Eric Muthomi founded Stawi Foods in 2011 with the intention of bolstering the struggling network of smallholder and family farmers in Kenya. Muthomi, a entrepreneur certified in enterprise management, identified how industry middlemen are taking advantage of banana farmers in the Meru region of Kenya, causing fewer sales and oversupply of raw product, which later goes to waste because of insufficient storage facilities. Now CEO of Stawi, Muthomi has developed the company to be based on the principle of “value addition,” which incorporates many sectors and employs many farmers to produce finished goods as well as raw material. This new structure allows for less waste, more smallholder farmers supported and employed, stronger food security for the region, and greater income for the community. Muthomi sat down with Food Tank to discuss his model for a sustainable and locally profitable agricultural system in Kenya.
Food Tank (FT): What was the major motivation for creating Stawi Foods?
Eric Muthomi (EM): To create sustainable growth, banana farmers in Meru, one of the largest banana producing regions in Kenya, needed buyers willing to purchase their produce at responsible prices. It was the same cycle over and over: farmers would invest heavily in banana farming, only to end up disappointed by an oversupply in the market or poor pay by middlemen. We thought farmers deserved better.
Partly due to the shadow cast by bananas not being available all year, they usually become cheap during harvest time and expensive in the dry season. Furthermore, the volatility in price was dangerous for bananas as it was a crop used to avoid famine and served as a food buffer in times of scarcity between cereal harvests. Due to this, thousands of farmers remained poor as a result of waste and poor yields from their banana harvests. Lack of storage and processing facilities, bad roads, and poor access to markets did not help matters.
Stawi Foods was looking for ways of providing a market for small-scale farmers and increasing the shelf life of bananas, which would rot in farms, especially those belonging to farmers who could not reach the collection centers set up along the tarmac road on market days.
The farmers held their breath for many years as a large percentage of the bananas harvested in Kenya either rotted, was wasted, or was never sold. Several farmers are left teetering on the brink of poverty as they suffer serious losses.
We have been strong advocates for Kenyan businesses to engage in value addition and not just concentrate on selling raw products. These raw products would be exported, processed, and imported back in. The food processing industry is critical in providing a market for farm produce, creating employment, and curbing rural-urban migration. Value addition promotes the export of finished goods rather than raw materials and earns the country more foreign currency.
FT: How are Kenyan farmers disadvantaged by current farming systems?
EM: Farmers in Kenya are not making use of new technology to improve yields that would earn them higher income on the same acreage that they have. Also, lack of good roads in rural Kenya hinder farmers from delivering their produce on time and in good condition.
FT: How does Stawi Foods lessen strain on smallholder and family farmers?
Stawi is working with farmers who have come together in groups, which makes it easy to bulk produce and collect at common collection centers. We offer training to smallholder farmers to improve their farming methods and quality, which is helping to increase their business.
FT: What are some of Stawi’s sustainable practices?
EM: We are encouraging farmers to collect rainwater for use in irrigating their crops and avoid reliance on rain.
FT: What is the next step for Stawi Foods?
EM: We wish to incorporate more farmers into our value chain and are looking for funding to grow the business. We are also looking for partners who can help incorporate more farmers into our supply chain. We especially hope to create more jobs for women and youth.