When her husband developed lactose intolerance in 2020, Dhruti Shah was in a dilemma.
Not many people can avoid dairy milk, so Ms Shah started searching online, before heading to the retail stores to seek out alternatives for cow’s milk.
This is when she discovered a gap in the milk market, giving birth to her company Podmylk Ventures.
The Kenyan entrepreneur wanted to provide a solution for lovers of milk like her husband, who develop health issues after consuming dairy milk, a concern that had been ignored for years.
She aimed to give them a chance at tasty, guilt-free alternatives to dairy milk, and to enable them to live a normal and healthy life.
At that time, only imported options of milk alternatives were available in the Kenyan market, and the ingredients list of the milk products, she says, "were unbelievable and never worked for us."
Having been raised with emphasis on the importance of clean eating, and avoidance of packaged foods was the start of everything.
She makes Podmylk from nuts, oats, and coconut. The milk has no thickeners or artificial preservatives.
Two years into the business, the milk has seen a steady rise. She sells nearly 100 liters in a week, up from 30 liters when she started the business. A majority of her consumers buy for a week’s supply.
The number of people with lactose intolerance or those choosing to live a vegan life is rising in Kenya, thus the demand for lactose-free products is increasing at a fast pace.
Although priced about five times higher than traditional milk, demand is high. A spot check shows almond, oat, and soy milk stocked at Carrefour and Naivas supermarkets retails between Sh320 to Sh599.
“Consumers are embracing plant-based milk products because of the awareness of so many diseases including eczema, skin diseases, and cancer which are commonly caused by consuming food products full of chemicals. The natural taste that comes with the plant-based products is also irresistible,” says Ms Shah.
In Kenya, international brands have been selling most of the plant-based food options, from soy, hazelnut, and cashew milk, to almond milk, but now Kenyan entrepreneurs are eyeing a stake as they partner with restaurants and major chains.
And with more consumers becoming familiar with plant-based milk, more varieties are finding a permanent space on supermarket shelves such as coconut, hemp, and rice milk.
The rising demand is also fuelled by consumers keen on ethical concerns and sustainability. The plant-based foods market is expected to make up to 7.7 percent of the global protein market by 2030, with a value of over $162 billion, up from $29.4 billion in 2020, according to a report by Bloomberg Intelligence.
If you have lactose intolerance
Banice Kendi, a nutritionist says people with lactose intolerance suffer from a lactase enzyme deficiency, an important element required by the body. They experience digestive issues such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and belching when they consume dairy milk.
“Plant-based milk is ideal for vegans and lactose intolerants. It is also rich in dietary fibers, and contains unsaturated fats and antioxidants which play a big role in reducing health risks,” said the nutrition consultant at Neo Nutrition Solutions.
Not to feel like you are losing nutrients, but some kinds of plant-based milk also contain Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and iodine, which are found in dairy milk.
Some have a near-similar taste to traditional cow milk, but sellers say buyers favour almond and oats milk over soy milk, due to concerns about allergies, especially in children, and that soy is one of the leading genetically modified crops.
However as some sellers record a high number of buyers, Healthy U’s Hilton Branch, one the oldest retailers of healthy food options in Kenya, says sales have dropped after the pandemic.
They now sell 10 packets in a day, from over 15 packets, a few months ago, which they attribute to squeezed incomes forcing households to drop foods considered luxuries. At Greenspoon online supermarket, the delivery stands at five bottles, done twice a week.
The introduction of non-dairy yoghurt by Bio Foods also adds options to Kenyans seeking vegan milk alternatives. Grove and Meadow in Kenya also make plant-based milk, yogurt, and cheese from coconut, cashew, oats, plantain bananas, and cassava.
“Plant-based milk are a new market with demand driven by the increasing world trend for dairy-free milk,” says Delia Brown, the founder of Grove and Meadow, adding that she is optimistic that the products will soon have a larger market.
“The Kenyan consumer is used to imported plant-based milk. This is because there was never a locally available option. Now it is time for our consumers to benefit from our fresh healthy ingredients,” she said.