Value addition allows the firm and its smallholder farmers to have an additional revenue stream
Based in Machakos County, Vert Ltd is a company that specialises in horticultural produce processing and export. Initially focusing on exporting fresh produce to the European market, the company later sought to diversify its product portfolio by going into value addition, especially for mangoes.
“The same farmers who supply us with fresh vegetables for export also grow mangoes, and we were alive to the fact that most of the mangoes go to waste because they don’t find their way to the market in time,” says Vert managing director Jane Maina.
Value addition, Ms Maina says, allows the firm and its smallholder farmers to have an additional revenue stream. It also cushions the business against over-reliance on the European market and air transport. “We now can produce pulp, which we sell to the juice processors within the country and also within the East African region, as well as the wider COMESA [Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa] region. And to get to these markets, we largely go by road, or alternatively by sea. And then, we have our newest product which is farther into the journey of value addition, which is the dried mango.”
An additional advantage of dried mango is that it has a market in both Europe and the United States.
The firm encourages farmers to form groups through which to market their products. “This also helps in providing a legal framework against which we can do contractual farming. So, when we form them into groups, or where the groups exist for say a different purpose, we discuss with the farmers and see whether it is viable for them to grow the products where we can guarantee a market. We also provide extension services through a network of technical staff based within the localities where production happens, and these are the people who are in touch with the farmers on a daily basis to provide them with any assistance and also become the link persons to advise us on the conditions on the ground, the harvesting, and so on.”
The firm reaches out to farmers in almost all parts of the country. The mango season usually starts in the month of September, when mangoes are in season in Kilifi, followed by Lamu, Tana River, and Kitui counties in October. Makueni and Machakos counties are next, followed by Embu, Murang’a, and Meru.
Started in 2000 as a family business co-founded with Ms Maina’s husband, in 2018 Vert completed building its current physical premises — a purpose-built factory to support the pulping business.
“Our pulping line can do both the mango fruits and the passion fruits. And we also have a significant market for exporting fresh passion fruits. If you look at the seasonality of mango as a fruit, when compared to the passion fruit, they actually complement each other. You can plan production of passion in such a way that it is continuous all the year round; however, for mango, there is only so much that you can stretch beyond the natural season of the mango. So, we use the two fruits to complement each other; when we are off-season on mango, then we switch to passion fruit,” Ms Maina told Horticulture News.
But helping farmers to achieve international food safety standards is a “herculean” task, according to Ms Maina. “We attach trained agronomists in various areas, who are in charge of training the farmers and updating their knowledge from time to time. Sometimes there are pesticides that you need to use, and others that are found not suitable with time, and we have to adapt quickly and keep up with the standards and changing regulations.”
Impact of COVID-19 pandemic
Like many other firms in the fresh produce industry, Vert Ltd was hit hard by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We found it very difficult to continue exporting fresh produce to Europe because of the immediate disruption to the logistics systems. Flights were stopped, the markets locked down in Europe. So, that kind of market is locked down or is lost, either temporarily or even permanently, because people will be looking at different options of accessing products when there is a disruption in the market,” said Ms Maina.
To make things worse, COVID-19 came at a time when farmers had already experienced devastating losses due to an invasion of the desert locust, which destroyed crops and trees in many counties across Kenya.
Having successfully navigated through the challenges that have presented themselves through the years, Vert Ltd today employs 85 permanent staff members and some 250 to 300 casual labourers who are employed seasonally in the factory. On the supply base, the firm started off with less than 10 farmers, but today works with over 5,000 farmers.
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