Kenya: Food entrepreneur spots business potential in gluten-free market

Mary Karoki, founder of Onja Foods

Mary Karoki, founder of Onja Foods

By Atieno Odera, bird story agency

Mary Karoki, founder of Onja Foods in Kenya, has responded to growing health concerns and dietary needs by developing Uji, a unique gluten-free flour.

I’m in the kitchen at Onja Foods, situated in the middle-class residential estate of Nairobi’s South C, and company CEO Mary Karoki is explaining to me how to make gluten-free pancakes using the company’s Uji flour.

“The first step is normally sifting the flour, but first we’ll be measuring one and a half cups of the flour, then we add one spoon baking powder, mix well, then sift. Sifting helps us capture the big particles. After that, add three tablespoons of sugar, combine, then set it aside the dry ingredients,” explains the 30-year-old entrepreneur.

Next, she prepares the wet ingredients by mixing one cup of milk with two beaten eggs and adding two tablespoons of vegetable oil.

“Mix the wet ingredients and add together with the dry ingredients, mix until it’s very smooth, make sure there are no lumps … put a bit of butter on your pan, preheat, then you are ready to start making your pancakes,” she says.

Onja Foods’ product, Uji, is a unique gluten-free flour created by mixing amaranth, pearl millet, sweet potatoes, and rice.

Earlier, Karoki was in her office, making sure that all the previous day’s orders had been filled.

“This is how a normal morning at Onja Foods looks like. We have to make sure everything is in order before embarking on the day’s activities,” she explained.

Karoki shares her gluten-free recipes on her YouTube Channel, ‘Onja Foods Kitchen – Gluten-Free in Kenya‘, part of the company’s campaign advocating a gluten-free lifestyle. Through her agri-processing food business, she aggregates, processes and distributes gluten-free products made mostly of cassava flour, sweet potato, chickpea and composite flours, countrywide.

“We locally source the raw materials from smallholder farmers in Kenya and add value to these crops, then produce into gluten free flours and gluten-free composite flour on demand,” she explained.

Besides gluten-free flour, Onja Foods also sells freshly baked wheat-free pastries. The wellness and conscious food company, which currently has six staff, has taken off. But it started as a side hustle.

“The idea was actually born in 2018 when I was running a cleaning business. I decided to also start grocery deliveries to supplement what I already had. During my deliveries, I took interest in one customer who had an autistic son and she would ask me for gluten-free products; it had something to do with her son’s health. So after doing some research, I decided to add cassava flour to my list of products,” Karoki explained.

As her curiosity grew, she started researching the diverse uses of cassava flour. She decided to enrol at the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) in 2019 to learn more about the production of gluten-free flour.

Mary Karoki, founder of Onja Foods, posing for a picture with packets of her company's flour.

Mary Karoki, founder of Onja Foods, posing for a picture with packets of their flour.

“My customer interactions also grew and I saw the need to provide gluten-free products like pastries. At first, we thought we just needed to produce and sell to customers, then we realised people are not informed on how to also use the flours thus we needed to invest more on awareness,” she said.

Gluten is a type of protein that is found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. Sometimes it is in oats, but only because the oats may have been processed with other gluten-containing foods. Gluten gives elasticity to dough and acts as a natural adhesive that holds food together. However, gluten consumption has become a growing concern for the food and health industry due to the increasing prevalence of celiac disease, gluten-related allergies and other autoimmune disorders. An autoimmune response to gluten is called celiac disease, which can damage the small intestine.

Some people who don’t have celiac disease still seem to feel sick after eating foods that contain gluten, and this was the case for Faith Gakii, who has now embraced a gluten-free diet. “I used to love wheat and especially pastries, but it had such impacts on my health, including weight gain, bloating and inflammation. Sometimes really severe, and that is why I started researching alternatives because I still wanted to enjoy my treats. This is how I bumped into the Onja Foods channel, and we started interacting.

“I started by purchasing the cassava flour … and it was really lovely, so I slowly embraced the other flour. So far, my favourite is the Uji Mix because I can use it to make simple recipes like pancakes and waffles. The good thing is that she also creates recipes which she shares and are easy to try. Let’s say it’s a safer way to get through your addictions for treats like cookies and cakes,” shared Gakii.

According to Karoki, Onja Foods sells to over 100 clients monthly. Her products are also sold at select stores in Nairobi and exhibitions, including the farmers market at Shamba Cafe Loresho.

Nairobi-based nutritionist Henry Ng’ethe shares that gluten-free diets can also be recommended for autistic patients as dietary therapy. “Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that presents with deficits in social communication and restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour. There are suggested dietary interventions in the management of clients with these disorders and this includes the use of gluten-free diets. Dietary therapy in elimination of gluten from their diet has been shown to help in behaviour improvement, therefore enhancing their treatment,” she said.

The rise in demand for locally produced alternative food solutions indicates that consumers are becoming more health conscious and mindful of what to eat.

“We are different in the market because we help consumers in the transition into this lifestyle by sharing with them recipes on how to use the flours. We are also offering customised classes on wheat-free, gluten-free baking,” said Karoki.

“We urge people to adopt alternative food consumption since this is the future of solving food security issues in our continent. Once there is more demand, smallholder farmers can be motivated to cultivate such crops,” she added.

/bird story agency