Transforming a loss maker into a force for community growth in Africa

Dhiren Chandaria and Nikita Chandaria.

“Don’t be afraid of trying.” This is what Dhiren Chandaria tells me as we conclude our early morning interview at his Kihingo village home in Nairobi.

This is a personal mantra he says has worked wonders for him at the helm of various businesses in North America and Africa.

Born in Kenya and educated in England, the ambitious builder of successful businesses in Canada and the USA returned to Kenya in 2008.

Armed with no knowledge in the food industry, he took on the challenge of turning around a company he instinctively knew had potential.

He would then go to work strategising how he would turn the sinkhole with zero returns on the dollar into one of the most advanced producers of Ready to Use Therapeutic Food in the world.

Therapeutic food refers to high-calorie foods used for emergency feeding by relief organisations. He managed to do just that. He cites agility as something that has kept his business afloat.

“My ability to move quickly is what keeps Insta Products at the forefront of innovation,” he says.

The company produces high-calorie fortified Ready to Use Therapeutic Food.

“It is used for emergency feeding by organisations like Unicef and the World Food Programme to treat people suffering from acute malnutrition. According to our records, by the year 2020, we had shipped food to 1.29 million children across the 20 markets we operate in”

About 70 per cent of the company’s therapeutic foods are being used to treat drought-related malnutrition in Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda, among other countries.

“It has taken patience, hard work, and sacrifices to build our company to what it is currently. We have a workforce of 105 employees supplying nutrient-rich foods to 20 markets across the world,” he says.

Dhiren says at the time of its acquisition in 2012, the company was in a sorry state, with dilapidated machines and a growing mistrust within the markets it served. “We found a company in huge debt. It would receive orders that wouldn’t be delivered. It was also making zero dollars in sales. But in there was a great potential to solve humanitarian problems,” he added.

His daughter Nikita Chandaria, currently the Vice President of New Business of the Company, describes his father as a hands-on person, a virtue that has played a critical role in expanding the company’s market portfolio beyond the Kenyan borders with major clients, including Kemsa, Unicef, Amref, Usaid, MSF and the World Food Programme.

The clients, who are mainly donor-funded, buy the ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) and give out to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to feed refugees or people facing drought, conflict challenges, natural disasters, and most recently zones hardly hit by the Covid-19 pan-demic.

“Dhiren has a background in chemistry and business, but has not let the formal education limit his capabilities. When he steps into the factory, you may think he studied mechanical engineering, because he fixes machines around and designs the factory the way he wants it,” she notes.

“To turn around the company, the team embarked on quality innovation and cost management in the entire production process,” Nikita adds.

Other attributes that have made it possible for Insta Products achieve milestones is the open door policy which has broken the barrier between the lower cadre employees to its top management including the Chief Executive Officer’s office.

Turning around the company has not been without its challenges. The company has to deal with continuous investment in the factory machines and systems to ensure the end product is of high quality.

To address the challenge of raw materials for the food products, the company, through the Food and Agriculture Foundation (FAO), UNHCR, and IKEA Foundation have pioneered a ground-nut project in Turkana County. The four-year project on 750 acres will benefit from a ready market offered by the Insta Products Company, but it also has a ripple effect of benefitting the Tur-kana community and Kakuma Camp refugees, who are targeted to work on the farms.

“Quality is a critical component of this business, you mess up with it and you are out of business,” he adds.

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