Novice stumbles on niche market with family spices


Stephen Machua is the founder of Piquant Spices, a spices manufacturing startup. FILE PHOTO | POOL

Stephen Machua's entrepreneurial journey started with a costly failure, but one that has turned out to be his biggest business lesson.

He sank Sh250,000 of grant money into tomato farming. He, together with his partners had hoped that the investment would return not less than Sh1.2 million.

The math was right, the returns weren’t and they had to contend with a measly Sh9,000.

To many an entrepreneur, the costly setback would have been enough to persuade them to retreat to the safety of employment and live a risk-free life. But not Stephen.

He leaked his wounds and woke up the next day to go to Kutus, Kirinyaga County where he was researching a new product- banana flour that didn’t see landfall.

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The storm swept that boat away before it could dock. Because as he says, “banana flour is great on paper, but it doesn’t make any business sense. You must dry a lot of bananas just to come up with a kilogramme of flour.”

But he did not give up.

Then, he chanced upon an idea. Why not create spices for what he calls the kadogo market? The spices were to be well packaged for the retail customers.

That is how Piquant Spices, a spices manufacturing startup started.

With the remaining part of the grant from the government of Kenya and the World Bank (collectively the grant was Sh3.6 million), Stephen spiced up the idea and set up a small time manufacturing plant to make spices.

In his words, he saw a gap that had been ignored.

“If you look at the market, you will hardly see spices that have the whole family in mind. Either they are too hot for children, or too bland. I wanted to create something the whole family could consume without the need to call a doctor.”

With fire in his bones, Stephen got into it in Mach speed and produced two products -tea masala and pilau masala- in the first phase of his newfound love.

It was a baptismal exercise for him as he plunged into his first attempt at a startup.

Does it get easier having two products in circulation?

“You don’t rest. You achieve one thing, and the next idea keeps you awake at night,” says the youthful entrepreneur.

And he has more products in the pipeline. “We have ten products at the certification stage at the Kenya Bureau of Standards. Ten products that he says will have adhered to a similar script. A whole family of products for the whole family. Beef Masala, Chicken Masala, Cumin, Cinnamon, Cardamon among others.”

He sources his raw materials from aggregators, people who go to farms from as far as Zanzibar and Uganda to get them.

“We get some products from suppliers in Marikiti [Nairobi]. It is important to get them from such places because they are considerably cheaper as they are straight from the farm. Our plant is based at a government facility where we have storage as well.”

Piquant Spices go into production twice or thrice a month, depending on the market demand. Most of their clients order from their website.

Is he making a profit, this writer asks. He is a dyed-in-the-wool businessman and he attempts to philosophise the answer like all businesspeople would do when met with this question.

He ponders a bit and then, shoots straight from the hip to the bullseye.

“Yes, we are making profits. But our model of a startup is lean and therefore it is easy to be under the illusion of profit-making because we have been removed from such overheads as rent and going down storage facilities. We can pay salaries, cover any other overhead and afford time for such an interview,” he says.

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Are the products in major stores across the country?

“We have encountered headwinds in our attempts to get there. We have only been in operation for one year, I think the stores haven’t trusted us as much. Then there is the challenge of credit terms. At this stage, it is important that we lock in all the revenue we can. Large stores have lengthy sales conversion rates and that may not work for us.”

To push their products they have a robust sales team that scouts for new markets at granulated levels. Their target clients are running minimarts and kiosks in the estates.

Stephen wants to expand his reach to the larger East Africa region. His products are already in Tanzania and Uganda. They are looking at getting into DRC this year.

“I am looking for money! Either investors to buy equity in the firm or a grant, or something.”

He wants to set up a factory which in his estimation would take tens of millions of shillings. That is what keeps him awake.

His biggest lesson this far, is “never be afraid of trying something new.”

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