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Irene Etyang is the founder of Akimaa Africa, a Kenya-based company that produces snack foods from millet, a cereal crop. Akimaa’s flagship product is a gluten-free millet bar. It has also diversified into millet cakes. In this interview with How we made it in Africa’s Nelly Murungi, Etyang talks about how she came up with the idea and the opportunities in the health-food segment.
Give us an overview of your business.
My business is called Akimaa Africa, which started operations in 2017. We are a food processing company that assists rural farmers earn sustainable incomes through value addition. The company adds value to millet and comes up with highly nutritious, tasty and affordable millet snacks.
My mother, a rural farmer, grows millet but at the end of the harvesting season, she sells her crops for very little. I decided to use my food science and technology degree to help my mother earn a sustainable income from growing millet while at the same time creating jobs and promoting healthy eating. This is how the idea for the millet bars and cakes came about.
Who are your main customers and where do you sell your products?
My main customers are the health-conscious consumers in the cities of Nairobi and Kisumu.
Currently, we sell directly to consumers through our Facebook page and at events. We are also busy establishing a distribution centre in Kisumu which will supply to supermarkets, shops and chemists.
By selling directly to customers we’ve been able to get valuable feedback which has helped us improve the products. Working through supermarkets as a startup is challenging because they only pay you after 90 days. While you might not reach as many people by selling directly, as opposed to through a supermarket, at least you get your money immediately.
How did you finance the business?
My family has been instrumental in financing the business up to now. A major challenge startups face in Kenya is raising capital for operationalising their ideas, as there are not many organisations that finance startups. We are still growing and invest the revenues back into the business.
Do you remember your first sale?
I took about four months because I started developing the products from scratch. The first four months I spent on prototyping, testing and getting feedback. Luckily I did this from home, which meant I wasn’t paying rent. Imagine the stress of having to pay rent and not generating any revenues for four months.
The first time I made a sale was at a youth conference in Mombasa. Back then we didn’t have proper packaging and I decided to sell the products wrapped in aluminium foil. It was a way of getting feedback from people while at the same time generating some revenue.
What risks does your business face?
Some people don’t know what millet is, which might prevent them from trying the product. That is why we really need to do a lot of sampling across the country.
Where do you see the growth opportunities for your business?
The growth opportunities are massive. Because of Covid-19, many people are becoming more health conscious. We are targeting about 10% of the health-conscious, middle-income earners in Kenya with our products.
If you were given $1 million to invest in your company now, where would it go?
I will invest it in machinery. Currently about 90% of our production is ‘manual’ because machinery is expensive. We need about $200,000 to $300,000 to establish a full-fledged processing plant.