Kisii business cashing in on the humble banana

Askah Nyakwara

Askah Nyakwara poses with banana products including wine and crisps  at her shop in Kisii on September 12, 2022. 

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

Tasty and crunchy is the end product of a venture that was started in 2010 by a group of banana farmers in Kisii County.

Despite the fact that Kenya has experienced economic growth in recent years, over 90 per cent of the country’s agricultural exports are in raw or nearly-raw form. This presents a missed business opportunity. 

Armed with this knowledge and capital of Sh2, 000, Askah Nyakwara started a banana processing venture, known today as Nyangorora Banana Processors.

With the money she had at hand, she bought cooking oil and bananas, which she would slice and deep fry for sale. Her first customers were pupils from a neighbouring school. But the business has since grown to a much bigger scale.

“Banana processing and waste management solutions could improve the lives of smallholder banana farmers, who contribute over 75 per cent of Kenya’s total output. It can also fuel economic growth for communities by creating demand for new, value-add products reducing post-harvest loss,” Askah says, pointing out that Kisii is the land of bananas and reports lots of post-harvest losses.

The business began as a farmer’s field school under the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), and in 2010, the business was registered, going by the name, Nyangorora Banana Youth Group, then based in Miriri Market, Nyamira County.

She says that while banana products exist in the market, most are imported, and compared to what is produced locally, are of lower quality.

Provide employment

Askah explains that the business was founded with a desire to provide employment and development of skills among underemployed youth in Kisii County and improve the livelihoods of local smallholder farmers by showing them how to reduce post-harvest losses and offering fair trade prices for raw materials while developing the local economy by popularising bananas from Kisii.

“Presently, we buy a specific, specially-cultured species for cooking, as well as dessert bananas from farming households mainly in Kisii and Nyamira Counties. We offer fair trade prices since we can pay higher prices through our low-cost value add model, which produces banana crisps, flour, baked banana bread, wine and fibre,’’ explains the entrepreneur. 

Askah explains that the business can produce soap, beer and juice should it choose to expand its product line in the future. 

“Although we produce banana products exclusively, we have the knowledge and equipment to make similar products with different locally-sourced feedstock, such as sweet potato and pumpkin. This competency and availability of local feedstock offer options for future expansion of our product portfolio beyond bananas.”

Askah Nyakwara

Askah Nyakwara displays bottles of wine made from banana.

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

By providing relatively simple value addition to a common staple, the venture benefits over 580 people, who receive free training on business management basics, banana cultivation and marketing. 

“We have reduced the farming community’s reliance on brokers and traders who often use predatory pricing to offset the risk of loss,” she explains.

Although the group is working hard to expand national distribution in the short term, its overriding long-term goal is to reach export markets.

“In a day, we buy 500kgs of bananas, and produce between 50 to 55kgs of banana crisps per a day, which consume around 250kgs of raw bananas - the rest of the bananas are used to process flour while the riper ones are pureed.”

Banana crisps

Presently, the business can produce 5,500 grams per hour of banana crisps. Production involves six to 10 workers daily.

The bananas, which are transported from rural Kisii and Nyamira highlands using motorbikes or lorries, are processed in a factory run by KIRDI in Kisii. Here, the unpeeled bananas are separated from the bunch, and they are inspected for quality, soaked, inspected for quality once more, peeled, cut, fried and packaged. They are then stored in boxes ready for sale.

The business also produced wine from bananas. The bananas are first ripened until they reach a sugar content of 18 to 19 per cent. They are then peeled, sliced, boiled, and then sugar is added. After this process, they are put in fermentation tanks and wine yeast is added and allowed to stay for around 21 days.

For baby foods, ripe bananas are, sliced, dried on the solar driers, milled into powder and the powder mixed with milk powder and soy powder.

To produce the fibre, banana stems are cut into a size of 120 centimetres, then the fibres are extracted by an extractor and used to make biodegradable hair, kikoi and Saree.

Bananas that do not pass the quality assessment are either set aside for flour production or combined with other waste to be sold or given away to suppliers for fodder and fertiliser.

The products trade under the brand ‘Ritoke’. Banana crisps sell from Sh30 for 50 grams to Sh60 for 100 grams, a bottle of wine at Sh800 for 750ml, banana puree at Sh250 for 600ml, banana flour at Sh300 per kilo, while 400 grams of banana bread retail at Sh60.

This is made possible by the business's low-cost production model, close relationships with suppliers and its use of unique cultivars.

“There are many indirect competitors in the products snack category of varying quality and prices. Ritoke’s toughest indirect competition comes from potato products, of which there is a thriving market. Prices range drastically as does quality and packaging,’’ she explains.

Askah and her business partners have boosted their earnings through value addition.

“When we sell just bananas, we can sell a bunch for between Sh350 to Sh400, but when we add value, we make between Sh1, 200 to Sh1, 500 per bunch,” says Askah.

Unique cultivars

“The cost of production monthly is Sh480, 000 while earnings per month is double the cost of production, which is due to use of unique cultivars and the fact that bananas are available all year round.”

Apart from the business being a lucrative source of livelihood, the venture has created direct and indirect employment for a host of people, such as farmers and boda boda riders.

The business has had its fair share of challenges. They include a lack of enough capital and sufficient space to run the business. A capital injection, Askah says, would go towards project expansion, marketing and product development.

“Currently, we are using semi-manual equipment, but in future, we intend to procure automated machines and equipment for product development. We have already identified a piece of land on which we intend to expand our project.”

The business is eyeing the export market, and will soon start exporting to the Netherlands.

The business, as well as Askah, has received a couple of awards, including first place at the World Food Day 2014. Women in Business, East Africa first Place, 2015, and Best Innovator 2016, as well as first place Kenya, Smart Innovator, 2016.

Their focus is on structuring the business, expanding the product range and increasing their market share by evolving to meet market needs.

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