Lawyer-turned-restaurateur taps into healthy eating trend

Ann Mbugua

Ann Mbugua

In 2006, Kenyan lawyer Ann Mbugua retired from her legal career, after more than two decades of practise, to set up Nairobi’s premier organic foods restaurant. For many years she had adhered to a healthy eating regime to reduce the risk of diabetes.

“Both my parents died from diabetes. My grandparents and uncles had also died from diabetes so I knew it was coming. I did a lot of research and eating healthy foods, free of chemicals and toxins, appealed to me. Everything organic was like a magnet to me,” she explains.

“But there really wasn’t anywhere you could go to enjoy a healthy meal. What was popular, and still is, were restaurants serving chips, sausages and fried chicken. I knew some of my peers would also like a place to enjoy healthy organic meals.”

So Mbugua borrowed some money, took over a chips and fried chicken eatery, renovated the place and set up the Bridges Organic Health Restaurant in Nairobi’s central business district.

“It was a big investment but I had no doubt in my mind the business would take off.”

Bridges serves authentic Kenyan dishes prepared from produce supplied by certified organic farmers. Processed products and carbonated beverages are a no-no. It also has an in-house nutritionist who offers diners free advice on healthy living and prepares meal plans for customers managing lifestyle diseases like diabetes and gout. And on the weekends, Bridges hosts an organic farmers market at its premises.

Health-conscious consumers

“Research shows the chemical residues in our foods are damaging our health. This is a concern especially for people aged 35 and above. Younger people rarely come here because we don’t sell sodas or chips and sausages – so we are not attractive to them. But as people grow older, they have eaten enough of the unhealthy foods, and are aware it has repercussions. They start getting conditions – so they are more interested in adopting a healthy lifestyle,” Mbugua explains.

Demand for organic foods has been growing steadily in Kenya, she says. The Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) works with farmers and businesses like Bridges. They have rolled out organic farmers’ markets in Nairobi to create more awareness and increase access to the foods.

However, Mbugua says ensuring constant supply of produce from farmers is a hurdle. She sources produce from 20 of them.

“We have a big challenge with fruits, especially mangoes. The big organised farms are easier to deal with. Smallholder farmers support us a lot, but you have to constantly make phone calls and follow ups. But they have come a long way and appreciate this because they are also making good money. Water shortage is a problem for many farmers so they produce seasonally, but KOAN is working with them on an irrigation project to solve this.”

Retail opportunity

Although demand for organic fruit, vegetables and dairy produce is on the rise, points of access for consumers is limited. Mbugua is hoping to tap into this opportunity with the introduction of packaged fresh produce for sale in retail outlets.

Bridges does the packaging of produce at a facility on the outskirts of Nairobi and delivers to a local retailer which operates several outlets that stock fruit, vegetables and snacks.

“We hope to reach more people because at the moment many people wouldn’t know where to buy organic food even if they wanted to. We are trying to build capacity with our farmers to plant more so that there is constant supply all year long,” adds Mbugua.

“We would like to see supermarkets have an organic corner where shoppers can access fresh organic produce. I would encourage more people to start growing organic [because] the market is opening up.”