The novice stumbles into a niche market with family seasoning


The novice stumbles into a niche market with family seasoning


Stephen Machua is the founder of Piquant Spices, a spice manufacturing startup. file image | Pool

Stephen Machua’s entrepreneurial journey started with a costly failure, but it turned out to be his biggest lesson in business.

He sunk 250,000 shillings in grant money into growing tomatoes. He and his partners hoped the investment would return at least Sh1.2 million.

The math was correct, the returns weren’t, and they had to deal with a measly sum of 9,000 shillings.

For many entrepreneurs, the costly setback was enough to convince them to return to safe work and live a risk-free life. But not Stephen.

He festered his wounds and got up the next day to go to Kotos, Kirinyaga District where he was looking for a new product – banana flour that had never seen landfall.

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That boat was swept away by the storm before it could dock. Because as he says, “Banana flour is great on paper, but it doesn’t do much good commercially. A lot of bananas have to be dried to get a kilogram of flour.”

But he did not give up.

Then he came across an idea. Why not make spices for what he calls Kadougou market? Spices should be well packaged for retail customers.

This is how Piquant Spices, a start-up spice manufacturer, began.

With the remainder of the grant from the Government of Kenya and the World Bank (together the grant amounted to Sh3.6 million), Stephen took up the idea and set up a small spice manufacturing plant.

In his words, he saw a gap that had been ignored.

“If you look on the market, you’re not going to find a seasoning that has the whole family in mind. It’s either too hot for the kids, or it’s too bland. I wanted to create something the whole family could consume without having to call the doctor.”

With fire in his bones, Stephen got into mach speed and produced two products – tea masala and pilau masala – in the initial stage of his newfound love.

It was like a baptismal exercise for him as he plunged into his first attempt at a startup.

Is it easy to trade two products?

“You don’t rest. You accomplish one thing, and the next idea keeps you up at night,” says the young entrepreneur.

And he has more products in the pipeline. “We have ten products in the certification phase at the Bureau of Standards in Kenya. Ten products he said will adhere to a similar stipulation. A full range of products for the whole family. Beef masala, chicken masala, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and more.”

It sources its raw materials from its aggregators, people who go to farms from as far away as Zanzibar and Uganda to get it.

“We get some products from suppliers in Mariketti [Nairobi]. It is important to get it from these places because it is much cheaper since it comes straight from the farm. Our factory is located in a government facility where we also have a warehouse.”

Piquant Spices are produced twice or thrice a month, depending on market demand. Most of their customers order from their website.

This writer asks is he making a profit. He is a dyed-in-the-wool businessman who tries to philosophize the answer as all businessmen do when faced with this question.

He ponders a bit and then fires straight from the hip to point of aim.

“Yes, we are making profits. But our startup model is weak, and so it is easy to be under delusions of profit-making because we are excluded from such overheads as rent and going down storage facilities. We can pay the salaries, cover any other expenses, and make time for such an interview.”

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Are the products in major stores across the country?

We’ve run into headwinds in our attempts to get there. We’ve only been in business for a year, and I think the stores didn’t trust us very much. Then there is the challenge of credit terms. At this point, it is important that we keep all possible revenue. Supermarkets have long sales conversion rates and that may not work for us.”

To drive their products, they have a strong sales team that explores new markets at granular levels. Their target customers operate small shops and kiosks on the estates.

Stephen wants to expand his reach into the greater East African region. His products are already in Tanzania and Uganda. They are looking forward to coming to the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year.

“I’m looking for money! Either investors buy shares in the company or a grant, or something.”

He wants to set up a factory that will take tens of millions of shillings in estimation. This is what keeps him awake.

His biggest lesson to date is, “Never be afraid to try something new.”

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