What you need to know:
- What started as a small start-up in a dusty rural setting has become a leading multibillion industry, one of the leading food processing industry companies in Kenya.
When Thakarshi Patel bought a piece of land in Njoro, Nakuru, next to Egerton University in 1978, he was torn between venturing into farming and setting up a canning factory.
"Canned food reminded me of the kind of products I used to sell when I was doing wholesale business in Mombasa, for me, it was a matter of transitioning from one venture to another. I had not done this before but I decided to take a leap of faith and tried it," says the 82-year-old businessman.
"I bought this land which is about 14 acres and I started a food canning processing factory after I saw a huge opportunity in the export market of French beans in European markets," recalls Mr Patel.
More than four decades since he started the agro-based enterprise, he has no regrets, it has been an interesting journey, one that has seen the enterprise grow by leaps and bounds.
The company has diversified into a Sh60 million drinking water treatment plant which was opened in 2019, it has also invested in a biofuel briquettes plant that makes products from sawdust for the company's use and for sale in the local market. The water treatment plant has employed about 20 people with an average sale of between 12,000 to 15,000 cartons of water every month.
"We sell our water to wholesalers, distributors, hotels and learning institutions - one distributor outlet pays Sh1.5million per month for our assorted products."
Every business has its own challenges. Some that the company has overcome over the years include stiff competition – “The competition in the agro-food industry is very stiff, but we believe in quality and we aim to supply the best food in Africa and Europe, this is what has distinguished us from our competitors."
The company also has a non-dairy plant that produces cake products for local and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and canned food such as French beans for the European markets.
Today, what started as a small start-up in a dusty rural setting has developed into a leading multibillion industry which is one of the leading food processing industry companies in Kenya. The company produces canned, frozen and dehydrated fruits and vegetables, tomato paste, jams and marmalades, sauces, pickles, relishes, and baking ingredients. Other products are potato flakes and sweet corn, desserts, carrots, garden peas and white beans.
"I invested Sh20 million as seed capital 43 years ago, but today, this company is worth Sh1.5billion and is still growing as we have been coming up with new products to satisfy the changing market tastes,” says the businessman.
The company has contracted about 5,000 smallholder farmers around Njoro and outside Nakuru County to supply potatoes, vegetables, spices and many more, but poor agronomic practices and post-harvest practices by local farmers has led to lower production of key raw materials.
The Njoro based processor sells its products in supermarkets across the country and government institutions such as the General Service Unit, the National Police Service, Kenya Defence Forces, Kenya Wildlife Services and the National Youth Service.
"We pay our farmers within four weeks after delivery, this comes to Sh150million a year, which has transformed the lives of many smallholder farmers in the region and beyond," says Patel.
One of the challenges the company continues to overcome over the years is the changing taste of consumers.
"When we started more than 40 years ago, we could keep up with the pace of consumer taste, but in the last two decades, the taste has changed, demanding heavy investment in modernising our equipment, which is an expensive undertaking.”
He says his secret of success is having loyal smallholder farmers with clear contract terms, who are paid promptly.
"The stiff competition requires one to treat the suppliers like kings and queens so that they produce the best because the food industry is very sensitive, and if you mess, the recovery path is expensive. You must pay your smallholder farmers well and in good time, otherwise, they will sell to the other processors and you may be forced to close down the factory and declare workers redundant,” he explains.
Some of the fastest going products include beans, garden peas, spices, frozen food, non-dairy cream, water and tomato sachets, which they sell by the dozen, in fact, one of the company’s distributors in Nakuru town buys products worth Sh1.5million per month.
Future plans include producing pineapple juice and diversifying to spices. This will involve contracting more farmers in Kibwezi in Makueni counties since there has been growing demand for spices.
"Eating habits of Kenyans are changing by the day, and more are buying foods which are healthy and convenient to use in this fast-paced life - I have noticed a gap between spices and herbs in many tables. We want to explore that opportunity."
The company started with 150 workers, today, it has a total of 500 workers and takes on more when the need arises.=