Raka Milk Processors has carved a niche for itself in the growing cheese market in Kenya, with impressive results.
The Finest Cheese in Kenya
“Cheese making was Rajesh’s dream”. That’s how Kalpa Padia describes what led her late husband, Rajesh Padia, and herself to start making cheese. “It has become my passion”, she continues
The number of Kenyans who have ever tasted cheese is low, and those who take cheese on a regular basis are even fewer. Going back to 2001 when Rajesh and Kalpa started making cheese and you realize that ‘dream’ and ‘passion’ are words that were vital in those days.
I ask Kalpa if the situation has since changed and she asks “Do you eat pizza?” My answer is ‘Yes’. ‘Then you eat cheese in your pizza’ is her answer, followed with a hearty laugh. Then Kenyans must be eating a lot of cheese unknowingly, was my thought.
The situation has indeed changed significantly, with a lot more Kenyans travelling the world and acquiring new tastes and food preferences. That, and combined with the influx of foreigners into the country and the region has contributed to a significant rise in cheese consumption.
Raka Milk Processors is a cheese processing company based in Nyeri town. Nyeri is located in the serene environment between the Aberdares highland ranges and Mt Kenya. Known more for its coffee plantations, Nyeri is not your normal cheese processing town.
However, with cool weather almost all year round, Nyeri is also an area with many decades of dairy farming, with most households owning at least one dairy cow. The abundance of milk in Nyeri and its environs gave Raka Milk Processors a head start as they had high quality milk from the start, hence the rich cheese associated with Raka.
A Humble Start
Raka Milk Processors was started in 2001 by the late Rajesh Padia and his wife Kalpa Padia. The original business, known as Mweiga Cheese Makers was started in 1988-89, after Rajesh Padia came back from further studies in the UK.
The time spent in the UK introduced Rajesh to cheese, and he started to think of one day processing his own cheese back in Nyeri, where his family was running the family business.
The customer base was originally 4-5 families, who would order some few packs of cheese that would then be made and delivered to them. The business grew in leaps and bounds, with the company starting to deliver cheese to a few hotels in Nairobi and Nyeri area over time.
However, the 1991 Gulf War put an end to Mweiga Cheese Makers, when the hotel orders dried up suddenly. Rajesh went back to the family business, but with his dream.
The dream would remain in ‘hibernation’ till 2001, when Rajesh was convinced by one of his former employees, Isaiah to restart the cheese business again.
For the record, we met Isaiah during our visit, older and wiser in the field of cheese making, and with an impressive record of having trained the next batch of individuals who will take Raka to the next level
At the start, the company had to locally fabricate the vats and moulds using local materials and manpower. Starting with 200 litres of milk per day that yielded about 20 kg of cheese the company had a difficult time establishing itself in the market considering low levels of consumption, at one time having over 7 tonnes of cheese with nowhere to sell.
However, in 2002, the Innscor fast food chain opened shop in Nairobi, and with the introduction of its Pizza Inn line, Raka all of a sudden was being asked to supply up to 500 kg per week to Innscor, way above what the company could supply
A visit in 2007 to Holland organized by PUM, a Dutch organization, opened the eyes of Rajesh and Kalpa as to the real opportunities in cheese making, and how to grab the opportunity provided by Innscor. They visited some of the smallest and the biggest cheese makers in Holland, with one of the factories processing 11 tonnes of cheese per hour!
Coming back from the visit, Rajesh and Kalpa put in more effort to upscale the operations of the cheese plant. The company has an installed capacity of 8000 litres of milk per day at present, yielding about 800 kg per day of cheese
Raka procures its milk from a number of dairy co-operatives from around Nyeri town. The dairy has negotiated contracts with the co-operatives, ensuring they meet the quality specifications that have been agreed by the dairy and themselves. Raka had initial challenges in sourcing the milk but eventually managed to gain confidence of the cooperatives
On receiving milk in the dairy, the milk is standardized then pasteurized up to 74C, before the addition of culture and rennet. Once the separation is complete, the curd is cut and depending on the product, the cheddaring process of water removal is done. Once the appropriate moisture content has been achieved milling, salting and then the cheese is placed in moulds.
Further processes including pressing, turning, packing and ripening are carried out, depending on the product
Raka cheese is available in various forms, sizes and types. The company’s cheeses are processed to serve a wide range of consumers, from those who love low fat cheese to full fat cheese. The target market is mainly A, B and Upper C class.
There are 3 categories of cheese: soft, semi-hard and hard. Our products include:
- Cheese – Pizza, Cheddar, Mozzarella, Feta, Halloumi, Gouda, Cream Cheese Original, Cream Cheese Black Pepper, Cream Cheese Garlic, Nyeri Blue, Chevre de Nyeri and Paneer
- Raka Shrikhand – An Indian sweet dessert milk
- Raka Ghee
Several of our products such as Halloumi Cheese, Feta Cheese, cream cheeses, Gouda and Shrikhand have carved their own popularity. Raka intends to introduce new products into the market which are under consideration.
The sales and marketing team have done a great job in making sure the presence of Raka cheese is felt in the whole country.
With a Masters in Fine Art, Kalpa Padia is not your ordinary cheese maker but her focus on quality and staff welfare has ensured that Raka continues to soar. The company is passionate about making quality products, and for this reason they take extra care in hygiene, nutrition, packaging and overall factory wellness for both staff and equipment.
Raka’s cheese making process puts a lot of emphasis on quality, perseverance, hard work and team work which has in a big way won the hearts of many customers who have gone ahead and introduced Raka cheese to their friends and families.
Raka believes in research and embracing new ideas from the MD to the people on the ground. This coupled with regular food sampling and a questionnaire in the outlets, the company is able to know the needs and expectations of the market. The company also receives regular feedback from its distributors and customers.
Raka has put in place documented systems and operational processing standards that guide the daily operations of the company that ensure all stages in production are followed to maintain consistency. These include check lists in production stages, packing and transportation of the product to the market. The quality department also tests the laid down parameters when receiving milk to ensure that only high quality milk is received
Raka cheese products are certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and are Halal certified. The company also consults with a cheese expert from Holland who comes regularly for the checks and provides an international opinion on the process and the quality control.
The company has continued to grow in an increasingly challenging environment. Some of these challenges include:
Inconsistent supply of milk – this is the biggest challenge today that has been brought about by competition from the major dairy companies who control the flow and prices of milk. Erratic weather conditions that reduce supplies of milk continue to distort milk quantities available for processing
Waste management especially of whey is a big problem to the company as they strive to dispose the whey in accordance with the regulations of NEMA and local council.
Difficulties in introducing new products into the market – considering that the majority of the population are not cheese consumers means that the company has to spend time and money to encourage consumption
The company is involved in small charity work especially related to staff, for example assistance in education for their children and the provision of good health insurance. It also has a regular programme of donating to girl-child projects, women empowerment and education for children.
Raka is a member of the Mt. Kenya Trust which is an organization dedicated to preserve and protect Mt Kenya from encroachment and poaching
Kalpa is confident that the future of cheese making is bright, and is therefore investing for the future. The company is at an advanced stage of relocating to a new modern factory which will make the operations easier and systematic. The move to the new factory is expected to double the company’s production capacity
By Selina Wangusi – This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Food Business Africa magazine and can be accessed here: http://europe.nxtbook.com/nxteu/foodworldmedia/fba_201310/#/30