Three years after leaving campus, Irene Etyang was still unemployed. She was busy knocking on office doors, dropping copies of her academic documents and curriculum vitae with the hope of getting a job.
The experience was so heartbreaking that she started wondering if she had erred in pursuing a bachelor’s degree in food science and technology.
But one day, after spending time with friends somewhere along the dusty and sometimes dingy alleyways of the city, she retired to bed and recalled a statement she had heard on her graduation day.
“We were told to come up with food products that can solve problems in the community,” she told the Star in Busia county. “Because of that, I was able to come up with the idea of making bread from jackfruit, the bread which is high in antioxidants.”
The interview was held at a room with glossy white walls that she intends to use as her new office in Amagoro town, Teso North sub-county.
Etyang thought she had hit a jackpot until the idea vanished in thin air after a few days, as she lacked the raw material, machinery and money to help her process the bread.
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Down but not out, she decided to try her hand in something else. “After that, I came up with infant formulas, basically porridge for infants,” she said with a glowing face.
“I was trying and I discovered that people liked the idea because we made it from millet, groundnuts and soybeans.”
She was happy with her innovation because with the sales she made from the infant formulas, she was able to provide basic needs for herself — accommodation, food and clothing — and would occasionally have money to send to her immediate family.
Etyang would process flour for making the infant formulas back in the village then sell it to health-conscious consumers in urban centres, mainly in Nairobi. This she succeeded in doing with the help of her friends, who aided in the marketing of the product.
Although the idea was accepted by many within her locality in Amagoro and outside, she continued being creative until last year when she conceived the idea of trying to make a millet bar, which later came to be called millet chocolate.
It is through this effort that the Etyang got invited to the US for the Mandela Washington Fellowship from June 19-August 2. She to take part in a conference whose objective is to empower young businesspeople through leadership training and networking.
So many people are suffering from diabetes, hypertension, cancer and obesity, and I thought I should come up with a product that is tasty and at the same time addresses the problem
Irene Etyang, 31
Before the idea came up, Etyang had been selling baby porridge to earn a living. With the new concept of millet chocolate, she had to relocate completely to her village in Amagoro because of the availability of raw materials and cheap labour to run her enterprise.
“It is in June 2018 that we started with the millet bar (millet chocolate) after I went for the Young Africa Leaders Initiative conference in Kenyatta University. It is a continental programme that supports young leaders and entrepreneurs,” Etyang says.
She was convinced that the idea of making millet chocolate was the best since the product is healthy and can be consumed by people from all walks of life, including individuals with lifestyle-related ailments.
The chocolate contains calcium, which is good for people with problems of the bones. Other ingredients are proteins, fibre, fat, carbohydrates, iron, zinc and phosphorus.
“With the rise of non-communicable diseases, I thought I should come up with products that can address that particular challenge,” Etyang said.
“So many people are suffering from diabetes, hypertension, cancer and obesity, and I thought I should come up with a product that is tasty and at the same time addresses the problem, which is a menace especially in Africa and more so in East Africa.”
With millet chocolate, she says, one can have complete dietary requirements for the day, as the product is rich in zinc, iron and calcium. The chocolate is a combination of raw materials that are friendly even to people with lifestyle diseases like diabetes, she adds.
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She makes the product using honey, which acts as a sweetener, instead of refined sugars, which are unhealthy.
“Most people with diabetes are told not to use sugar, depending on the type of diabetes they have. But with honey, one can eat products with such ingredients,” Etyang says.
Her intention is to make her company, Akimaa Africa, a processing firm that makes food products using only locally available material — millet, groundnuts, soybeans and raw honey.
It is this plan that led to her invitation to the US conference. She says she will capitalise on the visit to the world’s leading economy to market her product(s) and subsequently export to the nation.
“So far our market is in urban centres, mostly in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, and the reason is that these diseases I am talking about are mostly with people in urban areas,” she says.
“But in the next five years, we want to go global. Currently, we have a market in the US, but we are not able to satisfy that market because of stringent regulations in the US. We want to make sure we meet those regulations so we can start exporting.”
This, she says, will come to pass when the company invests in machinery that will more than double production.
“We currently produce 1,000 pieces per day because of manual production. In the next few months, we are looking at investing something like Sh5 million for us to be able to get machinery,” she said.
“The moment we get machinery, we will expand. When we automate our production, we want to make sure we get at least 20,000 pieces per day because we are going by the market. The market is overwhelming and we need a lot of products.”
With an expanded market, the company will also look at diversifying production and bringing onboard more foodstuff, depending on what the market dictates.
Etyang is considering starting making millet smoothies (millet juice), which will be bottled before being supplied to supermarkets as well as wholesale and retail shops.
Other products she is also eyeing include cakes, cookies and bread, whose production she envisages will start before the close of 2019. Local people, she adds, should take up Akimaa Africa’s products and drop the notion that millet is a poor man’s meal.
“Millet is one thing that people call a poor man’s food. They believe that they have had enough millet. The reason we have so many customers outside is that millet is foreign to them. Here millet is a local man’s food.”
She crowned the interview with advice to the youth, whom she accuses of being lax in creativity to generate jobs for themselves.
“To my fellow youth, currently we have a challenge in the country, there are no jobs. My advice is for each and every young person to identify their talent, something they are passionate about, and they can commit and start working on it. There is no harm in starting small,” she said.
Apart from the US, she is also planning to export Akimaa Africa products to Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and South Sudan.
The uniqueness of her products, she says, gives her an edge over her competitors, including reputable international companies.