The realization that more than 50% of Kenya’s local fresh produce do not reach the market due to post-harvest handling led Jonathan and Ofelia to co-partner in the founding of Burton and Bamber, a food processing company in Kenya that creates dried fruit treats for markets as far as the Philippines.

Over 640 million Africans have no access to energy, corresponding to an electricity access rate for the region at just over 40 percent, the lowest in the World according to the Africa Development Bank (AfDB). Africa’s energy potential, especially renewable energy, is enormous, yet only a fraction of it is being currently employed. Leveraging on the yearlong supply of ample sunshine which makes it easy to operate both small-scale and large-scale solar power systems, one Jonathan Bamber and Ofelia Burton, embarked on a sustainability project in Kenya in 2014. The duo introduced novel solar power energy generation technologies suitable for households. However, the project did not suffice as the products introduced were unaffordable for the targeted market, comprising majorly of small-holder farmers residing in the rural areas.

This called for a change of tactic by the two entrepreneurs who shifted their focus from distribution of solar energy products to the purchase of excess agricultural produce from the farmers. The deviation from the original plan was triggered by Ofelia’s encounter with the farmers who, “Were loading my car with all their excess agriculture produce to sell on their behalf and use the proceeds to pay for the solar power system in instalments. That was really touching,” she said during an interview with the Food Business Africa team, as she told us on how they ventured into agro-processing six years ago.

The realization that more than 50% of Kenya’s local fresh produce do not reach the market due to post-harvest handling, disease, transport issues, among other factors, led Jonathan and Ofelia to co-partner in the founding of Burton and Bamber Limited in 2015. Their focus was to add value to fresh produce and fetch higher income while extending the shelf life of the products. To this end, the partners embarked on the production of dried fruits under its flagship brand Sweetunda from locally sourced fruits, mainly mango, banana, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries and tomatoes.

The move has been a game changer, as it broke the monotony of the commonly marketed snacks such as biscuits, confectionery, and crisps, tapping into the fast-growing healthy snack segment with guilt free enjoyment. 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$9.50 billion in 2025, according to Research and Markets.

Partnering with small-holder farmers to avail mouth-watering healthy snacks

Other than tapping into the blossoming market, Burton and Bamber’s biggest gain has been availing a ready market for the fruit farmers from Machakos, Embu, Murang’a, Kitui, Makueni, Meru counties and some parts of the Coast region, who no longer let their harvest rot in farms or sell it at throw-away prices to middlemen.

Currently, the company works with over 500 farmer suppliers, whom the company not only buys fruits directly from, but also trains on improved agronomy practices. “We train small holder farmers in crop management through Global GAP certification to deliver top quality products meeting international standards. We’re building sustainable supply chains and paying premium prices for high quality inputs,” revealed Ofelia, the Production and Supply Director at Burton and Bamber.

All the locally sourced raw materials are currently processed at the company’s factory in Machakos County, Eastern Kenya. Prior to commencing operations at the Yatta Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD) Packhouse in 2018, Burton and Bamber had already kick-started its dried fruits processing operations under a sub-contractual agreement in 2015 with Kenyan nut processor and exporter, Jungle Nuts Limited, based in Thika industrial town.

With the twin processing facilities, the agro processor currently boasts of a monthly production capacity of over 144 tonnes of fresh fruits. To ensure the consumer gains the utmost satisfaction from relishing on its chewable succulent treats, Burton and Bamber creatively avails the products in a wide range of natural fruit options including mango, banana, pineapple, raspberry and strawberry, with no added sugar. The ultimate party in a pouch is the mixed fruit comprising all the fruits! Yummy!!

To reach the targeted consumers, Burton and Bamber first commenced by availing the Sweetunda product line through independent retailers and leading grocery outlets in the capital Nairobi such as Chandarana Food Plus Supermarkets, On the Way and Zucchini.

In no time, the colourful and eyeing catching brand started to prominently feature in the confectionery aisle of leading supermarket chains such as Carrefour and Naivas, with the company securing over 40% of dried fruit sales through the retail outlets.

Competing alongside its imported counterparts, Sweetunda has managed to cut out a substantial chunk of the local market share through constantly introducing health snacks to consumers via in-store promotions, social media, farmers markets and educational programs in schools, as its largest targeted market are kids. The Sweetunda products are also sold in neighbouring countries such as South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

However, Ofelia notes that, “Our major competitor in the dried fruits local market is the fresh fruit. It is very difficult to convince Kenyans to eat dried fruits when the fresh fruits are readily available. So, we decided the largest potential for this business is in the international export markets such as the Philippines, whose local production of mangoes is 10 times lower compared to Kenya, adds Ofelia. The company’s bulk exports also reach Italy, Czech Republic, and Holland with more global destinations in the pipeline.

Safety first to win international markets

Venturing abroad required Burton and Bamber to align its processes with the internationally accredited food safety and quality standards from the farm to the factory.

At the farm level, the company collaboratively works with farmers to attain the Global GAP certification and as of this year, 5 of its partnering farmer groups have been Global GAP certified. Another great milestone attained by the company is that its Yatta factory got the FSSC 2000 certification in early 2021, delivering ultimate food safe assurance to its local, regional and international customers.

Our major competitor in the dried fruit local market is the fresh fruit. You cannot convince kenyans to eat dried fruits when fresh fruits are readily available

“The FSSC certification required a significant investment in capacity building for safe food production. Since the commencement of the project in 2015, we have received support from several organizations such as SNV, the Micro Enterprises Support Program Trust funded by DANIDA, and the USAID Feed the Future program in Kenya by RTI International, in form of financial and equipment support which has enabled us to gain the international certifications,” Ofelia gratefully noted.

More treats in the bag with nutritious edge

Other than the dried fruits, the Machakos town-based company, which is in its growth phase, has also launched other products, including granola coming in three different variants: classic, chocolate and tropical granola.

In addition, the food processor is set to debut healthy and nutritious products made from the orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) coming in form of a puree, before the end of the year. “This is a nutrition project done in partnership with the International Potato Center (CIP) and the RTI international, for delivery of high-nutrition food items to address childhood stunting and malnutrition,” said Ofelia.

As of 2019, 234 million sub-Saharan Africans were chronically undernourished, according to statistics by World Vision. In the whole of Africa, 250 million people were experiencing hunger, which is nearly 20% of the population. Conditions are deteriorating across East Africa, where 7 million people are at risk of starvation and another 33.8 million face acute food insecurity. At least 12.8 million children are acutely malnourished in the region.

In pursuit to offset the escalating horrific trend, the CIP in partnership with USAID, undertook research on how this humble crop, the sweet potato, could be positioned as a nutritious alternative given that they are naturally packed with vitamin B5, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and carotenoids.

The parties later chose Burton and Bamber as their private sector partner to leverage on its innovative processing ideas for the commercialization and industrialization of the crop. “Production of the orange fleshed sweet potato puree is through a special equipment that has been provided by CIP, developed by US based Synovatech company in partnership with the North Carolina Univeristy,” revealed Ofelia. The technology utilizes aseptic processing with microwave technology which delivers a shelf stable product, without the need for refrigeration for two years.

Ofelia informs us that the introduction of the OFSP product is set to bring more economic value to the small-holder farmers as it is a short-term crop, taking 3 months to mature and with proper crop rotation, a farmer can have a full year of harvest, providing a regular income stream as opposed to mangoes which are highly seasonal and only harvestable once a year. The sweet potato is also seen as a suitable substitute to the imported wheat used in production of baked goods such as cakes and formulation of breakfast cereals dish such as porridge. “Through our research and development efforts, we have also developed sweet potato crackers, a crispy snack option to be launched in the market soon,” said Ofelia.

Burton and Bamber eyes future growth

Looking into the near future, Burton and Bamber aims to be a key player in the global snacks market currently worth US$493.4 billion and global ingredients market worth an estimated US$98 billion, by incorporating more fruits, vegetables, nuts and other food products.

“As a supplier of high nutritional value snacks and food ingredients, Burton and Bamber is well positioned to gain traction in local and international markets where the demand for these products is experiencing strong growth. Food safety and quality assurance, traceability and authenticity are increasingly important to consumers across geographical regions; our certifications, supply chain and corporate social goals align directly with these market drivers,” said Ofelia.

While focusing on the growth of its operations, the food processor aims to ensure its operations are sustainably driven. Currently, distribution of its products delivers net-zero environmental impact as it utilizes existing distribution networks. As part of its plan, the company is seeking to shift to the use of green energy at its facility by installation of solar energy solutions. Also, as the operations expand the company will engage more of the local talent from the current 26 staff workforce.

“Burton and Bamber will continue to develop new products, aligned with the market demand of safe, affordable, readily available, delicious and healthy products for both the local and international markets, as we continue supporting the small-holder farmers,” concluded Ofelia.

This feature appeared in the Sep/Oct 2021 issue of Food Business Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE