What does Sunday morning smell like to you? It’s a simple question, but the answer for any individual person can be as unique as a fingerprint. For most people, I presume, it is a combination of freshly made pan-cakes and a cup of hot chocolate milk.

Yummy right. However, on this day, it is not a Sunday morning but a warm normal weekday that the Food Business Africa team set out on a journey, 90 kilometres from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and we headed to Machakos county to the Best Tropical Fruits Limited’s (BTF) plant. From the minute we entered the company’s premises, my taste buds were sent into an overdrive of salivating, as the air was filled with a heaviness of sweet fruity aroma.

In an instance of confirmation, we spotted a group of mango farmers at the receiving bay, some struggling to find balance on their bicycles loaded with bags of mangoes, others pushing their wheel barrows overflowing with the fruit, as some were offloading their produces from a lorry towering up high. We were at the centre of the action, presented with a front row seat to witness the turning of the fleshy fruit into orange gold.

Changing the game for greater impact

BTF commenced operations in 2018 as a fresh produce exporting company to the Middle East, but later shifted its focus to processing tropical tree fruits such as mango, avocado, passion fruit and others, as over 40% of these highly perishable fruits never reach the market and go to waste, according to Patrick McMullin, the founder of the company.

“We also realized with fresh produce export, we were basically sending out huge amounts of water on an aeroplane. It didn’t make sense as it translated to higher freight charges, which was an added cost. With processing, we discovered we deliver products with low moisture content that are value added, thus fetching higher prices in the market abroad, trickling down to the farmers who gain more value from their produce.”

With the new strategy in place, BTF adopted a sustainable approach dubbed the Village Processing Hub, situated close to the farmers. The establishment features a number of processing lines, each focusing on a specific fruit, converting it into naturally processed high value products with longer shelf life, producing pulp, dried fruits and oils. Currently, demand for such natural products outstrip supply, both in the domestic and regional markets, with demand estimated to increase by at least 5% annually, according to the Founder. 

He adds that the multi-fruit processing approach, which takes place in the remote areas, suits the requirements of the locality, as majority of small-scale fruit farmers do not rely on one crop as an income source but grow whatever there is a market for.

“We particularly chose to establish the facility in this particular area in Machakos County near Makueni County as it is the heart of the mango growing area, with presence of other fruits trees that complement production of the main fruit crop mango, which is highly seasonal,” said McMullin.

According to the 2018 statistics by the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries, Machakos County is the second leading producer of mangoes in Kenya, after Makueni, with about 803,500 trees and an output of over 67,320 tonnes, valued at KSH 835 million (US$7m). Meanwhile, Makueni boasts of having 4,311,375 mango trees grown by 28,696 farmers. The crop is highly important, as 40- 60% of the population in the producing regions engage in the mango value chain.

“Prior to commencing operations, the farmers were faced with limited access to market. Also, there was presence of middle men who were offering meagre prices for produce, coupled with lack of technical knowledge and input to boost productivity. This most often resulted in a lot of hit and miss income streams over the years.

“So, we decided to first set up a small processing plant dealing with aseptic mango pulp. We have succeeded to establish that line by leveraging on both local and international expertise. And over time, we built our capacity around processing other fruits into more valuable products, arising from farmers’ requests that we process their other produces for value addition,” highlighted McMullin.

Strict protocols, all under one roof

From a single mango pulp processing line, BTF has metamorphosed to also undertake drying of the fruit and added bananas into the mix. Further to that, the company is also processing tree-tomatoes and passion into pulp and extracts oil from avocado, peanuts and macadamia.

All these processes are undertaken meticulously under one roof at its state-of-the-art facility, comprising of a spacious holding bay full of crates with produce, sorting and cleaning area, pristine preparation room, modern processing lines, fast drying chambers, packaging stations and a storage area. The facility is partly powered by solar energy.

Other than having a well-equipped facility, BTF follows to the letter the recommended guidelines on food safety and quality to ensure their products are top notch and well suited for the market. Their practices are governed by certification scheme such as the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and internationally recognized Food Safety System Certification. During our visit, the company was going through the fastidious audit process of renewing its FSSC 22000 certification, a testament to its implementation of the most robust food safety management system in its operations.

Ann Gatugi, the Quality Assurance Manager at the factory divulged to us that the quality control of its process is not just centred around the factory, but starts from the farm all the way to the market. “For us quality of the raw material is key as it dictates the grade of the end product. Therefore, to ensure we deliver the best products in the market, we work closely with the farmers by offering them farming expertise and guidelines on Good Agricultural Practices such as pest and disease control, nursery establishment, proper harvesting methods, among others,” she said.

Still at the farm level, BTF, has put up a number of storage stations, offering a conducive environment where farmers collectively aggregate their produce prior to delivery to the factory. According to FAO, around 14% of the world’s food is lost after harvesting and before reaching the designated market point, including through on-farm activities, storage and transportation.

Ann notes that offering extension services just scratches the surface, prompting the company to put in place strict requirements of the allowable raw materials into the factory. This necessitates sorting and grading of produces at the point of entry against parameters such as level of maturity, size, presence of residues, level of sweetness, among others. The raw materials that meet the recommended criteria are processed into more valuable products with minimal additives and treatment. To further maintain quality of the end products, BTF utilizes aseptic packaging for pulps, flexitank for the edible oils and well-sealed plastic packaging for dried fruits.

Nothing wasted

As part of the company’s processing operations, it utilizes the waste products to produce useful items such as turning avocado and mango seeds into charcoal briquettes and the fleshy wastes fed into the bio-digester to fuel its boilers. “We have also incorporated the use of black-soldier fly to convert food and organic waste into nutritious and protein-dense biomass,” states McMullin, as he ran his hands through a mound of decomposing fruit peels, where the larvae were being reared. In pursuit to further sustainably run its operations, the factory’s roof is covered with solar panels generating renewable energy that meets a percentage of the facility’s electricity needs. It has also set up a water recovery system that channels the recovered water to irrigate plants around its compound.

Best Tropical Fruits Limited commenced operations in 2018 as a fresh produce exporting company but later shifted its focus to tropical fruit processing

After finalization of the product processing, BTF ships its products abroad to Europe and Middle East, where there is ready market for products such as dried fruits. According to Research and Markets, dried fruits featuring as one of the to go to healthy snacks, is expected to register a CAGR of 7.8% across the globe, from a value of US$6.34 billion in 2020 to US$9.5 billion in 2025. However, in the African market, the product category is not that popular and faces stiff competition from fresh fruit which are readily available.

Farmers at the centre of the operations

The value-added products fetch higher value which enables BTF to offer farmers competitive prices for their suppliers, boosting their living standards. “You don’t have to provide farmers with money. You provide them with market and that is how you get the ball rolling,” emphasised McMullin.

Benedetta, one of the small-holder farmers contracted to supply BTF with fresh produce can attest to that, stating, “Before I discovered Best Tropical Fruits I used to sell my mangoes to the middle men who were offering unfavourable prices for the produce. Also, the brokers were only taking a portion of the harvest, leaving the rest to rot and go to waste in the farm. However, since I partnered with Best Tropical Fruits, I have managed to more than triple the number of mango trees in my farm, and with their guidance I am able to produce good quality fruits that match the factory’s requirement.”

She further highlighted that the agro-processor has also encouraged her to grow other fruit trees like tree tomato and passion, reducing her reliance on mango, which is highly seasonal. Through this diversification, Benedetta, just like the rest of the farmers, are assured of a year-round income stream.

Other than availing ready market for the farmers’ produce, establishment of the processing company in the locality has created job opportunities, especially among the youth and women, as BTF has directly employed about 40 personnel and created over 200 indirect job opportunities. “The chief of police of the area recently said to me that since the factory had come into the area, he did notice some of the social vices that were rampant in the past such as insecurity and domestic violence had significantly declined. From all those angles I think we’ve had a sizeable impact,” said McMullin.

Duplication of Village Processing Hub

Despite BTF seeming to have hit the nail on its head by unwaveringly supporting the farmers, its development and growth has been dotted by a myriad of challenges, which until to date the company strives to offset. “Being in the rural area, one of the challenges that we have faced from the onset is the irregular supply of electricity from the national grid. Even though we have installed solar panels, it is still not sufficient to meet electricity demands of a facility such as this. But we are confident that things will improve courtesy of projects such as the government’s Last Mile Connectivity program.”

In addition, he notes that it is always a painstaking process to obtain the necessary operational and regulatory licences, calling for streamlining of the processes. “The number of licenses and permits that we require are over 20, costing almost US$20,000 annually including audits and corrections. It’s not that we are against licencing, because it is important to maintain and enforce standards, but what I find is that most of the charges do not match the size of the enterprise. In some instances, we pay the same fee as well-established facilities who have been in operation for years. And the process of licensing is so fragmented and scattered, bringing about duplication of tasks, handled by different organizations. The process should be made easier and affordable, in turn encouraging more investments in the economy.”

Looking into the future, Patrick advocates for replication of the Village Processing Hub concept across the country, by both the private and public sector players. He added that the company is open for investments and partnerships which will boost the growth of the enterprise into processing of more fruit crops into high valuable products strengthening its farmer base and providing steady employment to mainly women, who have never had employment opportunities.

“As a country we should have more Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in all the rural areas rather than having a couple in the well-established cities, far away from where the producers of raw materials are located. Coming near to the source cuts wastage that takes place during transit, minimizes the high transport cost that eats into income, and most importantly offers farmers a reliable market, creates job opportunities for locals and triggers infrastructural development in the rural area.”

“The Village Processing Hub concept has been tried, tested and proved to be a success as Machakos county was a few years ago considered to be a food insecure county. Now it does not only feed itself but is also a food exporting region,” he concludes. The model is now ready to be taken to other parts of the country.

This feature appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Food Business Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE