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How malnourished patients inspired village girl to invent rare millet snack

Irene Etyang's innovation gave birth to Akimaa Limited, an agro-processing company through which Etyang’ seeks to enhance the local food system through innovations. [Omelo Juliet]

Irene Etyang’s dream of assisting malnourished patients regain their health is fast turning into reality.

The village girl from Teso North in Busia County believes pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Food Science and Technology has moved her closer to attaining her goal.

Etyang' first interacted with malnourished patients at the Kenyatta National Hospital wards where she worked as a volunteer in 2018 after graduating from the University of Nairobi.

“The condition of the patients got me thinking. I wanted to do something about their situation yet I could not figure out immediately what to do. Being a volunteer at the facility, there was little I could offer,” says Etyang’.

But it was not long before she developed the idea of making sweet and savoury millet snacks with the patients in mind.

“I had been tarmacking in the dusty Nairobi streets for a couple of years before I opted to work as a volunteer in the hospital. I don’t regret the decision because that is how I conceived the idea of preparing millet bars,” Etyang’ told The Standard.

She smiles with delight looking at how big the innovation she conceived in a hospital ward has grown in leaps and bounds.

Her snack is wholesome and nutritious, one that can be taken by people with health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart complications, cancer and hypertension comfortably.

The innovation gave birth to Akimaa Limited, an agro-processing company through which Etyang’ seeks to enhance the local food system through innovations.

Initially, Irene Etyang used to produce her products from her parent’s house in Teso North but she lacked the basic equipment to help her do the work effectively. [Omelo Juliet]

“People find my tasty millet snack a perfect replacement for sweet foods people cherish because our ingredients contain low fats, have natural sugars and are highly nutritious,” she said.

With increasing cases of lifestyle-related health complications in Kenya and Africa, she says her millet bar will play a critical role in helping people ingest what their bodies require the most.

“I discovered that many children in rural Kenya are malnourished due to deficiency of the required minerals. We have been taking the millet bar to them because it offers basic nutrients including proteins, carbohydrates, calcium, iron, zinc and phosphorus which are vital for children's growth,” said Etyang.

Etyang’ was busy preparing the millet snacks when The Standard visited her new location in Kisumu town.

She mixes finger millet, honey and peanuts to come up with the yummy millet snack.

“All the ingredients are sourced from farmers in Teso North. Millet is one of the orphaned crops because people perceive it as a poor man's food. However I encourage farmers in Busia to embrace the crop because it is of more value to their health and that of other Kenyans,” argues Etyang’.

Besides, millet is a climate-smart crop and could thrive during dry spells unlike other crops like maize according to Etyang'.

The health scientists also produce instant porridge which comes in two packagings; special mix and sour mix instant porridge.

According to Etyang’, breastfeeding mothers prefer instant porridge because the product offers huge health benefits to both the mothers and their babies at the weaning stage.

The special mix is made from a mixture of millet, amaranth, some jaggery and peanuts while the sour mix is made from millet, peanuts, tamarind and jaggery.

“I call it instant porridge because the mixture of the ingredients is usually pre-cooked and packed in powder form and all you need to do is add hot water to make it. Mothers prefer it because it saves them the time of cooking porridge from scratch,” she says.

Etyang’ revealed that she has been feeding children in Turkana, Kisumu, West Pokot, Baringo and Busia counties with her porridge and millet snacks.

“These are counties that are hard hit by malnutrition in children. The instant porridge being a super meal provides them with their daily nutritional requirements and it makes me happy to see the children grow healthy,” she said.

Her snack is wholesome and nutritious, one that can be taken by people with health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart complications, cancer and hypertension comfortably. [Omelo Juliet]

Usually, Etyang supplies instant porridge to schools and hospitals to fight malnutrition and at the same time help keep children in school.

“So far, we have had positive feedback from the school heads that the porridge is making learners regain their health and improve in their studies,” she said.

Her innovation has generated job opportunities for at least three graduates who help Etyang’ in making her foodstuffs.

Initially, Etyang used to produce her products from her parent’s house in Teso North but she lacked the basic equipment to help her do the work effectively.

“I was forced to look for alternative means to increase production to meet the demand. That is how I landed at Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) in Kisumu where I have access to all requisite equipment,” she said.

KIRDI is a national research institute that supports start-ups, growth and development of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

Unlike in the past, Etyang’ is able to produce her foodstuffs in bulk and ensure they reach different destinations in good time.

Apart from helping the malnourished children and patients in Kenya, Etyang’s invention has won her many international accolades.

She was among 100 people feted in the 2021 Meaningful Business award for dedicating their work to tackling the world’s most pressing issues and helping achieve the UN Global Goals.

The food technologist was also among five Kenyan corporate and business leaders among the 2021 Meaningful Business 100 awardees.

She had earlier been nominated as the Leader in Innovation Fellow Rising Star by the Royal Academy of Engineering, London and she is alumni of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, Kenya.

Etyang’ says her focus is casting her net wide by broadening her products base.

“We are in the process of developing a food innovation hub in Busia and when this is achieved, I will embark on the expansion of our market niche and go international,” she said.