Lawyer who left the court corridors for back-breaking flour milling business

Stawi Foods CEO Eric Muthomi during the interview at his Roysambu premises. The entrepreneur is eyeing a bigger market in Africa. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA
Stawi Foods CEO Eric Muthomi during the interview at his Roysambu premises. The entrepreneur is eyeing a bigger market in Africa. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

In a small production facility behind Thika Road Mall, wafts sweet smell of roasting millet while five workers are packing flour in bright-colour packets.

This is Stawi Foods, a five-year old company built from scratch by Eric Muthomi, 29, as an answer to the problem of banana post-harvest losses in rural Meru.

Even before he was done with his studies, Mr Muthomi knew that his future lay not in court corridors but in the uncertain path of entrepreneurship.

A trained lawyer, Mr Muthomi has since 2010 built a modest business, dealing with two porridge flour brands and banana flour and the struggles are finally beginning to pay off.

“My reason for transitioning from law to agri-business is because I wanted to create impact in the society,” he said.

“In Meru where I come from, there are a lot of bananas and farmers have a real problem accessing the market. Most of it ends up rotting and I wanted to provide the farmers a market where they can earn a fair price for their produce.”

But he had no idea how to start or where he would get the capital. So in his final law school year, he headed to the Ministry of Agriculture with just a vague concept of what he wanted to embark on.

It was at the ministry that the idea was refined. They helped him develop a business plan and connected him to the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (Kirdi).

The institute assisted Mr Muthomi to develop his prototype banana flour and have it certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs).

The banana flour is made from dried chips of green bananas, which are then ground. After eight months at Kirdi, he left to start production in rural Meru at a small facility. The first batch of the product hit the market in March 2012.

As the business picked up, Mr Muthomi introduced porridge flours for children and adults and moved the enterprise to Nairobi in late 2013.

The porridge flours are a blend of maize, sorghum and millet sourced from markets around the country. They are pre-cooked (roasted), milled and blended to deliver the required nutritional balance.

Although Mr Muthomi is shy to reveal profits and losses, the flour batches being prepared and employee numbers tell a story of a vibrant firm.
“Since 2012, we’ve been doubling our production every year,” he says.

The porridge flours are made from whole grain in what the entrepreneur says is important because he is keen to pass on the full health benefits.

While porridge flours have taken root in the Kenyan market, the banana flour whose selling point is being gluten-free is a hit in Europe.

And the international financiers are starting to take notice. Last year United States-based Thriive, a non-profit organisation that provides interest-free loans to social enterprises advanced Mr Muthomi Sh1 million to expand his enterprise.

The businessman, who featured in the Business Daily’s Top 40 Under 40 ranking, got seed capital from parents and the loan together with a new shareholder has eased the strain.

Having nine employees, he is keen on making Stawi a household name in Africa for healthy foods.

The company is placing itself for expansion and last year brought on board seven board members.

It is sourcing bananas from 300 farmers in Meru, most them women in what Mr Muthomi says allows the full benefits to trickle down to families.

Normally farmers would sell a bunch of bananas to middlemen at Sh300 but the company offers about Sh450.

“I feel proud having watched this idea grow from scratch into a company. When I see the products on the supermarket shelves, I feel proud.”