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Innovative businessman making Meru go bananas

ERIC Muthomi is only 26 years old but in a span of a few months, he has enriched several farmers in Meru whose abundant produce would otherwise have gone to waste or sold at a throw-away price. Muthomi through his new business Stawi Foods and Fruits, is using bananas to make flour which is used for baking, making Kenya’s staple dish ugali and baby food among other products.

Stawi means prosperity in Swahili which Muthomi explains could be looked at in three ways based on his business: prosperity for healthy eating, prosperity of the farmers who supply bananas to his manufacturing plant in Meru and prosperity for the business. “My business idea was simple to come up with because in my home community back in Meru bananas were grown in plenty and also it is not like banana flour is something common in the country. It is a unique product for the market,” explains Muthomi.

The young entrepreneur studied law at the Catholic University of East Africa graduating in 2010 and has also done short courses in enterprise management at United States International University and banana processing training at Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute. “My intention all along, even when I was studying at the university was to go into business, run my own company. It is not like my law degree will go to waste because it will come in handy when I need to handle the legal issues pertaining to a business,” says the CEO of Stawi Foods.

The company has employed five people on a permanent terms and is about to break even despite starting early this year. All employees, Muthomi reveals, are less than 30 years old, something that gives him a sense of pride. “In this country if you empower the women and the youth, you are making great strides towards growing the economy. Apart from employing young people, most of our contracted farmers are women.”

The business, he notes, is also promoting healthy eating as bananas are known to have high nutritional value. On his company website, Muthomi has a whole page highlighting the value of eating bananas and another one on healthy cooking recipes using some of his products as ingredients. This is his clever way of attracting the attention of the health conscious clientèle into trying out his products.

Despite being a new business, Muthomi has already gotten recognition from the ministry of industrialization through its Jitihada business plan competition. The young entrepreneur was recently named as the 2012 winner of the Jitihada business plan competition that targets innovative business ideas that can be nurtured for growth.

Muthomi’s idea beat 3,439 other applications from young and upcoming manufacturing firms. Kent Libisu, jitihada’s Chief Judge says Muthomi’s business idea is unique as it incorporates value addition, commercial viability because of its scalability, food security promotion, employment provision to Kenyans and market for surplus agricultural produce hence the reason why he was named winner. Muthomi has been selling the product mostly through direct selling and the internet. Having gotten fresh impetus after winning the jithada competition, Muthomi is in talks with supermarkets to get the products stocked at the various retail outlets.

But as expected, it is not all a rosy picture. Getting into any business is hard, in manufacturing is even harder. Muthomi laments over the high cost of power and the excessive licensing requirements needed of a business. “Like for a food processing business like Stawi, we have to get several approvals and licenses from various government authorities and it can be tiresome. I would be good if the government could streamline this such that whatever licenses a business needs can be obtained from authority,” Muthomi urges.

Having started small, at present his flour product is only available in a 400 grams pack but in a few months he says he will be introducing a one and five kilograme pack going by the positive market response he is getting. Muthomi, is confident that with the attention that the business has so far generated, it will not be long before he penetrates the regional markets which will act as his stepping stone into the international markets like Europe. There is no turning back for him because a whole community is looking up to him to uplift them from poverty.

Muthomi’s thoughts:

* Do not wait for things to be perfect for you to work on your goal, start with the little you have. I had no money, I borrowed capital for the business from my family.

* I do not regard what I do as work because I enjoy it, probably that is why I seem to be working all the time without tiring. I find it to be so much fun.

* I am happy when farmers come up to me and thank me for getting them a market for their product. It is such a satisfying feeling.

* I took this path because I saw there are so many people who graduate with no jobs so I went to university with a clear goal to finish and start a business that will create jobs.

Source: The Star, June 6, 2012

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