mwende. “We have undergone HACCP assessment and we expect to be certified early next year”, she said.
Sustaining an export market requires adherence to laid down food safety standards as well as traceability systems. Sweet ‘N Dried is set to introduce Global Gap training for its affiliate farmers, an exercise Ms Mwende describes as capital intensive. She requires adequate supply of mangoes for continuous production, sufficient storage facilities and efficient processing capacity.
Currently, she is buying mangoes from 300 farmers in Tharaka Nithi, Meru and Embu. “ Export markets require huge regular supplies and I am working on upscaling production at the farms, storage and processing for continuous shipping of the processed products”, she says.
Ms Mwende has been to Japan, a country she describes as the mother of value addition, Thailand, Dubai, China and Germany where her products have received good feedback. She is processing export varieties of mango- Kent, Tommy and Apple. A dried fruit can stay for up to years and tastes as good as a fresh one.
The story of Sweet ‘N Dried is typical of post harvest challenges in Kenya where due to seasonality of production, farmers suffer massive losses arising from glut when markets get flooded leading to low sales and massive produce waste. There are no policies and infrastructure for processing of fruits and other seasonal produce and preservation for year-round availability.
The irony of this scenario is that Kenya imports fruit pulp for making juices despite ability to produce the raw material. In certain instances the country exports fresh produce like mangoes, pineapple and passion fruits; and imports concentrates to make juices losing out on the benefits of value addition.
Ms Mwende suffered the same experience as a fresh mangoes seller. After collecting the fruits around the village for sale in Chuka town she would find other sellers competing for fewer buyers and more often than not she would throw away rotting fruits.
She got increasingly concerned about the losses and decided to try drying of mangoes as a solution to curbing losses. With her co-director Mageria Migwi, the engineer who has worked and walked with Ms Mwende in creating the factory, they surfed the internet and got little useful information on processing.
Apart from there being no smart phones at the time, the few internet cafes suffered poor network. They got a little information on the drying process.
The engineer in Mageria Migwi cobbled up an open dryer in which they placed all the fruits they could lay their hands on – mangoes, bananas, avocado. The banana and mango dried but the avocado turned black. For four years Mageria continued experimenting with improvements at every stage. He says engineers are patient and get encouraged with any outcome of a process because it offers something to learn. He finally got a machine that could dry fruits and vegetables. Banana was the flagship product. Since then, Sweet ‘N Dried has three main lines – fruits, vegetables and flour. On the fruits line it is producing dry mango, bananas and pineapple slices while French beans, carrots, moringa, kales and spinach line the vegetables segment. The products are sold as Sweet ‘N Dried branded or in bulk to customers who wish to rebrand. Depending on customer and market requirements the products presented as flour ( single or mixed), slices, powder or dried vegetables.
Ms Mwende is showing the importance of processing in the value chain. “There is too much emphasis on production but not enough on marketing. Farmers are increasingly finding themselves with increased production without markets.” She laments.
Succeeding in production was one thing. Who would buy dried products in an environment where fresh produce was readily available? Ms Mwende travelled to Nairobi and walked long distances searching for shops. One day she walked from the City Centre to Yaya Centre and luckily she found a shop selling dried stuff in Valley Arcade. She had samples which the shopkeeper liked. He not only took all her samples but asked for more and more.
From Valley Arcade she continued with her trek and arrived in Karen’s Giraffe Centre where another shop agreed to stock her products. “From the start I knew I was not producing for the locals therefore I went to where the market would be found”, she said.
The factory expansion is driven by customer demand. Some who saw dried mangoes asked for dried sweet potatoes, carrots, arrowroots and other traditional foods. She is processing eight crops – banana, mango, carrots, French beans, pineapple, pumpkin, moringa, kales and spinach and traditional vegetables
Mr Mageria on the other hand, whose name connotes trying again and again says he can tell the best technology in fruits processing, having been the engineer behind Sweet ‘N Dried. He is working on expanding the technology and improving machinery.
Going forward, Sweet ‘N Dried plans to start a biofuel plant using the tons of waste from the fruits to power the plant as part of its green economy programme. Currently they are operating with a generator as they wait for Kenya Power to connect the factory to the national grid, that is taking longer and is a costly undertaking.
Sweet ‘N Dried has employed 30 workers, 90 per cent of these local women with who she relates with as one extended family.
Mwende lamented that while the Meru region led in banana production, nothing in the markets tells a buyer where the product originated. “If we did value addition, branded our bananas and packed the fruits nicely farmers would earn more”, she added.
But, she interjects her own thoughts, this is changing as focus shifts to profiling products through partnerships with governments and support organizations.
When USAID started supporting enterprises involved in value addition, Sweet ‘N Dried was identified as a partner project through field days and trainings. Ms Mwende shared her experiences of transporting ingredients to Chuka for milling and taking the flour it back to Kajuki for packing and back again to Chuka for sale, USAID supported the installation of a milling plant which kicked off the beginning of today’s Sweet ‘N Dried.