Tawi Fresh: The platform cutting off brokers to grow farmers' earnings

Wairimu Keriri at her farm in Tigoni where she grows managu, spinach and cabbages which she supplies to commercial kitchens through Tawi Fresh. [Graham Kajilwa, Standard]

As a farmer, Wairimu Keriri lives by one mantra: there is a market for everything you grow. “As a farmer, you cannot control the quality of your crops. They cannot all be standard. So you will have very good quality and others that do not do very well, but there is a market for everything,” she says.

And a harvesting process that ensures she has a market for everything is key for her business. The tradition of filling up a truck and driving to Marikiti Market at the crack of dawn is not ideal if there is an alternative.

It is a tried and tested method of selling that she says has left her in the red. “If I put my vegetables to go to Marikiti Market, I am not 100 per cent sure my truck will come empty,” says Ms Keriri, the brains behind Tigoni Veges, under Tigoni Farm Ltd.

Markets like Nairobi’s Marikiti, she says, are lined up with brokers who will offer you a given price for what they want and leave you with the rest. “The challenge is once you have harvested a crop, you must sell,” says Ms Keriri.

But for farmers like Ms Keriri to sell all their produce, they need to know where to go to solve the challenge of being left with “unsellable” stock.

It is the same challenge Cherotich Rutto had when she started farming, which led her to set up Tawi Fresh, where she is the chief executive. 

She describes it as a digital marketplace for B2B (business-to-business) e-commerce transactions, financial services and value-added services from farm to fork.

The startup, which is under SC Ventures, an arm of Standard Chartered Bank, was officially launched in May 2023 after being under incubation for some time.

Ms Rutto’s passion stems from her struggles as a farmer during a period when she did not know how to access the market or where to get any information on what she wanted to grow.

Seasonality of crops

She also cites brokers and access to capital as some of the hurdles she had to overcome. “We did not have the information. We did not know what to grow or what time. We did not understand the seasonality of crops,” she says.

“And the brokers exploited us in terms of pricing.”

This led her to explore how technology could be used to solve all these problems. And Tawi Fresh was born to serve smallholder farmers by connecting them to not only buyers but also a support system to better their practice.

Farmers are onboarded onto the platform based on their produce, which has been aggregated, depending on the demand of commercial kitchens that are also on the platform. Commercial kitchens include restaurants, schools, caterers and hospitals.

Once the commercial kitchens put in their requests, which could range from farm produce like manage, spinach or cabbages, which Ms Keriri grows, to edible flowers or eggs, Tawi Fresh aggregates the amounts at 2pm every day and reaches out to the respective farmers producing those items.

A truck is sent to the farm with a Tawi Fresh official to collect the produce. A quality check is done at the farm gate before any item is loaded.

After loading, the produce is taken to a packhouse where another quality check is done before it is packed and dispatched the following day at 5am.

The farmer is then paid within four to seven working days.

It is this process that enticed Ms Keriri to join the platform. She says when Tawi Fresh comes to her farm, they only harvest what they need according to the quality specifications of the commercial kitchen. “Tawi Fresh demands very good quality, which is why they are perfect buyers. They come to the farm and choose what they want based on their buyers’ demands. If they do not pick that other vegetable, I will always find a buyer for it, so I do not go at a loss,” she says.

Ms Rutto views this process as the perfect loop. This is because it does not start from the farmer but from the commercial kitchen.

“We assess what demand comes through. If clients say they need ginger, once the demand comes, we go look for that farmer who grows them. We do not look for farmers then search for demand,” she says.

“We understand which regions produce what in what season. We have been able to map this out. We have a team on the ground which reaches out to farmers and encourages them to onboard. We do not deal with any farmer not on our platform.”

Collecting potatoes

Joyce Mutuku, who is in charge of operations, says this loop is an add-on advantage to commercial kitchens for traceability purposes.

“Imagine a broker who went round with a truck collecting potatoes from 10 or 15 farmers. When they arrive at the market, you can only trace that product back to the broker. You do not know where it was grown or what kind of chemicals were used,” she says.

She adds: “For us, we know all our farmers, what they grow, and when we order, we know whom we have ordered from that particular day. We have that level of traceability where if there was an issue with an item, you can trace it back to the farm.”

So far, Tawi Fresh has onboarded over 1,000 farmers and more than 650 commercial kitchens. The range of products is 250 for fresh produce and combined with partners who supply items like edible flowers, sausages, cereals and meat, making the platform a one-stop shop for chefs.

Ms Rutto says the ultimate goal is to also make Tawi Fresh a one-stop shop for farmers. Having their transaction data on the platform can help them build a credit score, which will solve access to finance. She also hopes to onboard other partners like agro vets and experts, so that a farmer can be guided on how to take care of their crops.