Start-up that specialises in pre-cooked, dried legumes

Tei Mukunya Oundo- Co-founder and Executive Director at NatureLock Foods.

Photo credit: Pool

Kenyan start-up, NatureLock Foods, is hoping to revolutionise a new front in producing nutritious precooked, dried legumes.

“Our aim is to provide a solution for everyday use at home, for school feeding programmes, catering kitchens for factories, humanitarian and emergency relief,” says Tei Oundo, co-founder and Executive Director.

She adds: “The motivation behind launching the business was to help mothers and caregivers make healthy and tasty meals for their families amid their busy schedules, but the most interesting thing is that bachelors and students ended up being our biggest consumers.”

Tei is a Borlaug Fellow, Michigan State University and a Cornell University Fellow, Making Markets Matter program. Prior to founding NatureLock, Tei ran Azuri Health, which made premium dried fruits and healthy porridges, but the business shut down its operations in 2019 due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tei, in her forties, is among the pioneer traders in dry foods in Kenya. It is while running Azuri Health that she met her business partner, Wilco Vermeer.

“We were first introduced by the Rockefeller Kenya team in 2017. Wilco, who had started a business in the Netherlands to supply natural and nutritious fruit powders, was looking for a partner who would develop with him a process that would dry different kinds of fruits. We hit it off immediately, but before long, Covid-19 happened and business was severely affected. We had to go back to the drawing board and strategise, that is how NatureLock came about.”

The business was launched mid-2020, virtually, but would go on to open its doors on Mombasa Road in 2021 after the effects of Covid-19 subsided.

“We started setting up the factory in January and officially opened our doors in June 2021. We have about 42 employees who are all based at the plant. We have a creche/daycare at the factory, and our employees are free to bring their children to work, something that more and more companies should adopt since the benefits of motivated staff are enormous,” Tei comments.

On their business strategy, she explains that they are currently focusing on two retail models.

“One is a retail chain that we are developing, we are also expanding to single-use packaging for the general and modern trade under the brand name StewsDay. For the retail chain, we package our products in 55 grammes, which is sufficient for a single meal consumption by an adult. The other model is for humanitarian and bulk sales for institutions, which we call StewsDay Catering. In this case, the packaging will match the amounts needed.”

She adds: “We are also working on developing fortified products to suit various categories such as children and vulnerable communities. The goal is to create unique modes of cooking to fit the end-user.”

The business also intends to venture into school feeding programmes either in partnership with the government or supply to schools keen on cost-cutting especially when it comes to firewood, time and convenience.

 NatureLock buys its produce directly from farmers, cutting out the middle man, this way, the farmer earns more, and their products are affordable.

“We are working with Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KARLO), which has developed new varieties of ndengu, (green grams) and beans that are higher in nutritional value, are pest-resistant and suitable for arid and semi-arid areas. The problem they have been facing, however, is to convince farmers to grow these breeds on a large scale because they fear they might fail to get market. This is where we come in, because we are able to offtake from the farmers, a factor that stimulates commercialisation,” explains Tei.

Once they buy the legumes from the farmers, they undergo sorting and cleaning, after which they are boiled. They are then fried with a little oil, onions, tomatoes, garlic and ginger. They add carrots and cassava to thicken the sauce, finally, the stew is dried in air dryers. The start-up has invested in commercial sized air dryers to do the job.

The next step is packaging and getting the product to market. All a consumer needs to do to prepare the stew is to simmer the meal in boiling water for three minutes. It goes well with an accompaniment such as chapati or rice.

“Currently, we are only processing ndengu on a large scale, though bean stew is also in the works.”

NatureLock products are on the shelves of second and third-tier supermarkets such as Powerstar and Eastmatt, with the hope of stocking in leading supermarkets in 2023. They are also getting onboard with online selling and have partnered with Twiga Foods for third mile delivery countrywide and in Uganda. Additionally, anyone can call or walk in to their factory along Mombasa Road and make a purchase.

The greatest challenge the business faces has been to get people to understand their products and to trust them. “Some think our products are from China, others think that they are full of preservatives, because our products have up to one year shelf-life, therefore, we cannot take awareness for granted. The same goes for trust,” says Tei.

For funding, NatureLock has local and international social investors who believe in the business and the positive impact it has for Kenya and for Africa.

Tei is among ten Kenyans who were selected for the inaugural cohort of the Centre for African Leaders in Agriculture's (CALA) Advanced Leadership Programme in August 2021.

The 16-month programme targets established and emerging food systems leaders from the government, private sector and civil society to transform agriculture. The first cohort comprised 80 delegates, ten each from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Ghana and Nigeria.

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