Rowland Gakuo; A Startup Entrepreneur Doing Value Addition To The Tree Tomato Fruit Plant
Africa produces a lot as far as agricultural products are concerned, but unprocessed agricultural products fetch every little price at the international market compared to process products. A lot of chocolate, coffee and tea companies have pitched tent on the continent; Africa harvests its agricultural produce and exports them to offshore industries to be used as raw materials for the processed industries.
The foreign industries then brands and packages the processed products and sell them to the international market at an incredibly high price. Even Africa markets, imports and consumes the processed products at an extremely high price compare to their export; leading to unfavorable balance of trade for a lot of the African country. The height of irony is that the raw materials are grown in our backyards.
Well, one startup entrepreneur is on the path to making a different narrative from the one above. Using a locally available plant, he is seeking value addition to the plant by processing, packaging and branding it. The following is our exclusive interview with the startup entrepreneur.
My name is Rowland Gakuo Maina from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and technology, currently a fourth year taking a BSC in Food Science and Technology.
Tell us about your project.
My project is all about value addition to one of the most underutilized fruit that grows widely in the tropics. The TREE TOMATO Fruit (Solanum Betaceum) which is a member of the nightshade family. We are processing various value added products including jams (Both Pure jams and Seed incorporated jams) juices, wines, juice blends with pineapple, Animal Feeds, Flavoring yoghurts. We also mix it into baked products for colour as well as nutrition enhancement
What inspired you to come up with this project?
Tree tomato fruit is a fruit that grows widely under a vast range of climate,the fruit has immense health benefits including enriching key elements in the blood, boosting the immunity, strengthening of bones and bone structures, cure for scurvy, and night blindness. It has also shown to be effective in preventing and reducing cancerous cells. In Kenya, this fruit is never consumed by many due to its bitter taste caused by high acidic levels within the fruit. So I came up with an innovative way to make easy to drink products from the fruit.
However, the fruit is highly perishable, and if not handled carefully could result in a lot of post-harvest losses. It was very hard at first since when the fruit has a high enzymatic reaction when exposed to the air. After few weeks of studying and working on coming up with a product from the fruit and some help from scientific research materials, I had a breakthrough. I was finally able to come up with a product that can last longer without going bad while still maintaining its initial high nutritional value.
What socio-economic challenges, can your product overcome in Kenya?
Indeed it does, the fruit is grown mainly by small-scale peasant farmers in Kenya. But only for its beauty around their homestead. We know the fruit has a lot of health benefits, so we can market it to the masses if we had the necessary processing industries in place. In turn, the peasant farmers who currently grow it for its beauty could start earning an income from it.
If you were to meet a Venture Capitalist, what reasons would you give him/her to invest in your project?
There is a hidden treasure in the project. People are becoming more cautious about their health and consuming natural products is the way. It is this that shows that this will be the next big thing, why because the project is sustainable and highly profitable
Have you taken any steps towards getting a Patent rights or Copyrights to this project
YES the project is being patented and has been absorbed by Chandaria business and innovation centre for incubation
What were some of the challenges you’ve faced in executing your idea into a project that can be demonstrated?
Lack of funds as the project is a bit costly as well as you have to do a vast study of the fruit to be able to process it and remain natural as it was. There is a lot of science input into the processing techniques.
Did you have any guidance or a mentor that helped you along the way in executing this project from just an initial idea you had?
Yes. Dr Arnold O Onyango the chairman dept of food science and technology at JKUAT was my supervisor, and he was key to the success of this project more so by offering guidances and technical solution whenever I got stuck
What advice can you give to fellow students (and African youths, in general) out there having big ideas, but no clue on how to begin implementing it?
Aggressiveness is the way to go.If you think you will succeed without being aggressive and a problem solver then you are lying to yourself. Be aggressive, be a thinker and be a solution provider. Don’t restrain yourself because of finances, do the much you can with what you have.