Bite the Talk Episode 15 : Reducing Nutritional Insecurity in Kenya through Ugali

Daphne: This podcast will shine a light on people who are working to meet the 2030 targets of UN's Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number two. My name is Daphne Ewing-Chow. I'm a journalist and food systems advocate traveling the world and talking to those on the front lines of change, helping to overcome food related challenges in their own countries and communities.

In this podcast series powered by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition or GAIN, we will encounter a myriad of intersecting issues, themes, and solutions. We will hear from regular folks like farmers and mothers around the world trying to put nutritious food on the table for their families. We will also talk with food systems leaders, social entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and people like you.

Full Transcript below

Daphne: Welcome to the Global Voices of Food Security Podcast. I'm Daphne Ewing-Chow. In this episode, we're heading over to Meru, Kenya, where we will meet with Ruth Kinoti, CEO of Shalem Investments Ltd, a family run agri-business, helping to tackle food systems challenges in Kenya. 

During a time when annual food inflation is in double digits and 26% of children under the age of five are stunted, Shalem is working with farmers to provide consumers with nutritious food at affordable prices. Its flour and pre-cooked to ugali are fortified and its products are supplied to schools, retail shops, and markets.

Let's hear from Clement Musyoka, a Project Manager at Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, a Swiss NGO that has identified Shalem as an excellent candidate to help reduce food and nutritional insecurity in Kenya.

Clement: Shalem came up with an innovative solution, which was a blended flour and, pre-cooked Ugali, the idea behind the product, we found it nutritious for the market. It also took a little bit around five minutes to make ugali instead of the opposed 20 minutes, which was good for ensuring the access and desirability for the product, and also helped reduce the cook time for most of the busy zones.
We were also interested with working Shalem because the products that they were packaging, and even the pricing that they put in place, which was more attractive for the bottom of the pyramid market. 

Daphne: But Shalem wasn't always an agrifood processor. Owners, Daniel and Ruth Kinoti started the business to address the uncertainty and financial inequality faced by smallholder farmers in their community. As farmers’ children, the struggle was one that the Kinoti’s knew all too well. The problem, farmers needed reliable markets for agricultural produce. And their earnings were being hurt when they were forced to sell at rock bottom prices to middlemen who would take their produce to market for them. The solution, local schools needed affordable food for school meals. It was a win-win. Their first suppliers were their parents and neighbours,

CEO Ruth Kinoti explains. 

Ruth Kinoti: Our first market were the schools, first bags were from our parents. And they were very excited because for the first time, they were able to sell without waiting for a broker to come and buy. All the children are going back to school the same, let's say January. All the farmers are harvesting that time.

Every farmer wants to sell so that they can get, uh, you know, uh, money for school fees and whatever else. So, it was really a nightmare. So, when I realized I could sell the mason beans to that school, next, was several schools. And that is actually how the idea of getting the cereals from the farmers to the schools.

Imagine now going with a van and ready money to buy the first, uh, bags. It was very exciting and, you know, seeing that excitement now go to my aunties, my neighbours, everybody. And now the thousands of farmers. Honestly, this is exciting. I can tell you for a fact when you see a farmer receive money for their produce without feeling, to take an advantage, because you see all the time farmers are taken advantage of. They know it, but what can they do? My child needs medical attention. I don't know what happens cause more than not, when they are most desperate, there is no one to buy. 

Daphne: But Shalem wouldn't limit itself to the aggregator space for long. In Kenya where more than 20% of all food consumed is fraught to market by small and medium enterprises, there is a significant opportunity to improve nutrition and keep prices down for consumers. The socially minded agribusiness jumped at the opportunity.

Ruth Kinoti: A long time, we just dealt with the old food from other farm level. But then you see, we couldn't depend on other manufacturers forever. So, we were very happy to come now into the space where we are selling our food to the fast moving consumer goons market, and we would not have been able to go there and compete without support from GAIN.

Daphne: The Global Alliance for improved Nutrition or GAIN recognized Shalem's potential to impact the lives and the nutritional status of the community, and provided the small business with support to help it grow under their Asili brand, the business has been producing sifted maize flour, wheat flour, and porridge flour, and most recently pre-cooked ugali, which is both convenient and healthy.

The precooked flour is free from fats, saturated fats, and cholesterol. It is high in fibre, vitamin B1 and vitamin B3, and is a good source of minerals such as magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E, and antioxidants. 

Kristin: My name is Kristin Carna. I work with Shalem Investment Limited. Shalem is a social business and our core business is processing. We have, various brands of flour in the market. We have Asili maize flour, Asili wheat flour, Asili porridge flour, and a recent brand that, uh, has been innovated called a precooked, blended ugali. All the products are fortified, nutritious, and affordable to the consumer. 

Ruth Kinoti: The products are very nutritious, of course, affordable, and also help us develop roots to markets, uh, to help us make the food accessible to the base of the pyramid, uh, populations. So, we have even been able to come up with a very special food, that is ready to eat, just hot water and it's done and it's served. 

Clement: Shalem has worked with GAIN in two projects, uh, which is a marketplace for nutritious foods. We are able to support them in, uh, get equipment to prepare the pre-cook ugali, and ensure its availability to the markets in Meru.
During Covid, we were able to support Shalem to ensure continued operations in the supply chain. We support them in rent, salaries, and also sourcing of raw materials to ensure that, uh, continued production of the product. Going forward, we feel Shalem is one of the businesses that have a lot of potential to impact house on Diets, uh, and as we go forward, they'll be able to even expand their reach even to their ISL areas. 

Daphne: During the pandemic GAIN’s ‘Keeping food markets working programme’ provided support that was critically needed by food businesses like Shalem. 

Clement: Keeping food markets working project is an emergency response project, trying to ensure that there was minimum disruption in the food supply chain from the effects of covid.

Daphne: Today, Shalem touches the lives and livelihoods of more than 40,000 farmers. 

Ruth Kinoti: Eh, we may not have known honestly, that we would grow to especially touch the number of farmers we touch now. So it has grown from the one farmer to hundreds and then to where we are now because, uh, we realized that, farmers continually grew confidence in, in our business because if we said produce we will buy at this price, we always kept our word. And so many farmers have kept on wanting to sell to us, uh, because they know when we say, if you plant this, we will take, they do that. So, we have grown, from that small business or from that small number to where we are because the objective is still the same.

Translator: His name is George Karu. He works in partnership with Shalem and he's a farmer.
From the time we started working with Shalem, he has benefited a lot from Shalem because every time he farms, he supplies to Shalem.  Even now, he wants the continued relationship because he's sure of more. 

Ruth Kinoti: We are able to bring in insurance, we are able to bring in even financial institutions. We are able to bring in all those others. And now even when it comes to nutrition. 

Daphne: In addition to improving diets and helping farmers, Shalem is also making a positive impact on the environment and is teaching its farmers about climate Smart Agriculture.

Pur: I am Pur Tiwan, I'm the agronomist. Basically, what we do, we do trainings on climate smart agriculture. We have five modules on climate change. Then we also train on pre-season planning and planting. We also train on crop and field management, harvest and post-harvest management, and then you train on market and economic benefit.
Then after these trainings, our farmers are able to produce, their crops and then take to the factory for processing. 

Ruth Kinoti: So, climate change has affected the farmers and consequently it has affected us as a business and what hurts the farmer hurts our business. So, anything we can do to improve on climate change, to improve resilience of the farmers to alleviate pain at their level, we are committed to doing that. So we, we are working with the farmers to do more trees, to do rainwater harvesting. We are looking for as many partners as possible, to come and work at the farm level.
Daphne: With a female CEO and a chairman who is highly supportive of women, Shalem has committed itself to women's empowerment and providing opportunities for women. 

Mussekan: My name is Mussekan, I work with Shalem. I have some farmers and also I'm a farmer. I sell everything to Shalem. So I much benefited from Shalem and I love Shalem Invest Company. 

Ruth Kinoti: 67% of our farmers are women. I don't know about, uh, our distributors and, wholesalers, those who are buying. About 40% are women. We are committed to working very closely with women because, especially among the farmers and the base of the pyramid populations, it is actually the women who carry the burden of food or feeding the families and taking care of basic needs. So, for us supporting women, even women in business, we are very happy that, uh, even most of our suppliers, we, we have not exactly a bias, but we are very happy to encourage, women to do business with us because, we've also realized, you know women are vulnerable. Areas where men would travel comfortably without being in danger, women will not. 

So, we are very happy that even the advisory team really gives us leeway, to support women. We were very happy when, like when we get an opportunity to employ, we really want to encourage women, if they qualify. 

Daphne: As a social enterprise, Shalem Investments Ltd. produces nutritious and affordable foods to help alleviate malnutrition among the most vulnerable in Kenya. Shalem also works with farmers and women to improve their lives and livelihoods and wherever it can, it tries to reduce its environmental footprint and that of its farmers.
This contribution is particularly commendable given the competitive nature of the agri-processing sector. 

As a business with a strong social purpose. What are the challenges surrounding having this strong intention of contributing positively to the community? But then you obviously have the other imperative which is to make profit. What are the challenges of merging the two? 

Ruth Kinoti: Yeah, of course it's not easy because the crowd is not really even, competition is the same whether you are doing social or whether you are working for money, competition is the same. So, competition is one big challenge and it becomes difficult when you have to balance between quality and price.

And it really requires a lot of balancing to be able to make a profit in an environment where there is easily room for compromise. I want to give the highest return to the farmer for their produce. But on the other hand, there is a need to sell the product at a profit. So, balancing that is, is not easy and that's why we have felt very happy with the institutions like GAIN, who come to cushion us.

Because, well, our time in other investment is supporting the farmer. We are very happy that GAIN comes to also support us so that whereas it would've taken three to five years maybe to afford an extrusion machine, we are able to afford it now with their support. 

Daphne: In meeting Ruth Kinoti and Daniel Kente. I received one message loud and clear. Nothing matters more to them than protecting their growing network of 40,000 farmers. 74% of Kenya's population lives in rural areas and relies on farming for their food and income. And the sector accounts for about a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). By adopting solutions that directly benefit smallholder, Shalem is helping to improve the food security of their nation, Kenya. 

Ruth Kinoti: I am a peace and farmer's daughter. And my husband also has a similar background. One of the characteristics of peace and farming is that they are vulnerable. And market is one of the biggest challenges of any farmer.
If a farmer has a market for what they produce, then farming becomes a business. The farmer is our base as a business. If the farmer collapses, we collapse.