An underrated ‘gold’ that can be used as food, animal feed, biofuel, laundry starch and for medicinal purposes
By Catherine Kuria
Cassava is an important source of food in the tropics. The cassava plant gives the third-highest yield of carbohydrates per cultivated area among crop plants, after sugarcane and sugar beets. Cassava plays a particularly important role in agriculture in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, because it does well on poor soils and with low rainfall, and because it is a perennial that can be harvested as required. Worldwide, 800 million people depend on cassava as their primary food staple. In the humid and sub-humid areas of tropical Africa, it is either a primary staple food or a secondary co staple.
In Ghana, for example, cassava and yams occupy an important position in the agricultural economy and contribute about 46 percent of the agricultural gross domestic product. Cassava accounts for a daily caloric intake of 30 percent in Ghana and is grown by nearly every farming family. The importance of cassava to many Africans is epitomized in the Ewe (a language spoken in Ghana, Togo and Benin) name for the plant, agbeli, meaning “there is life”. In Kenya, cassava is mainly grown in the Western part of the country. It is however not a staple food in the country.
Cassava milling is not a new concept but very few people have ventured in to the sector. However, it is a very promising source of income and the market is full of untapped opportunities. Elizabeth Gikebe, a former software developer, is the founder of Mhogo Foods, a cassava milling company based in Banana, Kiambu. Mhogo Foods was founded in early 2016. Cassava flour is gluten-free, which means unlike wheat or barley, it cannot cause abnormal body reactions. The flour has a six-month shelf life and can be used to make bread, pancakes, cassava ugali, brownies, cookies and more.
When founding the company, Ms. Gikebe had a full time job but as the company found its footing in the market, she quit to give it her undivided attention. Her starting capital was Ksh. 10,000. She sourced her first batch of cassava tubers from a friend who taught her the basics of the business and from there her interest piqued. She sold her first milled batch to a supermarket in South C, Nairobi and that is where she established her market for the flour.
Contrary to popular belief, Mhogo Foods is not a family business as she narrates, “This Company is not a family business but the premises used to belong to my dad. He got into the maize milling business in 1990 but later left to engage in other ventures.”
Ms. Gikebe decided to make use of her father’s mills. After a lot of market research she spotted a niche in the cassava milling business since maize milling was doing badly at the time. She was looking for flour that was gluten-free and could be mad from a drought resistant crop. “We source raw materials from small-scale farmers in Busia. We contract the farmers and provide them with seeds which they use to grow the cassava tubers,” she says.
It takes eight to twelve months to grow and harvest the tubers. They assemble the tubers in a central location in Busia where they are washed and dried. Later the tubers are transported to Kiambu for processing. On a monthly basis, they process 5 to 8 tons of cassava that is sold both locally and internationally. “We are very active on our social media platforms and over the years we have amassed huge followings. This is our core channel of marketing but we also engage in above the line medium of advertising” Ms. Gikebe narrates.
At Mhogo Foods, they target the middle and low income earners. They distribute their flour top retail outlets country wide. “Cassava tubers go bad after a few hours if unattended to. We contract and engage farmers from Busia because they have been trained and know how to handle the produce,” she says. The company has created employment opportunities not only to the factory workers but also the small scale farmers in Busia.
When the company was still fairly new, their biggest challenge was how to source cassava tubers from farmers. It took them a long time to find farmers who were willing and able to plant tubers for them. The consumption of cassava flour has also scaled up because in the beginning they recorded sales as low as 200kg a month but now sales are as high as 5 tons per month.
One of their biggest obstacles is that the consumer is not well educated in terms of where to get the flour and how to use it. However, that has not deterred them from reaching out to the consumer and educating him/her about the benefits of the flour and the multiple uses of the flour. Finances are a huge determiner of how quickly a new start up picks in the market. Without a proper starting capital, most start ups are doomed for failure. This was the case for Mhogo Foods but they but they survived the tides.
Ms. Gikebe says that, “Currently in Kenya, we don’t have anybody who is processing pure cassava flour with the exception of Mhogo Foods. That is what sets us apart from the rest. We are the pioneers in the market and plan to keep providing the consumer with high quality multipurpose flour with zero additives.” Plans of expansion are still underway and in the next 3 years they plan on relocating to a bigger and better equipped facility. Currently they export 1 to 2 tons but they plan on expanding they market oversees to be able to import close to 10 tons. They also plan on introducing fortified cassava flour but still maintain the 100% pure cassava in the flour with zero additives.
According to 2014 data by FAO, Kenya’s annual cassava fresh root production is estimated at 662,405 tons, against an estimated annual demand of 301,200 tons of dried cassava and 1,204,800 metric tons of fresh roots (one ton of cassava flour is obtained from four tons of fresh cassava roots). That demand for cassava is high compared to the supply. Kenyan’s should exploit this opportunity and make a living out of it.