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How medium enterprise started exporting indigenous vegetables

 Women preparing indigenous vegetables at Inter Region Economic Network new shop at Shianda in Mumias East. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Nothing defines a people more than their lifestyle mostly hidden in the flavour of their foods.

That identity is, however, often lost when people travel abroad and get accommodated in other cultures with alien foods that mean little or nothing to them.

This agony is what inspired Inter Region Economic Network (Iren) Growthpad, to venture into helping rural farmers grow and develop African Leafy Vegetables (ALVs) that it buys, adds value and sells to major towns in Kenya and abroad.

Esperance Chesoli, the marketing manager of Iren, says they export the vegetables to countries and states that are majorly occupied by African immigrants who adore the cuisine of their motherland.

"The love for ALVs among this group is legendary, you have to see how they scramble for them once they land in America. To them the vegetables are more than food, they mean connecting with their African roots and heritage," she says as she shows us a sample of the vegetables they deal in at their Mumias East farm in Kakamega.

Packed in 60 and 500-gramme water-tight containers are seven types of indigenous vegetables peculiar to the Lake region climate that are packaged for sale to the local market and are now focusing abroad where the returns are promising.

They sell a 500 gramme container of dried Sagaa (spider plant) to retailers at Sh1,200 Thimboka (Amaranth) at Sh1,000, Managu (African black night) Sh1,000, Mitoo (Rattle Pod) Sh800, Mrenda (Jute mallow) Sh800 and Kunde (cowpeas) Sh700.

To achieve a constant supply Iren Growthpad has established hundreds of farmers in the Lake Region Economic Bloc (LREB) to plant indigenous vegetables and help them in preserving them so that it doesn't get spoiled after harvesting.

Cate Ayange says they link with county governments and other partners to train the farmers to cut on post-harvest loss which is a common factor in the business.

"We also help them apply landscape and sustainable land management systems for mitigating land degradation which in turn contributes to poverty reduction in rural areas where they are largely based," she says.

Iren Growthpad specifically collects vegetables from the LREB because they are tastier compared to those grown in other climatic zones in the country. "We take vegetables from small-scale farmers, sort, pluck, dry then package for sell to hotels in Kenya as the bulk is packaged for export to the Americas where the market is very good," she says.

"Our clients crave the indigenous vegetables because most of them, especially the bitter ones, have medicinal value. In at least 100 grams of ALVs there is over 100 per cent of the recommended daily requirement for an adult for calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, and 40 per cent for the proteins."

They are happy that through their partnership in the LREB they have tackled nutrition-related health issues, improved sustainable diets and economically empowered women who form the bulk of their suppliers.

The organization has two major farms in Kakamega's Makunga and Matende areas where they plant their own indigenous vegetables to supplement what they source from their over 200 farmers.

The major challenge they face is low supply, especially during dry seasons for Sagaa, Sutsaa and Tsimboka across the lake region area.

"The ALVs are often low-input, pest-resistant, and climate-resilient but are hard to come by during the seasons. This is why we need more partners to help rural farmers do sustainable ALV farming because the market is there and expanding rapidly," says IREN Growthpad director James Shikwati.

"We landed our first batch of the ALVs to the USA this year and found an overwhelming demand in supermarkets. We are now sourcing for partnership with warehouse owners who can house our products in bulk in the USA."

This year alone they managed to reach supermarket shelves in Berlin, Washington, New York, Maryland, Qatar among other states and countries and now want to expand by empowering more rural farmers to grow the vegetables by buying them at premium rates.

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