- Six years ago, Jonathan Bamber and Ofelia Burton saw a gap in the healthy snacks market.
- The dried fruits business started with a request by a group of mango farmers in Embu.
- This year alone, they have processed more than 300 metric tonnes of mangoes, bananas and other fruits and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
For the longest time, the Kenyan snacks business has been dominated by imports.
Snacks used to be biscuits, confectionery, and crisps only, yet fruit farmers with bumper harvests could add value to their produce and get a share of the ripening industry.
Six years ago, Jonathan Bamber and Ofelia Burton saw a gap in the healthy snacks market. They started Burton & Bamber Company that makes Sweetunda snacks in Sofia town, Machakos.
The dried fruits business started with a request by a group of mango farmers in Embu. They said, “stop selling us what you think we need and start buying what we produce.”
Mr Bamber and his co-founder Ms Burton took up the challenge and it marked the beginning of the social enterprise.
They aimed to create markets for the smallholder farmers, reduce food waste, implement local value addition and technology transfer and sell healthy snacks made-in-Kenya to the world.
But their biggest gain? Fruit farmers from Machakos, Embu, Murang’a, Kitui, Makueni, Meru and some parts of the Coast region no longer let their harvest rot in farms or sell it at throw-away prices to middlemen.
“Our interaction with farmers revealed that almost 70 percent of Kenyan mangoes and other seasonal fruits never make it to the market and end up rotting in the farms. We sat down with them and developed this business model, which we still employ to date,” Mr Bamber says, adding that they pay “premium prices for high-quality fruits.”
The company not only buys fruits directly from farmer groups but also trains them on improved agronomy and underwrite Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certification for farmer suppliers, ensuring the fruits are of international safety standards.
The business began by drying mangoes in a bungalow in Thika. It has since grown to a big factory in Sofia town in Machakos with a capacity to process over five metric tonnes (5,000 kilos) of fresh fruits per day and now has assets valued at Sh44 million.
“We pick fresh mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes from farmers contracted through self-help groups. We process them into snacks with no added sugar,” says Mr Bamber, a Briton, who has worked in Africa for many years, as a diplomat and a development professional.
The company is in its growth phase and has launched other products, including granola, orange-fleshed sweetpotato snacks, and aseptic, orange-fleshed sweet potato puree, for the bakery market and food manufacturers.
He says the company seeking to take a substantial share of the local and international snacks markets is one of the few in Kenya using small-scale aseptic technology to preserve maximum nutritional value in fruits and vegetables, which could be a game-changer in fighting stunting and malnutrition in starving children.
This year alone, the company has processed more than 300 metric tonnes (300,000 kilos) of mangoes, bananas and other fruits and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
It employs up to 50 workers in peak season. It hopes to hire more as plans to increase production.
Even as the Machakos firm takes a local approach in the battle for the global snacks market, Ms Burton and Mr Bamber, say there is still stiff competition from established importers, but they are optimistic as demand is shifting to healthy snacks.
“Consumers are getting more conscious about the impact of good diet choices, and what goes into the products they consume. Value for money is another driver when it comes to buying decisions. Our product portfolio focuses on better-for-you snacks that deliver better nutrition. Our Sweetunda brand has begun to displace imported items,” Mr Bamber says.
“Although consumption of dried fruits is not high in prevailing Kenyan food culture, there is an increasing appetite for snacks which deliver more nutrition and guilt-free enjoyment,” he adds.
Currently, Sweetunda products are sold in Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, whilst bulk exports reach Italy, Czech Republic, and Holland with more global destinations in the pipeline.
Their main competitors are long-established suppliers from South Africa, Ghana, Mali, and South America, however, Ms Burton, who has expertise in manufacturing says there is still a huge untapped opportunity in the dried fruit market and that the private sector should be a catalyst in fuelling growth in agriculture.
“There is a knowledge gap that can be bridged if the private sector and other partners come together and this would greatly boost food security through value addition, as well as offering sustainable incomes to smallholder farmers,” said Ms Burton, whose products have found shelf space in Carrefour, Naivas, Chandarana supermarkets and independent grocers across the country.