Whenever a discussion about dried fruits pops up what comes to mind is dates, raisings and mangoes famously known as achari.
However, have you heard of dried pineapples?
Pauline Okubasu, started her dried fruits business Azaavi Foods in 2018 after working in the cooperate world for 11 years. The business idea was birthed during one of the 2017 El Nino seasons.
“Getting food from the farm to the market was quite difficult. For those who lived in Nairobi, any food that came in was really expensive. Food loss was common and access to the farm was also difficult due to bad roads. That was a concern for me because I am very cautious when it comes to eating healthy,” she says.
These many food challenges prompted her to think about how she could extend the shelf life of perishable foods.
“In 2017, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reported that Kenya was at a crisis level of 8.4. Many people died that year due to poor nutrition, lack of sufficient food and starvation. Research findings indicate that among the root causes of this was post-harvest losses.
Farmers put in their time, effort and resources to plant, weed and harvest their produce but faced challenges in accessing the markets,” she says.
As a result, their produce would go to waste, they incurred financial losses, were unable to expand their businesses and provide basic needs for their families.
These factors pushed Ms Okubasu to start her business.
“Having been in the airline business and traveled to the Far East, I had seen that they dried fruits and these are the things that I used to love gifting people. I saw a market gap. I reckoned that in Kenya we have seasonal fruits which people love. To allow them to enjoy them throughout the year, I reckoned I could dehydrate them and prolong the shelf life say over one year then we can maintain the nutritional value as we eat,” she recalls.
To test the waters, she started with mangoes, pineapple and bananas, after going for further studies at Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) for one and half years.
At KIRDI they helped her in developing the products, ensuring that she complied with food safety, health regulations and also assisted her in getting the standardised mark after the products were tested and ensured they were fit for human consumption.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, just like other institutions, KIRDI closed and this affected Okubasu’s business at a time when she was already penetrating the market.
“I lost customers because I could not fulfill the orders. I was idle for four months. During that time, I reached out to family and asked if they could support the business. My husband was so understanding and he helped me with the finances that I required and I opened my factory,” she says.
Step by step she was able to build the business and now she has employed five women, three in production and two out and front office.
Okubasu says she works closely with farmers and her hope is to grow and expand to other fruits.
“I had started to dry oranges but I am not able to buy the packaging. The design is different and expensive. So every time you want to do product development it is very expensive,” she says.
She says she’s very keen on good agricultural practices and does training for processors and farmers.
“We visit farms and look at the fruits, how they are being farmed, if the farmer employs best agronomic practices, the fertilisers used, if they are keeping records,” she says.
She adds they have gone further to empower the farmers to do value addition so that they can also make more from their produce.
The dried fruit packed in 100g cost from Sh130 to Sh260. In a month she produces 1.5 tonnes of dried fruit.
“We capitalise on high season. Sometimes in high seasons we produce even two tonnes so that we store. You might find that sometimes we do not do production because we have enough stored for the year,” she says.
Given how far she has grown, it is impressive to learn that she started with Sh15,000 as her capital.
Though the business has broken even, there are still challenges.
Access to credit
Ms Okubasu says banks have not understood the sector very well. Since most of the products are perishable and seasonal they wonder if you would be able to pay the loan.
“In case you have collateral like land the bank would want an assessment fee. If you ask them to assess the land and whatever you were going to give me deduct but they want it upfront,” she says.
She says they are always writing proposals for grants that are not easy to come by.
Okubasu says the registration process is too expensive for small businesses.
“To get quality clearance, you have to pay Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) for each product,” she says.
“As a small trader, you are taxed everywhere... from the farms to the transport. Businesses licenses are expensive and eat into profit margins. There is health licensing which I see as a duplication. On the business license there’s health which you pay Sh5000, but you still have to go to a health facility and pay another amount Sh5,000. It can be quite challenging,” she says.
But despite these hurdles, she says there is no room to give up.