Although most people are familiar with sunflowers, they do not immediately think of the crop as a source of an extremely healthy vegetable oil compared to other cooking oils in the market.
These were Wallace Mwaura’s first words as we settled down for an interview. Mwaura who is the founder of e-farm Co-operative Society Limited. He got the idea of growing sunflowers in 2016 with an aim of selling the raw produce (sunflower seeds) to well-established cooking oil manufacturers such as Bidco. Many cooking oil factories were by then looking for sunflower farmers to contract.
Lacking land to cultivate, Mwaura had to think harder. This is when the idea of using members of a cooperative society he was already involved in hit him. He talked to E-Farm Housing Cooperative Society members and some of them decided to give sunflower farming a try.
The society had already acquired land in Malindi, Kilifi county. Under the new plan, a member was required to invest some money in the sunflower project after which they were to recoup 30 per cent of the investment every year for five years.
“We started with members who owned land at our Malindi project. They were required to invest and the society would manage the farm from planting to selling. Quite a good number decided to give it a try. After planting, I decided to research more on sunflowers,” he said.
Simple research revealed that value-added sunflower products were going for almost triple what sunflower seeds were selling at. So Mwaura sought more information on value-addition and before even the first harvest was ready, he bought an oil pressing machine and other requirements and set up a firm in Mwea, Kirinyaga county.
“I used Sh15 million to start the firm because we had to buy land, machines, construct the factory building and train employees. It was quite a big investment considering that I didn’t even have a business or farming background,” he says.
After the first harvest, they managed to press 100 litres of sunflower oil, which they sold to members. The product was well received in the market since it was cheaper than better-known brands. After the first sales, they managed to repay the investors part of their investment and this attracted more members.
Currently, the firm owns over 100 acres under sunflower in Malindi (Kilifi county) and near Olkalou (Nyandarua county). They can produce 300 litres of sunflower oil on a daily basis, with plans to expand to 400 acres and a production capacity of one tonne per day.
The society is looking for farmers to be producing sunflower on its behalf on a contract basis. Plans are for the firm to be buying the wholesome seeds at Sh40 per kilogramme. In addition, they will be offering free seeds and free training to farmers. “There is a huge demand for sunflower oil which we cannot meet on our own considering that we don’t have enough land, which is why we are looking for more farmers,” adds Mwaura.
He notes that the road to success has been bumpy due to climatic challenges and high cost of labour, farm inputs and energy. Even today, they still struggle to push the product to the end market. “Our main target market is our own members and even though we also sell to local markets, we have realised that the demand is higher than supply because many people are moving away from cooking using animal fats and other cooking oils,” Mwaura says.
Currently, they pack the oil in one-litre jars which retail for Sh350 per litre. Plans are underway to increase the packaging to five litres. The waste product is protein-rich substance sold to animal feed firms.
His advice to anyone seeking to engage in value addition of food products is that they must get all the necessary licences, including those from health authorities and the Kenya Bureau of Standards.
Sunflower grows well in areas with sparse rainfall, and the soil should be slightly acidic with a PH of between 6.0 and 7.5. You can get good yields with less than 250 mm of rains. However, the sufficient amount of rainfall is 500 to 750 mm. In an area that experiences short rains, the dwarf hybrid types are an excellent option.