From class to market: Student turns project into gluten-free food processor


Lilian Bitok and Lilian Songok, directors of Gova Foods International, a food company based in Eldoret. FILE PHOTO | STANLEY KIMUGE | NMG

Every year, hundreds of Masters and PhD research projects into real societal problems are published.

Often, the students graduate and walk away with their certificates to look for better-paying jobs.

Meanwhile, the solutions proposed remain another note in Kenya's long history of poor implementation of research proposals.

Lilian Songok is among the few who have seen their project from research to commercialisation.

In 2021, Ms Songok, 43, together with her partner Lilian Bitok, 38, founded Gova Foods International, a firm that deals with gluten-free keto organic products.

Its products range from all-purpose flour, baby porridge flour, sour porridge, and spices such as hibiscus and masala tea to honey.

Ms Songok says the nudge to go commercial came after attending a training workshop at the Kenya Industrial Research Development Institute (Kirdi).

“I was referred to a senior researcher at Kirdi who told me it (project) was an innovation. He encouraged me to apply for research funds to develop it,” recounts the entrepreneur who graduated with a Master’s degree in Community Nutrition from the University of Eldoret in 2021.

Her research was about coming up with a gluten-free bread that would go a long way to assist people with gluten intolerance, malnourished children and people facing severe hunger.

Ms Bitok battled weight issues due to gluten intolerance.

“I tried everything but I didn’t know I was gluten intolerant. A nutritionist advised me to use gluten-free products and I did not comprehend what gluten-free food entailed but I was advised to take sweet banana . . . I stopped consumption of wheat products and it worked because I ended up losing weight,” says Ms Bitok, who worked with an insurance firm for about 15 years before quitting to go into the venture with Ms Songok.


Lilian Songok (left), director of Gova Foods International and a worker showcase some of the dried natural diets. FILE PHOTO | STANLEY KIMUGE | NMG

The duo pumped Sh800,000 as the initial capital which they used to purchase an electric dryer, a commercial milling machine and two small grinders.

They set up their firm at the Constituency Development Industrial Centre (CDIC) located at Illula, on the outskirts of Eldoret town.

Initially, they started with 12 kilos of flour. At the moment, they mill over 150 kilos of flour in a day but are working to increase the capacity to over one ton within the next three months to meet the growing demand for the products as more Kenyans become more health conscious.

Their client base comprises individuals, corporates and organisations.

“These products are in high demand as more people become aware of gluten intolerance. We also have three hospitals that have expressed interest,” says Ms Bitok, adding that ‘currently, we sell our products online and do deliveries across the country.”

The global gluten-free products market is to reach $11.10 billion by 2029, a growing rate of 8.45 percent

The prices of flour range between Sh450 and Sh800 per kilo. They plan to mill five kilos and 10 kilos for hotels and organisations.

Some of the raw materials range from sweet potatoes, millet, pumpkin, cassava, moringa, cauliflower, amaranth, garlic, ginger, carrots, black pepper and herbs such as hibiscus among others.

They source these materials mainly from farmers from Busia, Kakamega, Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet, Uasin Gishu and Meru counties.

Some of the challenges that they have to struggle with include a lack of raw materials and financial constraints.

To mitigate the scarcity of raw materials, they contract small-holder farmers to plant the agricultural produce organically to provide a ready market for their produce.

Last year, they also participated in the East Africa exhibition in Uganda where their products were certified to enable them to sell the products within the region.

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