Entrepreneur finds export market for dried cassava leaves

Pierre Damien Mbatezimana with a selection of Shekina products.

To invent, you need a good imagination and the will to solve a problem. Pierre Damien Mbatezimana has had enough of both. He first invented a plate warmer although he had no engineering background. He ran a restaurant in Kigali, Rwanda, and needed a way to keep meals warm all day. The restaurants in his neighborhood had the same problem. Thus, Mbatezimana manufactured, sold and rented stoves to other restaurateurs. The company eventually folded as the cost of electricity rose, but he had learned something about himself: he could create technology that solves problems.

In case he needed more motivation to become an inventor and entrepreneur, Mbatezimana turned to late Bahamian preacher and author Myles Munroe. One of Munroe’s teachings was about potential: that a seed is not just a seed, but a forest waiting to happen. He devoured the author’s books on potential and realized that his handyman talent – he loved to create with his hands – was his seed.

One day he visited a market in his hometown of Rulindo when he encountered girls throwing cassava leaves that had not sold at the end of the market day. They explained that cassava leaves are very perishable and would be rotten the next day. Mbatezimana knew that the leaves were spoiled due to their high water content and wondered if there was a way to remove the water and keep the product edible. Munroe’s words came to his mind. Here is his chance to plant a seed and grow a tree, maybe a forest.

Mbatezimana went home and designed a dryer and dehydrated some leaves. “When cooking them, they tasted the same 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 that can cause poisoning when consumed in large quantities – evaporated with the water. Instead of the three to four hours it takes to cook cassava leaves to remove cyanide, this new product could cook in 30 minutes.

Sorting cassava leaves before sending them to the factory for cleaning, drying and packaging.

Cassava leaves are a delicacy in many countries in Central and West Africa. They are eaten with gali or rice, accompanied by 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.

Mbatezimana packaged his product, which he called Akeza, and presented it at the Kigali exhibition in 2007 to test the market. He handed out free samples to those who wanted to try it. A woman returned after a few days, impatient to receive more products. She marketed her product to anyone who wanted to listen to it because it was easy to cook, light to carry, and could stay fresh longer. She was the first person to show him that his idea would work. Other buyers quickly followed. Mbatezimana was officially in business and his company Shekina Enterprises was born.

Akeza made cooking the leaves easier and solved the problem of exhaling. It has a two year shelf life and is easily transported.

Mbatezimana’s raw materials were readily available. Cassava is the second most cultivated crop in Rwanda after bananas and the fourth most consumed staple crop, according to official data from 2018. The entrepreneur visited the community and asked a group of women to provide him with cassava leaves.

During this time, he designed a larger dryer and quickly delivered to supermarkets.

It was such a success, he started getting calls from overseas customers who wanted the product. Their friends and relatives had bought there and sent them Akeza. He found distributors to stock and sell his products in Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Kenya, the United States, Canada, Belgium, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Shekina was now in the export market with two flagship brands: Akeza and Ala Damiano.

“Ala Damiano was from Akeza. It contains all the ingredients to make an instant product that takes five minutes to cook in boiling water, ”Mbatezimana explains.

Currently, 70% of the products are exported.

Shekina also processes dried fruits like pineapples and bananas as well as vegetables such as amaranth, pumpkin and spinach. In addition, he makes flour from millet, sorghum, soybeans and corn.

Shekina’s products are loaded into a container for export.

The company hires farmers to deliver the cassava stems to collection centers, where the leaves are sorted and sent to the factory for cleaning, drying and packaging. The first challenge that Mbatezimana encountered was that of farmers delivering leaves at the same time, exceeding the capacity of his dryers. He navigated this by organizing the farmers into five cooperatives, each with a collection center in their region of origin. “Each co-op now has a specific day to deliver the leaves and an amount to deliver,” he says.

While Mbatezimana’s initial funding came from his savings, he depended on bank loans to grow. He acknowledges that obtaining unsecured financing has been a difficult task, especially now that it is poised to expand. He must look for more vegetables to market and increase processing capacity.

“The equipment is available, the market is there; in fact, the market is vast, locally and internationally, we just need to increase our production capacity to absorb all the raw material ”, explains Mbatezimana. He is trying to understand the online market, but so far he does not sell the products on the internet. However, some of its distributors sell on Amazon.

Mbatezimana is proud to have organized the supply chain and to have developed the appropriate technology to dry his products. After encountering bottlenecks with his locally made dryers, he found a South African company to design clothes dryers that use both electricity and a wood-burning furnace.

“The cost of electricity is a huge challenge in Rwanda and this makes the product more expensive.” He is currently studying the use of biogas energy from cassava waste to reduce the consumption of electricity and wood. “I’m also looking at freeze-drying technology, which is better than hot dryers.”

Shekina has an annual income of $ 200,000 and Mbatezimana sees growth opportunities in drying other vegetables to maximize the use of her 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 are drying them. “It’s a technology that can be replicated in many African countries, especially in West Africa,” Mbatezimana says.


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