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How Lilian Bitok turned gluten intolerance into a good business venture

Enterprise
 Lilian Bitok, the co-founder of Gavo Foods. [Yvonne Chepkwony, Standard]

When growing up, Lilian Bitok struggled and suffered from gluten intolerance for decades, without knowing it.

She never knew about the condition, she says. In 2016, she met a nutritionist while at the gym who informed her of gluten intolerance.

Gluten intolerance is when you get sick after eating gluten (protein naturally found in some grains). It is also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

At the time, she exhibited the symptoms as told by the nutritionist, forcing her to start a journey to manage the condition by using gluten-free products.

Bitok, the director and co-founder of Gavo Foods International Ltd, said that she ventured into the business following her personal experience.

“I have a condition known as gluten intolerance. I wasn’t aware of the condition, and my journey towards discovering the problem and solution began when I met a nutritionist who suggested that I should try gluten-free products. Finding the products in the local market was a problem,” she told Enterprise.

Unfortunately, she added that she used to experience abdominal pain and bloating, which led to depression.

Procuring gluten-free products such as flour in the local market was a challenge, she said, prompting her to be creative by inventing flour.

How she started

She stated that she experimented with the products, which had a significant effect on her health and cut weight from 120 kgs to 65 kgs.

She averred that she had researched the product and would attend meetings to understand how to get started.

“In 2021, during a women’s programme in Eldoret, I met Lilian Songok, who had researched gluten-free bread. We connected over our shared name and decided to partner. After extensive research, prototyping, and market testing, we founded Gavo Foods,” she said.

She explained that the journey to develop the recipe took two years, and they were certified as producers, with the company getting a trademark.

The duo invested capital of Sh700,000 for the materials and labour.

“We initially had used a 5kg grinder for prototypes and have since expanded to a miller capable of processing 2 tonnes a day, which is a great achievement,” she started.

While researching, she said they discovered an additional health need, a gap that was still untapped within the local market, which needed to be explored.

With that, the director said that the company has since generated four lines of flour meant for the bakery, therapeutic porridge infused with mornings, children’s porridge flour added milk for infants weaning to five years, and naturally fermented sour porridge.

“We also offer spices such as Paprika, tea masala, and hibiscus. Our products have health benefits for the human body and have been certified by Kenya Bureau Standards (KEBs),” Bitok added.

After working for 15 years in one of the leading insurance companies in the country, she said she resigned after gaining experience in management, product development, and distribution.

She acquired skills and knowledge in Web Development and Digital Marketing after reigning in 2021 to venture into her business.

The skills she said have helped her in marketing Gavo foods, which has gained clients locally and internationally.

The company she said has since grown with investing in research and getting updated on producing products that will align with living healthy.

The company has since employed seven employees working at their factory at the Constituency Development Industrial Centre in Eldoret.

She, however, sources raw materials from local farmers within North Rift.

“We source all raw materials from local farmers and employ seven workers at our factory located at the Constituency Development Industrial Center (CDIC) in Illulla, Eldoret,” she added.

The business she explained has not only grown but has created employment opportunities for individuals, with a significant focus on smallholder farmers, women, and youths.

 Lilian Bitok, the co-founder of Gavo Foods. [Yvonne Chepkwony, Standard]

The impact of Gavo Foods, she added, extends beyond the business success as it actively contributes to the community’s well-being.

“We are proud of the doors that have opened for us and the positive influence we have had on the lives of those we employ and the local farmers we support,” Bitok stated.

Challenges

During the initial stages of developing the company, she said that they encountered a series of challenges such as limited awareness.

The concepts of gluten intolerance and gluten-free, she claimed, were relatively new in Kenya, with many unaware.

“Sourcing quality raw material and finding high-quality posed a challenge in the local market, which required considerable effort to identify reliable suppliers,” she lamented.

Creating the right recipe for the product, she added, involved extensive research, prototyping, and market testing, which took time and resources to develop products that met both quality and health standards.

Introducing Gavo Foods was still a hurdle she encountered as the product faced resistance.

“The breakthrough for Gavo Foods materialised when partners in the value addition space began to take notice of our efforts. The innovative approach has not only gained us recognition but also secured several grants that have propelled us to greater heights,” Bitok stated.

The company survived through strategic planning and commitment, which Bitok says her co-founder Songok being the director in charge of production and quality with her being in charge of administration, sales, marketing, and distribution.

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