After a one-year stint as an executive at a regional bus company, a new business idea popped into Rob Nursten’s head.
He left his job as general manager of Kampala Coach Bus Company in 2012 to pursue his idea of manufacturing popcorn from ordinary maize.
The self-taught Zimbabwean engineer transformed his idea into reality by assembling a popcorn maker in Nairobi which could heat ordinary white maize until it explodes.
This was the birth of a snack Mr Nursten refers to as popped maize — not popcorn — and is now sold under the brand name Yalika, which means edible in Kiswahili.
“I thought of making a snack out of maize, which is the staple food in Africa,” said the entrepreneur, who first came to Kenya in 2011.
“The innovation fills the great demand for a wholesome and affordable snack that can be consumed at school, on a journey, to work, to play or to a party,” says Mr Nursten.
Yalika popped maize is prepared without use of oil or fat as it happens in making of the ordinary popcorn, hence delivering a healthy snack.
“It has no preservative, no additives, no added oils or fats and is only seasoned with just a little salt.”
Tucked in a godown on Mombasa Road next to the Syokimau railway station is the small factory where Mr Nursten manufactures his product. The value addition to maize transforms the worth of Kenya’s staple food more than tenfold given that an 18g packet of Yalika retails at Sh10.
Popping white maize is the latest venture for the techie who in 1994 founded Data Control and Systems — Zimbabwe’s pioneer Internet service provider.
In 1999, Mr Nursten sold the company to Econet Wireless, owned by Zimbabwean telco billionaire Strive Masiyiwa.
Yalika began operations last November and has a capacity to produce 300 bales, each consisting of 100 small packets of the special popcorn. The factory sources its maize from local players and produces an average of three to four bags of popcorn daily.
At the face of it, the workshop where Yalika is manufactured appears ordinary. A medium-sized steel machine — an invention of Mr Nursten — sits at the centre of the room.
The gas-powered machine consists of a cylindrical belly where the maize is poured and heated to the point that it pops.
The process of popping ordinary maize is extremely noisy and sounds like gunfire, given the extreme heat and pressure the grains are subjected to.
Mr Nursten says he had the idea of making popcorn from ordinary maize for about two years.
He says he developed his engineering skills while growing up at a large-scale farm in Rhodesia, the present day Zimbabwe, where he would help his father in work such as welding, wiring, repairing farm machinery and assembling mechanical parts.
“I’m a jack of all trades. I love designing and making stuff.”
The 65-year-old finally fabricated his first popcorn machine in 2012 to test his idea – after months of experimentation, modification, and innovation to perfect the device.
“I developed a small machine as a proof of concept to verify my theory,” says Mr Nursten.
Ordinary white maize does not pop when cooked in oil, like popcorn. If roasted, it becomes very hard and when cooled or boiled, its lifespan is shortened, and it is difficult to pack when wet.
So just how does this man pop ordinary maize?
“The concept is my trade secret. But the idea is to heat the maize at very high temperatures,” Mr Nursten told the Business Daily.
“It’s like ugali in a packet.”
He then sent the prototype design to China so that it could be fabricated into an industrial machine.
Yalika was registered as a company in October last year and he began test runs on the machine in Ngong before relocating to Royal Business Park in Syokimau.
Nutritionists say popcorn is high in dietary fibre, antioxidants and is low in calories. The fact that Yalika is not made using fat makes it an attractive snack to people with dietary restrictions.
He says the previous job at Kampala Coach was his first and last formal employment.
“That was the first time I worked for anyone. I honestly don’t like getting instructions from anyone,” he says.
Mr Nursten says he had invested about Sh350 million in the venture to procure machinery, research and development, leasing space and hiring 20 workers.
The self-made innovator is currently recruiting distributors and retailers for popped maize.
Yalika products are currently available at Chandarana Supermarkets, kiosks and dukas around high traffic locations such as schools and bus stops.
“I’m in talks with other supermarkets and we hope the product will be available at other outlets soon,” says Mr Nursten.
He is also building customised kiosks to sell to small-scale resellers of the products. Using wire mesh and iron, the two square metre stalls will be branded Yalika and owners will be allowed to sell other fast-moving consumer goods such as soft drinks, bakery products, groceries and toiletries.
Mr Nursten, who attended Gilbert Rennie High School in Northern Rhodesia, now says he has made Kenya his home.
“I have decided to stay here. This is a beautiful country and the weather is almost like Zimbabwe only that Kenya has two rainy seasons,” he observes.
He recounts painfully how he lost most of his wealth during the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe in 2008 to 2009 precipitated by President Mugabe’s confiscation of white-owned private farms.
“I was holding all my money in Zimbabwe dollars which became worthless.”
But the entrepreneur picked up the pieces and is now focused on building Africa’s next snack giant. “This is an opportunity to create jobs and wealth,” he says.