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Kenya vegetable packer helps small farmers expand into fruit production

By Mike Strathdee

As Printed in The Marketplace – March/April 2018

Jane answers questions best

NAIROBI, KENYA - Jane Maina has a plan to increase the incomes of thousands of Kenyan farmers, and diversify her own business in the process.

Maina, managing director and co-owner of Vert, aims to reduce her vegetable processing firm’s dependence on European markets, and replace some of her nation’s imports of one of its favorite juices.

Through a partnership with MEDA’s M-SAWA project, (M-SAWA stands for Maendeleo- Sawa, or Equitable Prosperity) –Vert aims to train subsistence farmers how to grow mangos and passion fruit that meet international standards.

Vert has focused on shipping and packaging green vegetables since it started 18 years ago. French (green) beans and peas are picked at farms one day, packaged at Vert’s plant the next afternoon, then put on a plane to Amsterdam that evening.

It started small with one or two shipments a week of one tonne at a time. In 2017, Vert shipped 1,300 metric tonnes of beans and peas.

The firm currently has 71 staff. Its entire production is exported to the UK, Netherlands, Denmark,

Germany and Belgium.

In 2013, the European Union brought in new regulations regarding the import of vegetables from Kenya to increase tests for pesticide residues. Because Kenya doesn’t have national regulations on this matter, 10 per cent of all of Vert’s shipments had to be pulled out for physical testing.

The testing adds 24 hours to the time from farm field to store shelf, undermining Vert’s goal of having products on shelves within three days of receiving them.

MANGO TREE BESTMany Kenyan mangos don’t make it to market.Maina saw an opportunity to pivot her firm in the face of these rules, and the uncertainty about future access to the UK due to that country’s Brexit plan to leave the European Union.

Farmers producing fruits and vegetables see up to 41 per cent of their mangos being wasted “year in and year out,” because they don’t make their way to market. Of Kenyan mangos that do make it to market, almost all are consumed domestically. The country imports most of its pulp for mango juice, and there are only six pulping plants in the country.

“The need for pulp was very clear,” she said, noting that as consumption of carbonated drinks dips, demand for fresh juices is on the rise.

Fruit pulping, primarily for the domestic market, is the value-added goal of the next phase of Vert’s evolution. “It’s mostly guided by the realization that we are over-relying on the European markets.”

Mango pulp is taken from second-rate fruit that cannot be sold fresh. Unlike the highly perishable raw fruit, mango pulp has a shelf life of up to 18 months.

In April, Vert will move to a new plant in Machakos, about an hour southeast of Nairobi, that is four times the size of the current 10,000-square-foot (932-square-metre) operation. One side of the plant will replicate its existing VERT WOMEN WITH SNOWPEAS BESTVert shipped 1,300 metric tonnes of snow peas and beans in 2017.vegetable packing operation. A larger building will be dedicated to pulping mangos and passion fruit, as well as drying a variety of fruits, including mangos, pineapple and banana. Some of that dried fruit may make its way to North America later this year, once direct flights start from New York City to Nairobi. Vert has landed a private label contract for dried fruit with a major US retailer.

The biggest challenges for mango growers is the middlemen, who want to take the fruit before it reaches maturity, she said “If the farmers take on and sell the fruit (then), it means they will have less than optimal production.”

Middlemen often purchase mangos for five Kenyan shillings, (about five cents US), then turn around and sell them for 15-20 shillings, she said. “We seek to cut out the middleman.”

Doing this will allow Vert to control quality and improve margins both for Vert and its growers.

Matching grants offered by MEDA are very important to this project, as they close gaps that Vert could not do on its own, she said. Training of farmers to attain organic certification and maintain good agricultural practices that allow for full traceability of produce can be an expensive task. Without MEDA’s help, attaining annual renewable certification would cost more than either Vert or the farmers could initially afford.

“The fact the grants take care of this training cost for us is invaluable. We are then able to go in and provide the training with the support of MEDA, and make sure the farmers are using good quality produce, and we are then able to use these products, either for our drying line or our pulping line.”

Over the next three years, Vert hopes to work with 5,000 new farmers in addition to the 1,726 vegetable farmers that they currently have contracts with. They will also hire another 88 workers for their processing plant.

Vert has consistently strived to engage women, both by requiring that groups at the farmer level select one female leader and practicing gender equality at all levels in its factory.smiling snow pea packerVert practices gender equity throughout its factory

Many of the farmers that supply Vert have plots of land of only one to two acres, including their home and the area where their animals graze. A mango farmers co-op that a group of MEDA supporters visited in January claims almost 470 members, a slight majority of whom are women.

Members of the group admitted that they need help with marketing, caring for trees and financing inputs for production.

Vert has had its own struggles when it came to financing growth. Local banks were not receptive to lending for Vert’s new expansion project, which cost $2.75 million US.

“It isn’t a very easy thing,” Maina said.

The firm needed patient investors for the expansion. Because Vert has earnings in hard currency, it could get equity investments from Belgian and French social investment firms. Equipment for the new plant is being debt-financed from a third European social impact investor. The company hopes to repay those lenders within seven years.

Maina’s life and business partner in Vert is her husband Maina Inderito. “We tend to stay as far away (from each other) as possible,” she said with a smile when asked about how they divide responsibilities at the company. He focuses on construction and getting increased production from farmers. She does finance, administration, operations and contracts with retail customers.

In the past four years, the number of women-led food processing firms has increased greatly. About 40 per cent of company heads in her industry are women, particularly among medium-sized firms.

She is quick to respond when asked what motivates her desire to work with more farmers. “Being able to put products out that are safe, that I know where they have come from, and by who they were touched,” she said. ◆