Hunt for quality seeds gives birth to thriving agribusiness


Rachel Akeyo, founder of Arbres Biotech. PHOTO | COURTESY

When Rachel Okeyo settled on growing grapes at her farm, her biggest headache was finding quality seedlings at a fair price.

At the time, she was looking for 6,000 seedlings but was shocked to learn a single piece goes for Sh300 and this was dependent on time of year.

This was the drive behind the founding of Arbres Biotech, a company that generates improved seedling varieties using tissue culture technology.

The technology uses extremely small pieces of plant tissue taken from a carefully chosen mother plant and growing these under laboratory conditions to produce new plants

“After being discouraged by the quality of available seeds, I developed the desire to develop seedlings that would be available to farmers easily and affordably,” says Dr Okeyo, a plant genetics scientist who co-founded the company with Victor Ikawa.

The plants are germinated in jars under controlled conditions.

Micro-propagation of orchids started at one of the two labs run by Arbres Biotech located in Kitengela, Kajiado County, in 2018. While the plan was to see if they would germinate, one seed ended up producing 2,000 seedlings.

This marked a major milestone for the startup that had yet gone commercial.

Soon, orders started coming in for propagation of bananas, something that compelled the scientists to rethink their business model.

This was about the time when there was a call for the Standard Chartered Bank women in tech incubation programme at Strathmore. She successfully applied for the incubation.

Dr AOkeyo notes that being a scientist, she was hardly conditioned to think like an entrepreneur and the orders made it feel like a dive into the deep end.

“The incubation is what validated my business and it turned out that I had underestimated its commercial potential,” says Dr Okeyo who has been doing tissue culture for the last 20 years.

Today, aside from micro propagation services, the startup does research for farmers, and offers extension services including assessing soil fertility.

The target customers for Arbres Biotech are large nurseries where it supplies seedlings that need hardening before they are distributed to farmers. Seedlings are going for an average of Sh50 a piece, but this is expected to come down with increase in volume.

A single lab could service up to 2,000 farmers which means that the farmers are by extension its customers.

Its other lab is hosted at the Biotechnology Unit in Kalro (Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation), a national institution bringing together research programmes in food crops, horticultural and industrial crops.

The lab located in Kabete handles banana propagation.

Both Arbres Biotech labs can handle up to 20,000 seedlings at a time but plans are underway to grow this capacity.

Since it takes a minimum of six months to service an order, customers have to make their requests in good time. For instance, if the plan is to have the seedlings by July, then the orders ought to have been made by January.

To boost production capacities, the startup is seeking to collaborate with an agribusiness company to work on an efficient way of producing more seedlings per month.

The agribusiness company whose name is kept under wraps since negotiations are on-going is keen on micro-propagation of coffee.

Arbres Biotech which has three employees has also got orders for cocoa growers and is in contact with associates in Ghana, one of the largest producers of the crop in Africa alongside Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria.

The startup is also doing research on different fruit trees including pixies macadamia, grapes and apples with intention to micro-propagate them to get volumes.

“You need to do mass production in order to get value for money in tissue culture. Doing in small bits hardly gives anything in return,” says Dr Okeyo who teaches Plant Biotechnology part time at the University of Nairobi.

The initial capital for the enterprise was Sh400,000 most of which went into purchase of machines including the autoclave used for sterilising, micro flow cabinet, distilled water and water distiller.

The distilled water is used in composition of plant tissue culture media which is used essentially for growing plants. It contains vitamins, a carbon source and micronutrients.

Initially, the company which has been largely bootstrapping m, used to buy reagents locally. But currently it is buying directly from the suppliers since switching to bulk and this is expected to bring down running costs.