Pitch Competition targets Kenyan SMEs and innovations transforming local food systems

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Kenya’s food system hold pivotal positions across the agri-value chain as suppliers, processors, distributors and retailers. Yet despite their crucial role, they struggle with various challenges including access to finance, business training and mentorship that have stood in the way of them realising their full potential and scaling operations.

Inspired by the need to boost their capacity to produce safe, affordable and nutritious foods, the Scaling Up Nutrition Business Network (SBN) Kenya partnered with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, the World Food Programme (WFP), and Irish Aid to organise the 2021 Kenya SUN Pitch Competition, which was held in June 2021.

Themed ‘Unleashing the Power Within’, the competition sought to identify innovative nutritious food SMEs, that had the potential to offer disruptive, scalable, inspiring and investable solutions to local food system challenges. The competition laid emphasis on four themes including:

  • Food design innovations
  • Post-harvest loss reduction innovations
  • Market connectivity innovations
  • Food safety innovation

Pitch preparations

The call for proposal attracted applicants from across Kenya, which were then narrowed down to 10 finalists. The winner received US$8,000, and the cash prizes for the second and third runners-up were US$4,000 and US$ 3,000, respectively.

As well as selecting applicants to be admitted to the competition, event organisers formed a panel of four judges, to be responsible for deciding the final winners. The judging panel was made up of Federico Naccarato, the Head of Innovation at WFP Kenya, Sarah Wacheke, a Senior Planning Officer at the Agricultural Finance Corporation and agribusiness specialist, Sieka Gatabaki, the Deputy Program Director at Mercy Corps AgriFin Program, and Peter Wathigo, a market development and nutrition expert who has been involved in the development of food fortification policies in several African countries.

The finalists underwent a rigorous ‘boot camp’ for 2 weeks, which included training on how to pitch their businesses to investors, prepare business plans, business development and participating in investor pitching sessions. The training also included Ethiopia SUN Pitch Competition finalists, which provided the finalists with additional south-south and peer-to-peer learning opportunities.The training sessions were carried out by Bopinc, an organisation that works to facilitate impactful entrepreneurship in low income markets.

Armed with presentations and knowledge acquired during the training, the 10 entrepreneurs were ready to face judges and the audience on the pitch day, which was held on June 28 2021. Finalists ranged from producers of healthy snacks and nutritious complementary porridge flour to wheat flour enriched with orange fleshed sweet potato.

Investing in innovation

“We all have a role to play, whether in production, transformation or consumption. That is why we are here today, to support our innovators as they showcase the solutions they are developing to address the bottlenecks in our food systems,” said Josephine Mwema of WFP Kenya.

The judges took time after each finalist’s presentation to ask them questions, engage with them and offer them guidance on how to improve their businesses. After an afternoon of rigorous engagement between finalists, judges and the participants, judges retreated to pick the three winners who were announced during a colourful cocktail ceremony. These winners would be receiving the cash prizes, all of which will be used to address a clear business need identified during the training process.

The winners

Taking the overall prize was Euro Ingredients Limited, a company that has developed technologies to use locally sourced, rather than expensive imported, crops as active ingredients in its bakery and beverage products. The company’s flagship product is wheat flour dough and ready-to-eat chapatti, unleavened bread commonly consumed in East Africa. The SME makes the products using different root tuber crops, including orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, beet roots, carrots and sweet potatoes. As well as being rich in nutrients, the products attract customers with their vibrant colour and popular taste. The enterprise is also working on a partnership with humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide to supply its products to schools and health centres in low income areas in order to tackle malnutrition.

“We design our own machinery and production process, and have also invested in a research and development unit to ensure that we are able to make products that are heavily nutritious and retain as many nutrients as possible. The aim is to ensure the consumer is getting the nutritional value of what they consume,” says Antonio Magnaghi the Co-Founder Euro Ingredients Limited.

Delish & Nutri Ltd emerged as the first runner-up. This SME processes the first and only peanut powder in Kenya, UNO Peanut Powder, which is processed and packaged into affordable units starting from 50 grams, which are sold for Ksh40 (US$0.40). The enterprise has invested in an elaborate distribution channel that ensures the product’s availability in supermarkets and retail stores in 26 counties across Kenya. To reach those in low income areas, it has partnered with kiosks and food vendors, and has also developed a cart-mobile kiosk. The product can be added to vegetables, porridge, smoothies and even meat, to provide a host of minerals and vitamins including magnesium, foliate, vitamin E, copper, arginine, and fibre.

“One of the slogans we use when explaining Peanut Powder to customers is that its use is limited only by imagination. By being the only one in Kenya, affordable, nutritious and having multiplicity of use gives it that unique attribute which was a key selling point to the judges of the pitch competition,” said James Muturi the CEO of Delish & Nutri Ltd.

The second runner-up was Nature Bowl, a small business that offers a range of porridge flour mixes targeting mothers and children. The SME also gives basic education to mothers on nutrition and food preparation using digital platforms including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram. Using 100% indigenous grains and tubers, Nature’s Bowl sources raw materials from farmers, processes them into flour and packages them for sale. The mixes cater to the needs of children over the age of six months, before which point Nature’s Bowl supports exclusive breastfeeding. “With the cash prize I received from the competition, I will improve the quality of my products. I am also doing an analysis to strengthen my products’ adherence to World Health Organisation requirements with Professor Catherine Kunyanga from the University of Nairobi, with whom I was linked during the training,” says Sharon Ndegwa the Founder of Nature Bowl. In addition, she says she will use a portion of the prize to move to her own business premises and production unit.

Looking to the future

“This year’s Pitch Competition was very captivating and inspiring across all fronts, especially happening at a time when COVID-19 has adversely affected a lot of SMEs and disrupted normal operations. Our next competition will be outstanding, having drawn lessons from the current one,” enthuses Charles Opiyo, SBN Kenya’s National Coordinator. “This competition is an exciting opportunity for innovative businesses with a goal of reducing malnutrition, particularly as it is open to all nutrition enterprises and not exclusive to SBN members.”

The organisers are also looking to hold regional competitions in the future to allow businesses from different countries in Africa to interact and learn from each other while solidifying the nutrition network.