Roars of a giant boiler and a dryer reverberate across the hall as tens of workers bury their heads picking chaff off a large tray of beans while others pack the grains into small colourful packets.
Rose Mutuku, the managing director of Smart Logistics Solutions, signals one of the workers to switch off the boilers before the interview can begin.
Ms Mutuku who was once known for aggregating sorghum from small-scale farmers across the country has recently invested in pre-cooked beans.
“Once we boil the beans, we put them in a dryer after which they are packed for sale,” she explains, adding they are boiled for 15 minutes to be ready for consumption.
Besides offering ready market to thousands of bean growers across the country, this value addition venture also provides ready-to-eat beans to hundreds of city dwellers who either do not have time or fuel to cook the cereals.
Due to limited time or fuel, a number of city residents opt for cooked beans sold by the roadside that sometimes is suspected of containing unverified additives such as bicarbonate soda for speedy softening.
“The grain takes several hours to prepare. But our work is to basically reduce the cooking hours by boiling through hot steam,” explains Ms Mutuku, adding that they also make bean flour from the boiled grains.
In 2015, Ms Mutuku says, they used to dry the beans under a shade after boiling.
“Some of them would burst when exposed to wind and the sun, hence there was no uniformity. Our capacity and efficiency were also low since we could only boil 10kg a day,” she said.
They began scouting for technology in 2016 to improve volume and hygiene, ending up with a partnership of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), a global body dealing with malnutrition. They acquired better equipment.
Ms Mutuku says GAIN sponsored a market survey that exposed them to a larger consumer base and supported the development of a business plan and finally got a grant to procure equipment.
They now process between 200 and 300 kilos of beans weekly, which they sell in small packages at Sh30.
In value addition, packaging remains crucial both in determining the cost of the product and marketing, the official said.
She adds they initially invested in cheap packaging that ended up being costly and increased the cost of production as well low customer appeal.
As a result, her company used to sell a packet of the packed beans at Sh50; it went down to Sh30 on improved packaging. “We mainly target the low-income consumers since most of them consume beans, which is a cheaper source of protein compared to beef. Unfortunately, many of them cannot afford fuel to prepare the beans,” she explained, adding they prefer the ‘nyota’ variety that is high in iron and zinc.
The processor is working with more than 4,000 farmers across the country who supply them with the raw materials.
In Kenya and across the continent, value addition is proving a big deal for small-scale farmers, offering them ready market for produce, enhancing product shelf-life besides providing nutritious food.
Unfortunately, not many farmers in the country have the financial wherewithal to invest in value addition.
Kenya’s economy, like those of many African countries, largely relies on agriculture, driven by small-scale farmers whose tiny plots of land provide food for millions of families in rural and urban neighbourhoods.
Owing to low income and poor infrastructure in rural areas, a huge chunk of the harvests rot in the farms as farmers do not have the right market links. As a result, growers hoping to cash in on their produce must trade with middlemen or lose out.
Recently, however, a number of small and medium scale agri-processors like Smart Logistics Solutions are stepping up their efforts to fill the value addition gap and are transforming the agricultural landscape.
Lincoln Mbogo, a proprietor at Full Spoon Ltd, is also an agri-processor working with groundnut farmers in western Kenya.
Mr Mbogo’s entreprise processes the nuts into peanut butter. The products are sold in a sachet of 40 grammes in urban areas.
The biggest challenge in processing the nuts, according to Mr Mbogo, is the shortage of the groundnuts.
“When we started the venture in 2015, our main aim was to create market for dozens of groundnut farmers in Busia County who could not find market for their produce,” he says.
However, Mr Mbogo realised that the farmers could only produce 1.5 tonnes annually, which could be processed just within two weeks.
“So, we had to look for groundnuts elsewhere; that is when we realised a huge percentage of what is consumed locally is actually imported from Malawi,” he pointed out, revealing the picture of limited production.
Some 300 farmers produce half a bag, he added, explaining that peanut farming is more rewarding compared to maize since it pays more.
“We buy 100 kilos of groundnuts at Sh16,000 which is good returns for the farmer,” he noted.
Besides the challenge of finding peanuts, Mr Mbogo says aflatoxins in groundnuts also give processors sleepless nights.
“Luckily, many farmers in Malawi have been trained. Before we buy we check the moisture content of the grains that should never go beyond eight percent.”
With the raw materials from Malawi, the processor says they are able to meet market demands both in terms of quality and quantity.
Starting off, they produced 60 kilos a day, but that has increased to 1.5 tonnes per day.
Fullspoon Ltd also received Sh9.4 million from GAIN in grant to buy a roaster, cooling conveyor belt, a de-husking, griding and packaging machines.
The SME also received technical assistance in market research and business planning prior to the grant approval.
He says the best groundnut variety for peanut processing is the red variety which in Malawi is known as SG7.
While value addition may involve processing of farm produce, it also includes provision of cold storage and market linkages so that farmers can easily find the market for their highly perishable goods.
In Nairobi’s Baba Dogo area, Mahat Ali is buying and aggregating fresh vegetables from farmers, creating ready market for the farmers.
Mr Ali works with farmers across 10 counties and 300 mama mboga (women vegetable sellers). He buys at the farm gate, reducing human handling of produce, hence enhancing food safety.
Although not a processor, Mr Ali got a grant to buy a cold storage facility. “We now want to train mama mboga on food handling and give their kiosks a facelift so that the level of hygiene is maintained across the value chain,” he says, adding they handle more than 100,000 kilos of vegetables weekly.
Harold Mate, a senior project manager at GAIN, explains that the organisation supports agri-processors with knowledge and grants to scale up innovations aimed at addressing nutritional deficiencies among the low-income consumers.
Mr Mate points out that one in every three people across the world is malnourished, a situation the organisation is trying to curb by addressing malnutrition.
He observes that in many countries — rich and poor alike— foods that are rich in nutrients, like fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables, are often too expensive for ordinary people, or they are unsafe, inconvenient, unattractive and simply not available.
At the same time nearly 40 percent of food is lost due poor post-harvest handling, hence investing in value addition helps to cut the losses.
“We are supporting businesses in dairy, egg, fruit and vegetable and staples such as fortified maize flour. Kenyans are not very high consumers of eggs and vegetables though nutritious; therefore, we are focusing on businesses that can make available these products safely and affordably to consumers,” said Mr Mate.