Juliet Oduor: My son’s allergic reaction birthed thriving cassava flour business

Juliet Oduor receives a trophy after winning a scholarship from Stanbic Bank. [Peter Theuri, Standard]

When Juliet Oduor’s second-born child developed severe eczema, the doctor said monitoring the food he ate could indicate what was triggering the allergic reaction, which caused inflammation of the skin.

The family kept a food diary, avoiding the consumption of wheat, dairy products and eggs. They quickly identified that the panacea for the boy’s allergic reaction was to switch to a gluten-free diet.

“We were still very young and in our household we eat a lot of wheat. As he got older it became more difficult to keep him away from the wheat because he could see what we were eating and he would want to eat the same,” says Ms Oduor.

“I decided to research gluten-free flour. At that time, it was still a foreign term in the country. The price was very high where and when it was available. I realized after researching that we have various gluten free flours here in the country which are mainly used to make uji and ugali.

business idea

One experience later, Ms. Oduor was already in the early stages of starting a business. She bought the gluten-free flour and, in her kitchen, made pancakes, “also trying to see if I could make something from millet, sorghum, cassava and the local flours we had”.

When she attended parties, she could bake a gluten-free cake which gave her sons (her firstborn had also had mild allergic reactions to gluten) an option. Those who tried the cake wanted more, with a number telling her that their bodies reacted negatively to eating wheat, but they lacked alternative foods.

So she sold them flour.

Juliet Oduor drying cassava chips. [Peter Theuri, Standard]

“At that time, I used to buy the flours and then create the mixture, but then in the market the quality was not consistent in terms of color, taste and appearance. . I had to create my own mix to ensure quality because food is very sensitive in terms of quality,” she says.

Through a friend, the 36-year-old will join the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) where she will learn the art of making flour.

“In 2019, I mainly did my production from KIRDI, but since it was a shared facility, I couldn’t just go there anytime and do production. There was a schedule to follow and I knew that if I wanted my business to grow, I had to find a place where I could consistently produce based on demand,” she says.

Towards the end of that year, she signed up with crowdfunding firm Thundafund, seeking funding to buy a dryer, and raised $3,000 (about Sh362,000 today). She then started her company, Blossom Health Essentials, in Sega, Siaya. Previously, she operated from Nairobi and sourced cassava from her home county of Siaya.

With the crowdfunding money, she rented a space to produce flour in Siaya. This was done in February 2020, but barely a month later the first case of Covid-19 in Kenya was announced.

The start-up survived this global scare and in 2021 even secured a grant from the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) and the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs, with whom Ms. Oduor did a program, and added a second dryer.

Blossom Health Essentials buys cassava from farmers, then washes, peels and cuts it into small pieces, dries it and grinds it.

Production is daily and the company uses solar dryers. This means that production is maximized when the weather is good and slowed down when the weather changes.

Cassava flour can be used to make ugali, chapati, bread, pancakes and even cakes, she says.

With the aim of working with and empowering local cassava growers, most of whom depend on agriculture, Ms. Oduor is determined to ensure that those who have shunned cassava cultivation due to the absence of a ready market resume their agriculture.

“Cassava is one of the crops that grows well there. Corn doesn’t, but people plant it just because everybody in the country plants corn. I wanted to work with the farmers here to turn cassava into a cash crop because they complain there is no ready market for it,” she says.

Blossom Health Essentials strives to ensure farmers are under contract, thereby building trust. “Before, farmers had organizations telling them to plant cassava with a promise to buy, but that never happens. We’ve been here since 2020, so we’ve built some trust and have farmers willing to partner with us,” she says.

She also wants to create a program where the company and the farmers have a contract farming agreement.

The company will also train farmers to grow the specific variety of cassava they want and ensure they get the maximum yield.

Thanks to the grants she obtained, the latest being 3 million shillings from Stanbic Bank earlier in the year.

Blossom Health Essentials will hire extension officers who can work with farmers throughout the season to ensure they get a good harvest.

Increase production

Grants were mainly used to support the acquisition of capital goods

A sample of cassava flour. [Peter Theuri, Standard]

“We want to increase production, and USADF is also keen on empowering the community, especially women, so that when we increase production, we are able to work with more farmers. We are not dealing with middlemen – we want to work directly with farmers and offer them a competitive price so they can also reap the benefits of what they are doing,” she says.

The start-up, which employs four people in Siaya and two in Nairobi, has increased production and recently started sourcing from Quickmart supermarkets. In 2020, annual sales reached 350,000 Sh. Last year it was 1.2 million shillings. Both were affected during the tumultuous times of the Covid-19 pandemic.

world dream

His dream is to expand to other cities and then to other countries in the region before the company can spread its wings and go global.

“Creating an industry is not easy, I wanted to be firmly established here (Siaya) before I could consider expanding to other parts of the country. But mostly I want to do it in rural communities,” she says She hopes that as more farmers get back to growing cassava, her ability to expand will also increase.

Her competitive edge comes from the high quality she promises her customers, she says, stemming in part from her experience in the market when she searched, without much success, for the flours she now makes.

“There is competition but we produce high quality cassava flour. Also, having bought from the market before, I was determined to make sure I offered good quality products. Cassava is very light, so you will find that there are people who add other things to increase the weight. We do not contaminate the products.

She studied Biomedical Research Technology and holds a postgraduate degree in Occupational Safety and Health.

The latter, she says, helps her ensure that her staff are safe at work and that the food produced by her company is of good quality. She also got a scholarship to pursue an MBA with the Business School of Netherlands, which she started this month.

Ms. Oduor dreams of opening a large industrial facility in Siaya, which could employ hundreds of residents.

“We don’t have an industrial facility in Siaya County, so I want to build the first one that will employ a lot of young people and just transform the area,” she says.

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