When she joined a team of over 1,000 Community Health Volunteers (CHVs) under Tharaka Nithi County’s department of health in 2018, Elidice Gatwiri’s sole aim was to volunteer, not to earn a living.
From childhood, Gatwiri loved cooking and eating natural food, that from farm to plate, and when she completed secondary school, she studied a diploma in nutrition and dietetics.
After completing the course, Gatwiri, unlike many other newly-graduated youth, did not look for a job, instead, in early 2018, she enrolled at Kiini Institute of Advanced Vocational Training in Tharaka Nithi for a short course on food preservation and value addition, a unit taught by a food scientist from Germany who had visited the institute on an exchange programme.
She learned how to dry fruits, vegetables and even edible roots such as cassava, which could be stored in pieces or ground into flour for use when they were out of season. She intended to use this knowledge on food preservation to assist the poor, sickly and aged people in the community, not to make money.
As she went about her volunteer work, which entailed moving from one village to the next in rural Tharaka Nithi teaching what she knew about food and its preservation, she realised that the main cause of illness, especially lifestyle diseases, was a poor diet.
“I realised that instead of eating our natural foods like cassava, millet and arrowroots which are rich in nutrients, we sell them and buy rice, bread, juices and other foods and drinks that have little nutritional value,” says Gatwiri.
And instead of feeding children with locally available foods which were healthy, parents fed them processed foods. Armed with this knowledge, she went out of her way to teach the residents about the need for eating food that is available in their farms, and would sometimes help them to prepare these meals. The community slowly started adopting the natural foods that they grew.
When Covid-19 was detected in the country in March 2020, her work as a CHV became more engaging since she and her colleagues were required to visit all families in the locality to educate them on the need to adhere to the health protocols set in place to keep the disease at bay.
Apart from washing hands and keeping social distance, they were also required to ensure that the residents, especially those with underlying health conditions, ate a balanced diet to improve immunity - this opened her eyes to a ready business opportunity.
Gatwiri would receive calls from many people asking for, for instance, flour made from dried ripe bananas, cassava, pumpkin seeds, eggshells and even guava tea leaves.
She not only sold these, she also started preparing herbal tea from ginger, rosemary leaves, lemon and garlic. Out of the high demand, she decided to open a shop at Karinga Ga Nkoru Market so that her customers could easily locate her. Since the demand for healthy natural foods had gone up and the business was expanding, she started buying raw materials from the locals and also invested in solar dryers.
“The work became a full-time job due to high demand, and I started making good money,” she says.
To know the nutritional value of her products, Gatwiri asked Chuka University’s Department of Food Science to her analyse the products, a request they agreed to. The university also helps her in research in her quest to come up with new products that are beneficial to the human body.
Gatwiri, the lead CHV in Mitheru Ward, runs her shop, Eden Centre, here. She sells natural food products to customers not only in Tharaka Nithi County, but in neighbouring Meru, Embu and Kirinyaga, thanks to a rubust online presence. She sells a kilogram of garlic flour for Sh1,000, kilogram of green lemongrass for Sh1,200 and a kilogram of pumpkin flour for Sh600 while a kilo of cassava and banana flour go for Sh300. She also sells sweet potato flour for Sh400 a kilo.
She dries the raw products using solar driers, and when completely dry, she mills the products using a grinding machine before packaging them.
The main challenge that she faces in running her business is low availability of products that are not in season.
Currently, she measures and packages her flour manually, which is taxing and time-consuming.
During food nutrition workshops by the government and non-governmental organisations, she is invited to teach people about food preservation and value addition and the importance of natural foods.
She has also trained many individuals and groups which are also spreading the gospel of going back to our roots and eating the food that nature bequeathed us. Despite the fact that Gatwiri now has a business to run, she still intends to continue volunteering her time to teach the community about the importance of eating natural.
“Though my business is expanding with each day, I will continue going around the villages and even across the country to share my knowledge when called upon,” she says.