Ashes of Kenya’s post-election violence inspires grain milling business

On 31 December 2007, at the height of Kenya’s post-election violence, Isaac Chege who had travelled to his hometown of Eldoret watched helplessly as hundreds of people, among them youths he had grown-up with, attacked his family and burned his father’s hardware and cereals businesses. This experience led to the establishment of Uchumi Grain Millers. Regina Ekiru interviews Isaac Chege, founder of the company.

Isaac Chege with a bag of Msosi maize meal

Isaac Chege with a bag of Msosi maize meal

How did you start Uchumi Grain Millers?

After the attacks, as I went through the ashes, I was tormented to find our grain stores and cereals burnt. I wondered why they had burnt a food reserve, I mean they could have taken the food and burnt down the structures.

Having safely evacuated my family, as I drove back to Nairobi I witnessed similar events along the way. Lots of food had been destroyed, grain stores had been burnt down. I knew one thing for sure, whether or not the violence ended, people would still need food, even those burning and destroying property would need food. With the destruction and displacement, I could tell a food crisis would hit the country any time soon.

I was convinced to venture into the food business and the only food business I knew too well was to do with maize, having grown up in Kenya’s bread basket in Rift Valley. At about that time an established grain milling factory was being sold, I teamed up with my family and purchased the facility. That marked the birth of Uchumi Grain Millers.

Tell us more about the products the company produces

We sell maize meal. Msosi maize meal is the flagship brand of Uchumi Grain Millers and it is sold in towns across the country. In Nairobi, it sells in estates, informal settlements and neighbourhoods close to the central business district. These areas have a large population and high appetite for ugali (Kenya’s staple meal). We are glad that our niche market is made of clients who are loyal and appreciative of our brand. In the last three years, Uchumi Grain Millers has grown. We currently employ 25 people directly and 1,000 indirectly because of our large distribution network.

Did you always have a passion for entrepreneurship?

I studied Actuarial Science at the University of Nairobi and did a Masters in Commerce at Strathmore University. I worked for four years at a couple of insurance firms in different capacities. In my last assignment I was the Assistant Manager Group Business at a local insurance firm. I had a good career path in the industry, but I was raised an entrepreneur. I wanted a bit of independence, something I could not have in employment. With this kind of personality I couldn’t fit in, I had to quit and follow my passion for entrepreneurship.

What are the major challenges you face in running the business?

The grain milling business is competitive, capital intensive and raising funds can be a challenge. The biggest hurdle is to understand the market and being able to supply what our clients need and expect from us. To get around this, I make occasional visits to the slums and other areas our products sell to strike a rapport with our clients. We are also integrating information communication technology such as bulk SMSs in our efforts to create more awareness for our brand.

And your plans for the future?

I would like to form a few more respected corporations in the near future. We are also planning to unveil tastier animal feeds as part of our product expansion. We are currently undertaking research and development in this area as well as planning to produce more forms of staple food other than the basic maize flour. Our goal is to have an integrated industrial group dealing in agriculture-related products bringing value to customers, farmers and to us.