Popping grains to entice growing youth market

By Milliam Murigi
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
Elizaphan Gichangi Mahinda, Chief Operating Officer Kieru Limited, shows how they pop millet and sorghum grains in Embu town. Photo: Bioversity International

The weather was relatively fair as we walked to Safari Park Hotel, Nairobi for the Third Agri-nutrition conference.

About 400 delegates from different walks of life were attending the workshop. Among the several exhibitors showcasing their products was Elizaphan Gichangi Mahinda, Chief Operating Officer Kieru Limited. 

Gichangi’s business produces high-quality cereals snacks. He pops millet and sorghum to make snacks, just like maize is popped into popcorns, which are popular with children and the youth. Currently, corn, which is used to make popcorn, is imported. 

His stand at the conference attracted big numbers as they got a taste of his never-seen-before “popcorns”. “Popping cereals is the new business niche in Kenya. Instead of the usual way of consuming cereals after either boiling or milling them, many people are now eating them popped,” he said.

Sorghum is an excellent source of dietary fibre and a wonderful way to include the health benefits of whole grains into a gluten-free diet. It pops to create soft, white puffs that are very similar to popcorn, although significantly smaller. 

Trained in Japan 

On the other side puffed millet is great as a tasty cold breakfast cereal. With its complete protein and low-fat composition, this is truly a wheat-free gem.  

“There’s a whole world of grains which can be popped and we’ve all been stuck on corn. Sure, popped corn is great, but so is sorghum and millet,” he said. 

Gichangi is also a farmer focusing on soya beans, sorghum and millet on a two- acre farm. He started the business after attending training by Bioversity International, which works to improve nutrition and climate change adaptation, in 2013. 

After training, he bought a special popping machine at Sh160,000 and immediately ventured into the popping business. Since this was a new venture making a new product, he was forced to work long hours and walk for long distances trying to sell the product. 

By 2016, he was working with almost all cereals, but is now dealing with millet and sorghum only for value addition. “I focused on these two because they are more nutritious and people liked them when I introduced them to the market. The other reason is that these two crops are being neglected by many and with such products, we will be able to conserve the trend,” he said. 

Ten years earlier, he had ventured into selling flour made from sorghum, millet and other cereals.  “I cannot compare what I earned from flour sales to what I am getting after added value to the two products are giving me today. I am now considering going fully into value addition business,” he said.

It wasn’t an easy task to convince people to try millet and sorghum snacks. Most were used to buying flour for making porridge, but because he saw business opportunities ahead, he couldn’t give up. 

 “I hawked the product in different towns such as Embu—where the company is based— Meru, Mwea and other nearby towns. I also started attending agricultural fairs to market the product,” he said.  

Four years later, Gichangi went for further training on popping and snack-making in Japan. This is where he obtained professional training for processing and marketing puff cereal products at IEDA Connectionally Co Limited, Aichi Prefecture. 

This was a plus to his business because with snacking training, he could use other products such as mango, hibiscus, and baobab as flavour, making his products fetch more money. Initially, he was only using honey to add a unique taste.

Traditional crops

Gichangi’s innovative business is helping promote consumption of local foods, which can help end hunger and malnutrition in Kenya. He has contracted more than 200 farmers, boosting conservation of traditional crops ­ (which are more nutritious) creating employment and conserving the environment.

“Our products have been approved by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and they can be consumed by persons of all ages,” he said. 

Currently, Kieru Limited is popping 70 kilogrammes daily but hopes to increase this to 300 kilogrammes per day in coming years. “I am happy to contribute to the use of traditional and underutilised crops to end hunger and malnutrition as well as creating quality employment,” he said.  

Popped sorghum or millet goes for Sh50 for 40 grammes and Sh300 for 300 grammes as a snack. He also sells precooked soya beans, soya drink, and soya flour.

In Kenya, Sorghum is cultivated mainly for its seeds, although it can also be grown for fodder.