By Kimuri Mwangi
G-Star Youth Group has achieved two objectives that the founders desired: finding a market for local banana farmers and empowering the members. But it has has not been an easy journey for the group especially the founder Chairman.
Charles Wachira who is the group’s Chairman says that the idea of starting the group hit him in 2013 when he brought the youth together. “I had realized that brokers were buying bananas at a throw away price in our home area and the entire Nyeri County. When we came together we realized it was a common concern and we decided to do something about it. Some of the victims were our parents and we decided to do banana value addition to maximize the earnings from the fruit,” says Wachira. But it was not going to be easy as they thought especially when it came to sourcing for funds. “We started as eight members and our idea was to build an industry to process bananas into flour, jam, and other products.
Wachira at the back of his mind was banking on the money that the government had set aside for the youth and youth were being urged to take advantage of the fund to actualize their ideas. “Since the government was promising money to the youth, we thought we would get enough to build the industry and start processing immediately. In 2015, we only managed to get Kshs. 50,000 from Uwezo Fund and Kshs. 100,000 from Youth Fund which we realized couldn’t accomplish what we wanted,” says Wachira. They used the money in capacity building learning about banana processing but since the money was given as loans, they started to repay immediately.
With knowledge but no capital they were back to square one. Luckily for them, that year the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) came on board and helped to train them more on capacity building. They were sponsored for a course on food processing technology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT) where they were awarded certificates. They also sponsored them for benchmarking tours where they visited industries which were doing banana processing to gain more knowledge. Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) would later come on board and train them on Book Keeping and Marketing.
“After being supported by the two donors we were very rich knowledge wise but we found ourselves back to square one without money to build the industry. Some members were frustrated and after a while, only me and another founder member remained. It is then that we decided to seek help from the County Government of Nyeri and luckily the Governor listened to us and he decided to help us,” says Wachira.
The Governor allowed them to use Wambugu Farm Agricultural Training College facilities to produce their banana flour in 2016. “There were machines and a technician and we were not paying anything. He also urged us to recruit more members and we managed to reach fifteen members who are the current group members till now. We were commuting daily from our village Muthinga in Tetu Constituency and being jobless getting fare was also a challenge,” says Wachira.
Their hope was rekindled once more when Upper Tana National Resource Management Project in the area invited proposals from groups which had projects they wanted to be funded. The project was funded by the National government and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Their proposal of Kshs. 1.8 million to build a banana value addition industry was passed but they had to contribute 10% which was Kshs. 180,000. Wachira says they were to contribute the money either in cash or in the form of offering labour or materials. This favoured them as they ended up contributing Kshs. 70,000 in cash. A member donated a piece of land to build the industry and they started preparations.
The joy was short-lived after they were told that the industry was a community project and could not be built on an individual’s land. “Now we had the money to build the industry but no land. Since we couldn’t afford to buy one, we went back to the Governor and requested to be allocated a piece of land. The process of trying to get one for us took long. After one year we were informed that if we didn’t get land in good time, the money would be returned to treasury,” says Wachira.
The Nyeri County Government once again came to their rescue and through public participation, proposed to offer them land within Gathinga Vocational Training Centre. The community and the Board of Directors of the Institution agreed and finally their dream came true and the industry was built. “The journey was long but finally we made it. Our industry is a modern one and it was commissioned in February last year. Currently, we mill banana porridge flour fortified with maize and sorghum which we started selling locally. Today we have managed to sell through various exhibitions we attend and in several towns including Nairobi. We hope to increase our marketing and distribution capacity soon so that we reach as many people as possible. However, we are doing fine and the local community has embraced our product,” says Wachira.
They buy bananas from the local community clean them and cut the edges to avoid contamination. They are then chopped into small pieces using a vegetable slicer and cleaned again. The chopped bananas are then dried using two solar driers, milled and then the flour is packed. The fortified flour under the brand name of Lishe is used in making porridge and Ugali and also in baking.
Despite the challenges faced by the group, Wachira says their project emerged the best in six counties among those that were funded by Upper Tana. “We are the only group that managed to use the funds effectively without wastage despite the challenges. Donors bring youth groups and other people from other counties to learn from us and we are proud. Recently they rewarded us with a water tank worth Kshs. 150,000 which has helped us as we use a lot of water. In future we plan to start processing other banana products like jam, baking flour, and banana crisps,” says Wachira.
The group has become an example and so far the industry is worth Kshs. 2.3 million with their contribution amounting to Kshs 300,000. During the Central Kenya Agricultural show they were awarded for being the best farmers in value addition in Nyeri County. The industry has also become a kind of a resource center as youth groups continue visiting them for benchmarking. IFAD representatives from several countries have also visited them in order to replicate the idea in their countries. IFAD also had brought youths from Central and Southern Africa countries to the industry in order to learn what the youth did correctly.
Wachira says their patience, perseverance and using the project money as intended had seen them grow from a struggling group to modern agribusiness entrepreneurs. “We can’t complain today as our flour is selling. Our joy is also being able to buy bananas from the community and empower them too. We are also negotiating with a client who wants to be buying our flour in huge quantities for re-branding,” says Wachira.