In 2008 as an attendant in his father’s retail shop, Paul Gitonga made a habit of studying each item and recording the manufacture and expiry dates and where it was packaged. What troubled him was that nearly all items were from Nairobi, including bread and milk.
He was not happy marketing products made by other people yet they could make their own: but he was also inspired by some traders in the town who were making a petroleum jelly.
“As I watched the jelly product grow, I started thinking of others we could package and market,” Mr Gitonga said during a recent interview at their shop in Meru town.
It was during the same time that his father, Stephen Kibaya, started milling indigenous grains such as finger millet and sorghum and selling the flour.
His father would send him to the posho mill with a couple of kilos for each of the grains; they then put the flour in buckets and mixed it for clients in their desired quantities.
This went on for more than a year after which he thought of packaging the flour.
“The idea came about when during my visits to the mill I realised that people with small families milled as little as a kilo of mixed grains. I figured that we could package the flour in small quantities to cater for their needs as we improved on hygiene,” he told Enterprise.
Armed with this market information, the entrepreneur smelled a business opportunity and started attending training sessions organised by the Agriculture ministry in collaboration with the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC).
“I learnt a lot on nutrition and value addition for various agricultural products. But learning about fortified products was the turning point in our flour business. It was an eye opener,” he recalled.
He convinced his father and brother, Julius Nteere, that there was an opportunity and in 2010 they registered a company — Nubian Foods Industries — with him as managing director in charge of sales and marketing, his father the chairman while Mr Nteere became the production director.
They sought relevant government approvals and sent samples to the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) which gave them the green light. The family then borrowed Sh100,000 from AFC to buy machinery including a posho mill and invested Sh10,000 in raw materials.
Father and two sons started milling millet and sorghum and packaging the flour into various quantities ranging from a quarter a kilo to two kilos.
But although the trio was excited to set up a company, it came with challenges. Mr Gitonga walked around hawking the products and leaving samples with retailers who promised to pay after selling them. Most times they ended up with losses, especially after hiring delivery vans and realising nil sales, he said. But they did not lose hope.
It was not until 2012 when major supermarket chains opened branches in Meru town and stocked their products that they started penetrating into the market. They also started supplying flour to Meru General Hospital where recovering patients and those on ARVs for treatment of HIV/Aids relied on their fortified porridge to boost their immunity and appetite.
Their products are also a favourite with aged people and breast feeding mothers.
From a production of only 100 kilos of flour per month at the onset, today Nubian Foods has a production capacity of about 5,000 kilos per month.
Their brands — Family Porridge, Herbal Porridge, Stinging Nettle, Fish Porridge, Cassava, Moringa and Soya flour — have a presence in Meru, Isiolo and Laikipia counties. The flour, which retails at an average of Sh110 per kilo, is also fortified with ingredients from pumpkin and amaranth seeds to sweet potatoes.
Mr Gitonga said they also give their customers tips on how to store and handle their products, which have no preservatives and a six-month shelf life.
“Flour should not be exposed to moisture because there is a content beyond which it will go bad. It is also prone to infestation by pests and should be kept in clean containers,” he noted.
“Since dealing with food needs a lot of care, we also control quality from the source. For instance, there is a recommended moisture content for all grains and we test it for conformity. If it does not meet the standard we send farmers back with their supplies.”
The business, however, faces scarcity of raw materials, since few farmers grow millet and sorghum, forcing them to import some from Uganda and Ethiopia.
“At the same time these indigenous crops are competing with horticulture that farmers have embraced. To solve this problem, we plan to contract farmers who will supply us with the raw materials,” said Mr Gitonga.
While the grains are expensive with a 100 kilogramme bag of millet and sorghum going for Sh8,000 and Sh4,000 respectively, they cannot increase prices of their products since competition is growing.
He said that they plan to expand in about two years’ time by buying more equipment to double production and increase their workforce from the current 15 to about 50 workers.
This will enable them expand to other counties beyond Nairobi where they recently introduced their products.
To ensure that family matters don’t interfere with the running of the business, Mr Gitonga said that they embrace professionalism and have employed an accountant besides subjecting their books to scrutiny by external auditors.
He pointed out that there are many opportunities for value addition, especially in horticultural products, and encouraged the youth to venture into such businesses.
“If you look at the needs of the consumer, you realise that there is demand for many products that we can make. The youth should embrace innovation in cottage industries because this is an area that has huge potential for job creation,” he said.