Kenya: Agribusiness entrepreneur taps into health trend with wholemeal flour

Caroline Alango with her company's products.

Caroline Alango with her company’s products.

Entrepreneur Caroline Alango, CEO of Dashcrop, shares her story of creating a brand of wholemeal flour products, using drought-resistant crops grown by small-scale farmers in western Kenya. Interview by Betsy Henderson

How did you first get the idea for Dashcrop?

I started the company in 2015. Prior to this, I had been working with NGOs, focusing on food security. One issue that kept coming up was that farmers and producers didn’t have a market for their crops, so I decided to do something to help address this gap. Climate change was also a serious problem for many of these farmers; whereas there used to be short and long rainy seasons that were very distinct, the weather is no longer predictable and affects the crops they can grow.

The name of the company came from the idea that farmers would have a place to “dash” or bring their crops and receive good money. In the beginning, we just did aggregation, where we simply bought products (such as cassava chips) from the farmers and sold them into other markets.

Then we had a customer come to us who wanted to source sorghum locally from Kenyan farmers. They asked me how viable that would be, and so we assessed the acreage available and the number of farmers who would be willing to grow sorghum. The idea turned out to be economically viable, and through this engagement we were able to provide the farmers with additional training on good agricultural processes, plus link them with resources where they could access seeds and financing, which helped them be more productive. Today we work with many smallholder farmers across western Kenya.

At that point in the business, we began to add additional value chains of climate-resistant, traditional crops such as finger millet and amaranth, in addition to cassava and sorghum. But then something else came up: we realised there was demand for wholemeal and healthy flour. We discovered this was a gap in the market and did a trial of milling flour and selling it to a few customers near our location.

Most of the flour sold in Kenya today is sifted flour; however, the sifting process removes the nutrients from the grains so that the final product is simply starch. While it may be tasty, it is not very nutritious. So we decided that as a company, our goals would be to ensure that farmers would get good money for their crops as we embarked on our mission to produce healthier flours that would also be affordable to everyday Kenyans.

To start off, we applied to be incubated by KIRDI (Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute) and managed to get three brands approved by the Kenya Bureau of Standards as fit for human consumption. We also realised there was an opportunity to cater to customers who have food allergies and needed gluten-free products. Most of the flour sold in Kenya is currently made of maize but is produced in facilities that also work with wheat, so there is a lot of cross-contamination. Our wholemeal flours, processed from traditional crops, are ideal for these customers. The product line launched is known as Dashfoods.

In the beginning, there was one year we did not break even; ever since, the company has been growing steadily at about 30%, except for last year, where we had a slump due to Covid-19. This year we’re projecting 25% growth, so I think we’ll be okay.

Which is your most successful product?

We are now working with farmers growing crops in six different value chains: cassava, finger millet, amaranth, sorghum, chia seeds and soya beans. All the crops, besides the chia seeds, are milled to make a series of blended wholemeal flours. We offer four key products: composite porridge flour, ugali afya, gluten-free cassava flour and fermented porridge flour, which we are patenting as we are the only company using fermentation technology in flour making.

Each product has its own niche or specific area of demand. For example, our blended ugali flour is popular with Kenyans who are seeking more health-conscious food options. Right now Kenyans are becoming more conscious about what they eat; they don’t just want to eat food, they want to eat healthy food.

In addition to customers who are seeking healthier food options, our brown ugali flour is quite good for those who are diabetic, suffering from hypertension or anyone having health and nutrition issues. We also sell a porridge mixture that is made for everyday households, and that has been quite popular. The composite porridge is preferred by schools and hospitals, while the fermented porridge is a favourite for families

Lastly, we sell pure cassava flour that can be used in pastry-making and is also very good for customers who are allergic to gluten. I’m not exactly sure why, but we’ve found that cancer patients and survivors prefer this product and are one of our biggest buyers of cassava flour.

Right now, there are not many other wholemeal – or unsifted – flours available in Kenya. We are excited to offer these products, and will soon launch a fifth product that is a highly nutritious porridge for children who are lactose intolerant. They can eat it and basically get what nutrients they are missing in milk. It cooks very quickly (five minutes or less) and provides a lot of nutrients, so we’ll be targeting lactating mothers and children who are below two years of age for this new product.

Describe your company’s manufacturing process.

We have one location where we do the milling and packaging, and then multiple collection centres where farmers can bring their crops. At the collection-centre level, we put the crops together and check for quality and things such as impurities or foreign matter that can be seen with the naked eye. We also check the moisture content levels using machines.

After that, we take the crops to our warehouse, where we do the cleaning, sorting, and grading (as the grains come from different farms, they sometimes vary in quality).

The third stage is milling, where we mill each of the individual grains and then blend them together in different ratios for different flour products.

Once the blending process is complete, we then package the products. We mainly offer two sizes of every product: 0.5 kg and 1 kg. Sometimes we have customers who ask for larger quantities (such as 5 kg), which we package as custom orders.

Where are the products sold?

We segment our customers into three general categories: one is institutional customers, such as schools and hospitals; the second is retail chains and small shops; and the third is distributors. Overall, we have 107 stockists who sell our products across Kenya. The majority of our retail points are located from the southern Rift Valley to western Kenya, but we do have individuals in Nairobi and Mombasa who sell our products. We have sent out an expression of interest to some bigger retail stores and are awaiting their response, so our products may be available in other outlets in the future.

Ultimately, I’d love to get our products to other places and explore regional or even global markets. I know we have a unique product for which there is not enough competition globally. For example, we are the only company in Kenya that makes naturally fermented flour, which is very healthy; the same way that you make yogurt, we have taken that natural fermentation process and taste to add value to flour.