A Remarkable African Business Empowers Farmers and Makes Going Gluten-Free Easy
Erin Stewart — Social AdVentures
Last year, at age 26, Elizabeth Gikebe had a business idea so good that she used up her savings and moved in with her parents to put it in motion. Her social enterprise, Mhogo Foods, based in Gikebe’s home country of Kenya, manufactures and distributes flour made of cassava, a starchy tuber and important food source in many developing countries. Since production began in April 2016, Mhogo’s flour has been generating profits, affirming fair pay for producers, and helping to address local food security issues.
“There are many reasons why cassava is valuable. One is that it’s gluten-free, so it’s a good replacement for wheat,” says Gikebe. As in other countries, there is a growing awareness of the need for gluten-free products in Kenya. “The other reason why I produce cassava,” she says, “is because in Kenya, there are many farmers who grow cassava, but they don’t know the value of the crop they hold.”
Cassava is a tough, drought-resistant crop native to South America that can be produced on semi-arid and arid land. Its yields are much higher than other starches, like corn, which require more land to grow. Mhogo Foods’ flour is also relatively inexpensive—cassava is one of the cheapest sources of calories among all food crops. Additionally, unlike many gluten-free flours, cassava can be substituted one-for-one for wheat. So if a recipe calls for a cup of all-purpose flour, you can conveniently swap it out with a cup of cassava flour.
Despite its potential, cassava has a historical association with poverty among consumers in Kenya, where the root has been less popular than in other African countries. Mhogo Foods works with 40 farmers across the country’s Busia, Makueni, and Embu regions to encourage cassava cultivation. “Most of these farmers are very poor, and they don’t realize they have a valuable crop,” says Gikebe, whose operations are based in Karuri just south of Nairobi. Mhogo Foods also hires trainers from specialized agricultural companies, who teach local producers to care for cassava and maximize yields through organic farming techniques.
Many of the farmers Gikebe works with were surprised when she first told them how much Mhogo was willing to pay for their crops. “In Kenya, one piece of the crop will normally go for about 10 Kenyan shillings [around 10 U.S. cents],” she says. “But when I’m buying it, I’m buying it at 40 Kenyan shillings.” According to Gikebe, the price she pays is a much more ethical, and more accurate, representation of the crop’s actual value.
This is a markedly different approach than many Kenyan famers are used to. The exploitation of farmers by large companies has long been a problem in Kenya—last November the country’s agricultural cabinet secretary, Willy Bett, denounced the practice of tea and sugar factories underpaying farmers for their output. This came only weeks after Thomas Choge, chair of the Chemase Sugarcane Farmers Union, publicly stated that private millers were undervaluing their produce by 30 percent. Gikebe wants to redress some of these harmful practices, which also impact cassava growers, who often don’t have the tools to properly leverage their crop. “Many farmers … can’t even afford their basic necessities. So, I thought about what I could do to empower these farmers, and that’s what gave me an interest in processing cassava flour,” Gikebe says.
Mhogo products are stocked in about three dozen supermarkets throughout Kenya. So far, one of Gikebe’s challenges has been to get people to realize the food’s potential benefits; she raises awareness primarily by sharing recipes and nutritional information. “Many customers didn’t know what to do with the product. But in the past six months I’ve seen the behavior of my consumers changing. They’re coming back more compared to when I started. It took about four months before people really accepted the product.”
This growing appreciation for cassava can be found on Mhogo’s Facebook page, with users posting pictures of their cassava biscuits, brownies, doughnuts, and more. “I absolutely love it and highly recommend it!” writes one user. Parents in particular have told Gikebe that it makes a delicious porridge that even picky children enjoy.
There have been other early challenges for Gikebe. The machinery required to process and package flour makes Mhogo a capital-intensive business. And unable to get a loan, Gikebe had to personally fund the company at first. Additionally, in the interests of consumer health and safety, getting government approval to sell food is difficult. Once the product was finally on shelves, there were early liquidity issues—while Gikebe has to pay her suppliers and her staff of seven on time, the supermarkets can take months to process their invoices.
It's a lot to take on at 26, but Gikebe—whose background is in software development and project management—says her mother and father provided her with the skills and values she needs to make Mhogo a success. Her parents ran a milling company, and Gikebe saw firsthand how their business worked.
Now that the company is turning a profit, Mhogo’s next challenges lie in expansion. Gikebe estimates that by the end of this year, Mhogo Foods will have a presence throughout East Africa. “Then, in a few years’ time, I should be covering most of Africa,” she says. Consumers and restaurateurs from as far away as Australia come to Gikebe for flour, as demand for cassava rises with the growing market for gluten-free foods. However, shipping the product is expensive and complicated. “I’m looking at how I can work with people internationally,” says Gikebe. “But right now, I can see that it’s already doing something positive.”