For close to a decade, Elizaphan Gichangi was a trader in different varieties of cereals at his shop in Embu town. His stock included millets, rice and beans.
Although his business was doing well, it was not growing as fast as he desired. However, his break came when he found a technology that enabled him to turn the grains into snacks through popping, a process normally used to make popcorns.
The popped pearl millets are then mixed with groundnuts, baobab, turmeric, simsim oil, ginger and cinnamon powder to produce sweet snacks.
Baobab, tumeric and hibiscus are used to add flavour.
The trader pops between 35 and 40 kilos of cereals daily, which he packages and sells to local retailers.
Mr Gichangi buys the pearl millet from smallholder farmers, who have found a ready market for their produce thanks to Mr Gichangi’s business.
“We conduct inspection to make sure the grains meet the required standards. The grains are then winnowed, sieved and cleaned,” he says.
“They are washed with clean water, rinsed then sun dried.”
From a kilo of pearl millet which Mr Gichangi buys at Sh70 a kilo, he churns out more than 144 small snacks in form of bars which he sells at Sh10 each.
While Mr Gichangi’s innovative idea is fetching him a handsome income, the venture is more than money making investment as it brings the underutilised yet nutritious indigenous crops to the menu of households in rural areas.
How did he get the idea of adding value to cereals?
In 2016 while running his cereals business, the businessman met researchers from Bioversity International, a global development organisation dealing with agricultural biodiversity. The organisation trained him on how to add value to cereals.
In 2017, he travelled to Japan for further training.
“I gained a lot of experience in Japan. In Japan they have improved machines and they also pop cereals in large quantities and there is a very huge market,” notes Mr Gichangi.
Upon returning to the country after a few weeks training he decided to replicate the idea and founded Kieru Foods. He secured a certification from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) to process the cereal snacks. And since then, the sky is the limit for the entrepreneur.
Patrick Maundu, Ethnobotanist at the National Museums of Kenya and an honorary fellow at Bioversity International says since some of these cereals are associated with dry land climate, they essentially improve food security.
The organisation started the project in the country in 2016 with assistance from the Japanese government and the Ministry of Agriculture to support nutrition programme and conservation of crop genetics.
The organisation is currently training several groups of famers in Kitui, Migori and Bomet counties in popping millet and other legumes.
“The advantage with popping is that the nutrients in the pearl millet become concentrated but the moisture content is reduced and the nutrients are maintained,” observes Irene Induli, a nutritionist at Bioversity International.
Mr Maundu says the cereal value addition initiative covers three key areas — conservation of genetics, nutrition and employment opportunities for the farmers
By adding vitamin C rich fruits such as mangoes and baobab to the snacks, one easily addresses deficiency and issue of malnutrition, he says.
Mr Maundu points out that both pearl and finger millets which are drought-tolerant, are crops whose genetics are slowly dying, besides dwindling in importance due to competition from maize.
“The initiative helps in conserving genetic resources (of the orphaned crops) because once we find the use of the crops, we are able to conserve the genetics at the farm level. It also helps in employment creation for the youth and a source of income and food security to smallholder farmers,” adds the expert.
While the country has policies aimed at conserving crop genes and policies to cultivate and market the minor grains and indigenous crops, the expert notes that the country has not given much attention to traditional grains and in the process they are lost.
“Although certain amounts of the varieties are stored in the gene banks that is only a drop in the ocean. If you lose what the farmers have, then you are bound to lose a significant part of a country’s genetic resources. It is important to help farmers maintain and develop genetics,” says Mr Maundu, adding that the neglected crops are key to enhancing food security.
Anthony Sawaya, Embu County director of investment and Development Corporation, says they have put in place robust technical training on marketing products, and linking entrepreneurs to agri-financial support from credit institutions.
The county, he notes, has developed a programme known as ‘smart partnership’ which helps entrepreneurs in improving their innovations.
“We pair young innovators from the Embu University College with some of the entrepreneurs to help them look into ways through which they can improve their productivity,” Mr Sawaya says, adding that they also link agri-prenuers with relevant bodies charged with patenting and marketing.