One of the biggest hurdles Africa’s smallholder farmers face is getting their products from the farm to the market. Azuri Health Limited, a Kenyan enterprise that manufactures and distributes healthy foods, is helping Kenya’s rural farmers get market access for their cereals and fruits. The firm has partnered with over 600 farmers to bring a range of products to the Kenyan and Sudanese markets and is now planning to begin exporting to the US. How we made it in Africa’s Regina Ekiru spoke to Tei Mukunya, managing director of Azuri Health.
What was the driving force behind the inception of Azuri Health?
I used to work under a programme to help farmers in value addition. During this time I came face to face with the challenges smallholder farmers experience while trying to access markets for their produce.
For instance, a women group in Murang’a was struggling to put its porridge flour product in the market despite huge donor investments in research, product development and capacity building. Having developed an interest in helping farmers have easy access to the market for their produce, I made an attempt to get the group’s products in retail outlets. My first attempt failed due to disruptions in production. In 2005, I made a second attempt and managed to gain shelf space for the products.
What products do you currently have under your portfolio?
At the time we started the only product we had was the porridge flour. We, however, realised that one product wouldn’t cut it for us. So we began working with a women group in Busia and rolled out our sweet potato flour brand. We have since unveiled new products and repackaged our old brands. The Azuri Health range today includes Azuri Nutriporridge flour, which is our flagship product, Azuri Sweet Potato Flour, Azuri Kahurura Powder (made from a plant in the pumpkin family), sweet potato cookies, and a range of dried fruits such as mangoes and pineapples. These products sell not only in Kenya but also in Sudan. We make an annual turnover of Ksh.12 million (US$143,000).
Healthy living is the new craze. Lifestyle diseases are spreading fast, fuelling demand for healthy living options. This is a market which if well explored can yield huge returns. Penetrating the market is no joke due to the competition. We do not enjoy uniqueness. To beat the rest we have to evolve quickly and introduce new unique products.
Describe Azuri Health’s relationship with the farmer groups?
We work with several farmer groups across the country, the majority of which are made up of women. We have 600 farmers in our network. We have trained the farmers on food processing and packaging. They, therefore, carry out the processing of the products while we handle the marketing, distribution and sales. To ensure consistency in production and supply we recently set up a Ksh.2 million ($24 million) processing plant in Nairobi. In the past the farmer groups faced some challenges, which affected production and processing. We therefore set up our own processing plant to avoid such interruptions in supply. In addition we also offer advisory services and support to the farmers. Most of these women groups would have collapsed but they are today a success because they have access to the market. We have managed to bring their products to the shelves of retail stores.
Tell us more about the challenges you faced when starting the business
Inadequate financing has been a major hurdle. To ensure large supply volumes we need a lot of funds. Whereas having our products on sale at major retail outlets in the country is a milestone, sustaining this calls for hard work and proper organisation. In the early stages we were kicked out of a local retail chain because our supply was erratic. We cannot afford to make such mistakes now. We are available in almost all supermarkets and therefore have to ensure we sustain the supply. We also have to invest extensively in marketing our products because of growing competition in the sector.
Any lessons you have learnt in entrepreneurship?
Resilience. When I quit my job to go into business I had to tighten my budget until I hit rock bottom. It has taught me to be tough. No matter what challenge I face, I look at the positive aspects knowing that things will get better.
What does the future hold for Azuri Health?
We want to set up a bigger automated processing facility so as to increase our volumes and efficiently sustain supply. We would also like to extend our reach to the regional market. We do have plans to begin exporting to the US soon.