[Rwanda] SHEKINA enterprise finds export market for dried cassava leaves product
SHEKINA Enterprise is a going-concern Rwandan Food Processing Company, created in 2007 by its founder & Managing Director MBATEZIMANA Pierre Damien. Mr. MBATEZIMANA got the idea to start Shekina when he visited a small market in his home village and met some girls who were throwing cassava leaves (a very nutritious African vegetable) in the garbage.
One day, he visited a market in his home district of Rulindo when he encountered girls discarding cassava leaves that hadn’t sold at the end of the market day. They explained that cassava leaves are highly perishable and would be rotten by the next day. Mbatezimana knew the leaves spoilt because of their high water content and wondered if there was a way to remove the water and keep the edible product. Munroe’s words flashed in his mind. Here was his chance to plant a seed and grow a tree, maybe a forest.
Mbatezimana went home and designed a dryer and dehydrated some leaves. “On cooking them, they had the same taste as fresh cassava leaves,” he recalls. He took the dried leaves to a lab that offered even better news. Cyanide – a chemical found in cassava and which can cause poisoning when consumed in large quantities – had evaporated along with the water. Instead of the three to four hours needed to cook cassava leaves to remove cyanide, this new product could cook in 30 minutes.
Cassava leaves are a delicacy in many countries across Central and West Africa. They are eaten with ugali or rice, accompanied with meat or fish or other vegetables like leeks, onions, celery and garlic. The leaves are rich in antioxidants, iron, a protein called lysine, and beta-carotene, as well as other vitamins and minerals.
He, then, decided to research on how this commodity can be conserved for a fairly long period of time in order to help the poor people in his village. With the research, Mr. Mbatezimana discovered and designed a machine which dries cassava leaves. Mr. Mbatezimana’s dried cassava leaves turned out to be a fantastic product with a shelf life of 2 years, easy to transport, easy to cook and less energy consuming.
Since then, Mr. MBATEZIMANA decided to start a factory using his newly invented drying machine, and he called the factory Shekina. Now this product, Dried cassava leaves (ISOMBE), is very successful both on the local and international markets. Dried cassava leaves, ISOMBE, is being sold on the Brand name of AKEZA.
Mbatezimana’s raw materials were readily available. Cassava is the second most grown crop in Rwanda after bananas and the fourth most consumed staple crop, according to official 2018 data. The entrepreneur went to the community and got a group of women to supply him with cassava leaves.
Meanwhile, he designed a bigger dryer and was soon delivering to supermarkets.
It was such a hit, he began receiving calls from customers abroad who wanted the product. Their friends and relatives had been buying locally and posting Akeza to them. He found distributors to stock and sell his products in Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Kenya, the US, Canada, Belgium, Sweden and the UK. Shekina was now in the export market with two flagship brands: Akeza and Ala Damiano.
“Ala Damiano came from Akeza. It has all the ingredients to make an instant product that takes five minutes to cook in boiling water,” explains Mbatezimana.
Shekina also processes dried fruits like pineapples and bananas as well as vegetables such as amaranth, pumpkin and spinach. In addition, it makes flour from millet, sorghum, soya and maize.
The company contracts farmers to deliver cassava stems to collection centres, where leaves are sorted and sent to the factory for cleaning, drying and packaging. The first challenge Mbatezimana encountered was farmers who delivered leaves at the same time, exceeding the capacity of his dryers. He navigated this by organising the farmers into five co-operatives, each with a collection centre in their home area. “Each co-operative now has a specific day to deliver leaves and a quantity to deliver,” he says.
While Mbatezimana’s initial funding came from his savings, he has depended on bank loans to grow. He acknowledges it has been an uphill task obtaining funding without collateral, especially now that he is set on expansion. He needs to research more vegetables to bring to market, as well as increase processing capacity.
“The material is available, the market is there; in fact, the market is big, locally and internationally, we just need to grow our production capacity to absorb all the raw material,” Mbatezimana says. He is looking to understand the online market but so far, he is not selling the products over the internet. However, some of his distributors do sell on Amazon.
Shekina has an annual revenue of $200,000 and Mbatezimana sees opportunities for growth in drying other vegetables to maximise the use of his machines during the dry season when there are not enough cassava leaves. He also sees huge potential in West Africa where cassava leaves are consumed in large quantities and there are currently no companies that dry them. “This is a technology that can be replicated in many African countries, especially in West Africa,” Mbatezimana says.