Company targets Kenyans ‘aspiring to drink wine, eat cheese and smoke cigars’

Delia Stirling and her husband Andy quit their high profile careers in the US to settle in Kenya and run one of the country’s leading cheese producing companies, Brown’s Cheese. The firm exports across east Africa and is now looking to expand to Dubai, India and the US. How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi visited the Brown’s Cheese farm in the agricultural town of Limuru, outside Nairobi, and talked with Delia about the couple’s success in dairy processing.

How did Brown’s Cheese begin?

My parents started Brown’s Cheese about 32 years ago. Back then there was very little cheese because there was a ban on imported cheese and only one manufacturer produced locally. My dad kept bugging my mom for some brie cheese, so she made some for him and people kept trying to buy it from her. Now we make 70 different varieties of cheese. The market here is very small for just brie cheese, so we had to grow through the product range. We also have lots of chefs asking us for new products. We love cheese a lot and always want to experiment with new products. My husband and I bought the business from my parents two years ago and we have been running it since then. We lived in the US for about ten years, but both my husband and I love food and it was a good opportunity to come back.

What was your experience like as new farmers in Kenya?

We had a six months transition period where my parents worked with us before they moved to northern Kenya. It was challenging at the beginning of course. Either way, in the last two years we have doubled our production. The farm is six acres big and we have 25 cows but the milk they produce just makes the starter culture for our cheese. We buy more milk from about 3,000 farmers in the area. We buy about 1,000 litres per day. In a day we make about 900 kilograms of cheese. We sell our cheese regionally across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and we are now working on Dubai, India and the US. Our cheese is top quality so we compete well on the international market.

Describe some of your greatest challenges

The quality of milk is an issue. The milk industry here has an interesting pricing method. It’s like there are two markets going on. About 60% of the milk in the market is sold by brokers (middlemen) and 40% is sold by processors who follow protocol and regulations. It’s a split market. Processors face a challenge when competing for milk against brokers who don’t have to pay for additional costs. There is also not enough milk in the market.

Distribution of products regionally is a challenge too. Our cheese is about five times as much on the shelves in Rwanda than in Kenya. Regionally, we transport cheese using refrigerated trucks, but when it gets there it’s very expensive. There is room for companies to come and do more efficient transportation using refrigerated trucks.

Do Kenyans really have a cheese eating culture? Who is your target market?

My most loyal customers are Kenyans who eat cheese. The Kenyan middle and upper class is expanding, and everyone is aspiring to drink wine, eat cheese and smoke cigars. There is a huge generational shift in Kenya. Ten years ago no one knew what pizza was; now Kenyans eat pizza. It is a growing industry, so our job is education and organising cheese tasting events. In five years we see more and more people eating cheese, not just in Nairobi and Mombasa, but also in other major towns across the country.

Where do you see the business in five years?

We hope to do a lot more exports. We also plan to open a second factory.

Is farming a lucrative business venture?

I used to work in a fancy office but this is a lot more fun. I grew up on a farm and I valued farming. I think there is a shift and people are starting to appreciate the value of farming and growing your own food. There is definitely money in it if you are efficient. If you can provide high quality milk for instance, then there is definitely money to be made.

What advice would you give to other farmers in Kenya?

In the past NGOs would tell farmers that there is money in processing yogurt and cheese, for instance. A lot of cooperatives have been stung by this because they bought equipment with loans and there is no money anymore because of competition. The problem is that there is no market distinction, no differentiation.

I would caution farmers to find their market first, either by supplying say yogurt to one hospital or hotel group. They could also partner with processors who have strong brands and supply them with high quality milk at better prices. That way, there is a profit sharing.

What does it take to build a successful business?

Lots of energy, constant product development, ability to innovate as the market changes and patience.