When Juliet Oduor's second-born developed severe eczema, the doctor advised that monitoring the food he was eating was likely to point to what triggered the allergic reaction, which caused skin inflammation.
The family kept a food journal, avoiding the intake of wheat, dairy and eggs. They quickly identified that the panacea to the boy's allergic reaction was switching to a gluten-free diet.
"We were still very young and in our household used to consume a lot of wheat. As he was growing, it became harder to keep him away from wheat as he could see what we were eating and he would want to eat the same," Ms Oduor says.
"I decided to do research on gluten-free flour. At that time, it was still a foreign term in the country. The price was very high where, and when, it was available. I realised, after research, that we had various gluten-free flour here in the country, which were mainly used to make uji and ugali."
An experiment later, Ms Oduor was already in the first stages of starting a business. She bought the gluten-free flour and, in her kitchen, made pancakes, "also just trying to see if I could make something from millet, sorghum, cassava and the local flours that we had."
When attending parties, she could bake a gluten-free cake that gave her sons (her firstborn had also experienced mild allergic reactions to gluten) an option. Those who tried the cake wanted some more, a number telling her their bodies reacted negatively to wheat intake, but that they lacked alternative foods.
So she sold them flours.
"At that point, I used to buy the flours and then create the blend, but then in the market, the quality was not consistent in terms of colour, taste, and appearance. I had to create my own blend to assure the quality because food is very sensitive in terms of quality," she says.
Through a friend, the 36-year-old would join the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) where she got trained in the art of making flours.
"In 2019, I mainly did my production from KIRDI but because it was a shared facility, I couldn't just go in any day any time and do production. There was a schedule to follow and I knew if I wanted my business to grow, I had to find a place where I could produce consistently based on demand," she says.
Towards the end of that year, she signed up with crowdfunding company Thundafund, looking for funding to buy a drier, and collected $3,000 (about Sh362,000 today). She then set up her company, Blossom Health Essentials, in Sega, Siaya. Previously, she operated from Nairobi and procured cassava from her home county of Siaya.
With the money from the crowdfunding, she leased space to do the flour production in Siaya. This was done in February 2020, but just a month later, the first case of Covid-19 in Kenya was announced.
The fledgling company survived that global scare and, in 2021, even secured grant funding from the United States African Development Foundation (USADF), and from the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs, who Ms Oduor did a programme with, and added a second drier.
Blossom Health Essentials buys cassava from farmers, then washes, peels, and chops them into smaller pieces, dries, and mills the cassava.
Production happens daily, and the company uses solar dries. This means that production is maximised when it is sunny and slowed down when the weather changes.
Cassava flour can be used to make ugali, chapati, bread, pancakes, and even cakes, she says.
With an aim to work with local cassava farmers and empower them, most of them reliant on agriculture, Ms Oduor is determined to ensure those who have shunned cassava farming due to lack of a ready market resume their farming.
"Cassava is one of the crops that grow well there. Maize doesn't, but people just plant it because everyone in the country plants maize. I wanted to work with the farmers here for them to turn cassava into a cash crop because their complaint has been there is no ready market for that," she says.
Blossom Health Essentials is working to have farmers contracted to it, building trust. "Previously farmers have had organisations that tell them to plant cassava with a promise to buy, but that never happens. We have been there since 2020 so we have built some trust and are having farmers willing to partner with us," she says.
She also wants to create a programme where the company and the farmers have a contract-farming agreement.
The company will also train farmers to grow the specific variety of cassava it wants, and how to ensure that they get maximum yield.
Through the grants it has secured, the last being a Sh3 million one from Stanbic Bank earlier in the year.
Blossom Health Essentials will engage extension officers who can work with the farmers throughout the season to ensure that they get a good harvest.
Scaling up production
Grants have mainly been used to support the acquisition of capital equipment
"We want to scale up production, and USADF is also keen on empowering the community, especially women, so when we scale up production we are able to work with more farmers. We do not deal with middlemen - we want to work with farmers directly and give them a competitive price so they can also reap the benefits of what they are doing," she says.
The young company, which employs four in Siaya and two in Nairobi, has scaled up production and recently started stocking up at Quickmart Supermarkets. In 2020, the annual sales hit Sh350,000. Last year, it was Sh1.2 million. Both have been achieved through the tempestuous periods of Covid-19 pandemic.
Her dream is to expand to other towns, and then countries in the region before the company can unfurl its wings and go global.
"Setting up an industry is not easy, I wanted to be firmly established here (Siaya) before we can consider expanding to other parts of the country. But mostly I want to do it in rural communities," she says. She hopes that as more farmers get back to cassava farming, so will her ability to expand increase.
Her competitive advantage comes in the high quality she promises her customers, she says, born partly out of her experience in the market when she was looking for, with little success, the flours she now makes.
"There is competition but we produce high-quality cassava flour. Also, having bought from the market before, I was determined to ensure that I offer good quality products. Cassava is very light so you find there are people adding other things to bulk up the weight. We do not contaminate products."
She studied biomedical research technology and has a postgraduate degree in occupational safety and health.
The latter, she says, helps her ensure her staff are safe at work and that the food produced by her company is of good quality. She has also secured a scholarship to pursue MBA with the Business School of Netherlands, which she started this month.
Ms Oduor dreams of opening a big industrial facility in Siaya, which can employ locals in their hundreds.
"We do not have an industrial facility in Siaya County so I want to build the first one that will employ many young people and just transform the region," she says.