Pauline Okubasu once tasted dried fruits in Asia while she was working in the aviation industry. The taste piqued her interest in preserving fruits from Kenyan farmers and selling them locally and abroad.
In 2018, she founded Azaavi Foods in Kyumbi area near Machakos town, a factory that processes about 1.2 metric tonnes (1.2 million kilos) of dried mangoes, pineapples, and bananas per month.
These are then packaged in 100g packets retailing between Sh100 and Sh250.
Azaavi Foods is among the growing number of Kenyan companies seeking a share of the snacks markets, previously dominated by foreign companies.
Ms Okubasu says her aim was not only to earn income but also to provide a market to small-scale fruit farmers, help them reduce post-harvest losses, and drive consumption of healthy snacks.
“I do value the addition of fruits by drying them,” she says.
She started the business in an incubation centre at the Kenya Industrial Research Development Institute (Kirdi) where they were trained for one and a half years.
Azaavi Foods started with a seed capital of Sh10,000 at the Kirdi incubation centre.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the institute closed and Ms Okubasu had to look for an alternative.
“We expanded and moved from the incubation centre to our facility in Machakos,” she says.
She acquired a fruit-drying machine after getting funding from her family members. The packaging side of the business is outsourced as the company seeks further funding to buy its own packaging machine.
Azaavi Foods now processes organic, ready-to-eat dried fruits throughout the year.
“Hopefully, we will start offering a wider variety of fruits and vegetables to meet customer preferences,” she says.
The fruits are sourced directly from farmers in Makueni, Machakos, Kerugoya, Malindi, and Kisii counties, grown under strict good agricultural practices (GPA), a set of standards for the safe and sustainable production of crops and livestock.
This ensures the fruits are of international safety standards.
As most fruits are seasonal, Azaavi Foods reduces post-harvest losses during peak seasons by drying huge volumes of ripe fruits, ensuring dried snack supplies to the market throughout the year.
“Farmers put in their time, effort, and resources to plant, do weeding, and harvest their produce but have challenges in accessing markets. As a result, their produce goes to waste, incurring financial losses, unable to expand their businesses and provide basic needs for their families. This, in turn, creates joblessness in the community and contributes to poor nutritional status or hunger in the communities,” says Ms Okubasu.
For the longest time, the Kenyan snacks business has been dominated by imports, sold in supermarkets. At first, Azaavi Foods started by reaching consumers through digital platforms, before finding a spot on supermarket shelves.
“We recently started selling to mainstream retail outlets like Naivas Supermarket and others to grow our sales. There is a lot of potential with over one million customers yet to be reached,” she says.
“It is a good snack on the go and a lovely companion in heavy traffic. We are all about healthy living,” she adds.
Ms Okubasu’s factory in Machakos has created jobs for youth and women and also does recycling and reuse of organic waste.
She has hired five permanent staff, with another five on a temporary basis depending on the season.
So far she has about 20 farmers on contract. “Most of the organic waste is given back to the farmers for use as organic manure or to be fed to their domestic animals,” she says.
Despite having a fairly successful venture, the business has had its fair share of highs and lows, which she says are learning lessons.
“What has made the business remain resilient despite the challenges is having a strategic plan that guides our actions and helped us remain focused even when we feel like giving up,” she says.
Among the challenges the three-year-old business has faced are the high cost of packaging, access to affordable credit, and market access to big outlets like supermarkets.
“The journey of getting compliant as a small and medium enterprise (SME) has brought tears and sweat with many times wanting to give up. The bureaucracy, the taxes, the disconnected information by county government officers, bureaucracy can be a big hindrance,” she says.
Despite the challenges, she says organisations such as the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, and the Organisation of Women in International Trade (Nairobi) have given her a platform to sell her products and network with fellow entrepreneurs.
A daring entrepreneur since her younger days, she says the dried fruits business is not her first.
Some years back she was a silver jeweller. She later worked in the aviation industry and product development, cutting across the food industry.
A holder Bachelor of Arts in Communication and a Master's in Business Administration in Marketing, now her new venture Azaavi Foods hopes to take advantage of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to grow its footprint across the continent.
To expand its operations, Azaavi Food is on the lookout for angel investors and to bring on board 10,000 farmers over the next five years.
To aspiring new investors, Ms Okubasu has one message: “Start small, don’t give up despite the challenges, and always remember the problem you are solving at the back of your mind,” she says, adding, “join entrepreneur associations, it helps in networking. Like-minded people help you walk the journey. Also, get a mentor."