HANDPICKED FROM THE FARM

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Lucy Karingithi in partnership with her son Jeremy, offer a solution to the worries of clean consumption

By Amos Wachira

In Nairobi and many urban areas, a population explosion is driving the demand for fresh vegetables and fruits.
Satellite towns like Syokimau, Kiambu, Ongata Rongai, Ruaka and Thika have been growing at a fast rate due to urbanisation, according to research by Hass consult.
Other than this, the healthy eating campaigns that persuade the middle class population to live healthy lifestyles have also fuelled the rising demand for fresh vegetables and fruits.
For many urban residents, getting the best quality vegetables and fruits is always a challenge. This is despite the fact that there are numerous markets selling fresh farm produce around the city.
The problem is that little is known about the conditions the vegetables have been grown in. In fact, most Nairobi residents suspect that some of the fresh vegetables and fruits making their way into their kitchens are grown along dirty rivers and burst sewers.
Convenience is another factor. Most people especially in the middle class segment lack time to visit informal markets.

Meeting the need
Lucy karingithi, a Syokimau resident, had always found it hard to get quality vegetables for her family.
In 2014, she started Mboga Masters, a groceries supermarket in Syokimau. “I struggled to get clean vegetables for my family and that is one of the reasons I had to come up with the idea.”
Lucy partners with local farmers to provide fresh vegetables and fruits to residents. “It takes time to get the right kind of farmers growing healthy vegetables but when we get, it is always worth it,” she quips. Located inside Soham filling station in Syokimau, Mboga Masters strives to be the citadel of quality farm produce. Since introducing the noble idea into the local market, it has been well received, with demand for more commodities rising each day.
“People liked the idea so much. I started receiving customers from day one and to keep them coming, I have to be consistent about the quality I give them.”
At some point, she had to stock related items like cereals and flour among other food items to supplement the income. Among the consumption items Lucy stocks are: sea salt, herbs and water; critical components for healthy consumption.
Watching her attend to customers, it is clear the former school teacher is passionate about healthy eating which has always been her biggest inspiration in this business.
There is a shift in eating habits, particularly in urban centers and among high-income consumers. A few years ago, for instance, traditional foods were considered to be a preserve of the poor but as Lucy explains, this is slowly changing. “We are seeing some changes in buying habits. Many of our consumers now want to eat these foods because they are becoming more health conscious. We are seeing the trend even among our young consumers going for more agricultural produce and shunning processed alternatives,” she says.
This she says is the reason the idea of formal fresh produce retail is doing well because these customers don’t want to hassle to source produce such as stem tubers and traditional African vegetables. She notes that a key selling point for Mboga Masters is its wide variety of fresh produce. Sourcing the fresh vegetables and fruits directly from farmers gives her a competitive edge.
Most of the produce at Mboga Masters is sourced from Lucy’s own farm, located within Syokimau. “I have a very productive farm at Syokimau which is operated by my husband.” She however adds that to stock variety she has to source from other farmers.
“We cannot grow everything we sell so we contract farmers to supply us with food items. However, we visit the farmer to see where they grow the food items before we can contract them.”
As the enterprise grows, another challenge that the firm will face is ensuring consistent supply of produce especially now that some consumers are demanding organic produce.
“Customers want to know that the produce they are buying is healthy and without toxins. Some consumers have ailments, such as diabetes and lupus, and have even more strict eating patterns. So we really have to go out of our way to ensure we have what they need every day, and that it is of the right quality.” To keep up, therefore, she has to be selective of what she stocks and that’s what makes their business stand out.
With competitive prices, Lucy is upbeat that her groceries store will continue providing customers with quality foods. “Our prices might seem higher than those of the open market, but when customers realise what we are telling them is true they keep on coming back.”
With her deep knowledge of various kinds of vegetables and herbs, Lucy has always found it rewarding to explain to her customers the different health benefits of various items on display at her shop.
“I feel good and they feel good to learn so many new things about the same vegetables they have known all their lives. I even print posters which I stick on walls,” she says pointing at a poster on the wall of her shop.
Other than the vegetables business, Lucy being environment conscious, also stocks biodegradable shopping bags.
She says she looks forward to the day when the government will make good its ban on plastic bags, which are a menace to the environment.

The duo
Lucy runs the thriving enterprise with the help of her son Jeremy, a graduate of a British University with experience in business management.
“My previous work experience was with multinationals where there is a lot of order, structures and investment in top quality. So when I joined the business, the biggest challenge was just ensuring we are attracting good talent, training people, and getting them to think about career growth not just doing the same thing every day,” he explains.
Jeremy says demand for formal retail services is on the rise and has injected fresh ideas into the business. He introduced an in house kitchen that serves meals. He also introduced a butchery section after analysing the demand for meat in the area.
The mother and son duo says they have managed to build an amicable working relationship. They have leveraged Lucy’s experience in agribusiness and Jeremy’s business school training and international exposure.
“She is very quick at trying things while I take a longer time to turn around because I first want to see facts and numbers. We have reached a good balance because I know even though I bring science, she brings gut feeling and valuable experience,” he says.
Mboga Masters also runs an online store that seeks to deliver fresh produce and ready food to customers within and around the area.
The firm also delivers its goods to the capital city, where demand for fresh produce is always high. It has contracted a logistics company that makes deliveries on its behalf.
“We want to build a new concept that we can replicate in other satellite towns, but also within Nairobi, and be able to exist in the same environment with supermarkets. Syokimau is a good testing ground for us because it is not a unique place. There are many other places across the country that has similar characteristics and customer profiles.”
The restaurant became an instant hit due to the rich menu on offer.
Jeremy has grand ideas to take the restaurant business to the next level. “We introduced an open plan kitchen and it has become a hit with local workers who come to dine here. We are also experimenting with meetings and we are marketing the restaurant as a meeting venue,” he offers.
The enterprising duo looks forward to making their small enterprise a household name in and around Syokimau.

Hurdles
Like any other business, Mboga Masters has had its challenges. As Lucy explains, the sourcing process is lengthy.  “Sometimes the weather affects produce, other times commodities run out of stock which means travelling long distances to get produce, but we still have to be true to our standards,” she explains.

What it takes
Commitment is key, if this business has to succeed.  “This is because, it may take so much more than just buying and selling, it takes going out of the way to source quality produce.”
Secondly, one has to have financial discipline. “Business requires a lot of integrity, hard work and accountability.” While she handles the sourcing and quality assurance, Jeremy is in charge of operations and finances.

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