This feature appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Food Business Africa magazine
Alpha Grain Millers is one of the fastest growing flour milling businesses in Kenya. Started just four years ago, the company recently inaugurated a new wheat milling plant that has nearly doubled its production capacity. FoodWorld Media sat down with Mr. Osman Maalim Mohammed, the General Manager, and Mr. Mohamednur Khalif, the Managing Director to discuss more about the company.
To many observers, the KIFARU brand of maize and wheat flours appears to have been in the Kenyan market for ages.
The brand, which is the flagship brand for Alpha Grain Millers’ maize and wheat flour products, has been in the market for only four years according to Mr. Mohammed, the General Manager of the company, during our interview in their Embakasi, Nairobi, Kenya office.
The disbelief on our faces aside, the fact that this brand is one of the most recognized brands in the Kenyan market is an indicator as to how fast the brand’s reputation has grown in the market, and how consumers have adopted this relatively new brand with ease.
“The brand is a household name in Kenya”, noted Mr. Khalif, the Managing Director. “Our brand is available in all the leading supermarkets, wholesale outlets and small shops and kiosks throughout the country.”
However, it has not been an easy ride for this family owned business that has its roots in Moyale, a town on the Kenya-Ethiopia border, to get into grips with the rigours of the flour milling industry.
FMCG distribution experience
Alpha Grain Millers is a member of the Alpha Group of Companies, which started as a distribution business in the 1970s in Moyale Kenya.
Started as a humble retail shop (duka) in the far northern Kenyan town of Moyale in 1978, the company has grown in leaps and bounds before getting into the milling business. According to Mr. Khalif, after a few years in Moyale the business moved to Nanyuki town before ending up in Nairobi, under the name YH.
Where the company was involved in distribution of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufactured by some of the biggest food companies for many years.
This business grew aggressively and provided a vital learning ground for the company to start thinking of going into the flour milling business.
The vast experience that the company had gathered in its distribution business was the vital incentive for the company to get into the milling business. “Our many years’ experience in distribution placed us in good standing with our customers.
Although we were distributing other companies’ products our customers had grown to rely on us, and trusted us to deliver excellent service”, Mr. Khalif informed us.
Having been major distributors of sugar, cooking oils and other consumer goods, Mr. Khalif informed us that the decision to venture into milling was a no-brainer.
“We were looking for a product that could serve the majority of our customers and which could ride on our distribution experience. Milling fits into this perfectly.
The demand of flour in the country is high and growing fast due to rising incomes, rapid urbanisation and increasing population”.
The company realized that in order to set up a mill it had to look for premises which they eventually found on Airport North Road, Embakasi, near the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), where it set up its manufacturing plant, warehouses and head office. It has also set up a modern weighbridge to weigh both incoming and outgoing products.
Alpha Grain Millers specializes in processing of maize meal and wheat meal under the KIFARU brand. Its operational structure consists of maize and wheat mills, packaging plants and distribution depots.
The company started by producing KIFARU maize flour. The original maize meal plant, with a capacity of 60 metric tonnes (MT) per day was inaugurated four years ago at the Embakasi Plant.
However, this capacity was soon exceeded by market demand, leading to the company putting up another mill barely a year later. The new 150 MT per day maize plant was commissioned in 2012 to meet this demand.
The company then added further capacity and added wheat milling to its operations in 2014 by buying out a small miller in Athi River town, 30 kilometers from Nairobi.
The mill 90 ton maize mill at its Athi River Plant was rehabilitated and improved to modern standards after which the company later installed a new 150 MT per day wheat mill. It was commissioned in June 2014.
The new plant gave rise to the KIFARU NGANO wheat flour brand. The company also set up a modern weighbridge to weigh both income and outgoing products.
In terms of man-power, the mill started with a work force of 50 people and within a year increased its workforce to 150.
The same year it set up a transport division and invested in small and medium trucks totaling to more than 60 to facilitate distribution of its products to the market. Currently the man-power is about 400 people.
Efficient milling operations
Alpha Grain Millers has invested heavily in modern and technologically advanced computerized milling machines and superior packaging machines for its products.
“In today’s competitive regulated milling environment, we combine the latest global milling technology with cost-effective investment in civil, material handling and plant automation. In addition, we create fit-for-purpose sites, ensuring longer term local availability of feedstock and lower delivery costs to market.” Mr. Khalif informed us.
The company has installed highly efficient Buhler milling plants at both the Embakasi and Athi River Mr. Khalif explained that the firm prefers these mills for their efficiency and quality of the flours they produce.
Mr. Khalif added that for proper functioning, the mills are run by a team of highly-qualified engineers and production personnel. These comprise millers, mechanical and electrical engineers.
“These are highly skilled professionals who are experts in their areas of specialization. We hire the best personnel to ensure that we offer our customers the quality of maize and wheat flour that they deserve. We are planning for more trainings in the future for our technical personnel”, Mr. Khalif informed us.
Alpha relies on imported wheat for milling, which requires large storage capacity. However it does not require plenty of storage for maize since the grain is obtained from within East Africa; currently the company has a storage capacity of 6,000 mts tonnes.
“We plan to commission a 14,000 mts tonnes silo for storing the wheat flour” Mr. Khalif said.
If the customer response of the wheat flour is anything to go by, then their plan is to double the capacity in a short time, according to the Managing Director.
The company receives the bulk of its grains by road from the port of Mombasa for wheat and from the East African region for maize. The produce is sampled to check their compliance to Kenya and company standards after which conforming produce is received into the company’s storage.
At the commencement of processing, the grains are cleaned to remove any debris, stones, and other foreign matter through a cleaning process that ensures only clean grains pass on for processing.
Metal detectors installed along the lines ensure that any pieces of metal are removed from the system to ensure the meal is safe for consumers. The cleaned grain then undergoes a tempering operation that adjusts moisture (water) content to set level, after which the grain goes through highly automated gentle milling operations that reduces the particle size to the required consumer specification.
The milled flours are then blended with fortification agents that meet the requirement of the Kenya Bureau of standards, through an online dosing machine that incorporates vital vitamins and minerals into the flour, ensuring the flour is wholesome meal to the consumer.
The fortified flours are stored in bins, from where the flour is packaged through high speed packaging lines in the appropriate packages ready for the market.
Quality is Key
Quality starts with the grain procurement for milling. This goes through a vigorous process of grading, right moisture level, aflatoxin testing etc. Mr. Khalif says they can only get high quality flour if the grains they receive from their suppliers meet the criteria for the raw material they need. .
The company maintains a fully functional quality management system, with certification to ISO 9001 is planned. To ensure that only good quality flour is milled, all incoming grains are tested for a number of parameters including moisture content, foreign matter and aflatoxin.
Only batches meeting the requirements are allowed into the process. Further online and in-process tests are carried out regularly in the company’s laboratory located at the Embakasi factory.
The laboratory also carries out daily sensory testing of the milled flours, where the product is cooked and tasted by the quality team personnel to ensure the sensory quality is maintained.
The company is capable of carrying out both quantitative and qualitative tests for aflatoxin in their laboratory, hence improving on the speed and costs of this key quality attribute.
Testing for vitamins and minerals are carried out by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and other private labs on a regular basis.
“We plan to establish a fully equipped laboratory in our Athi River Plant soon”, Mr. Khalif informed us.
Products and markets
Alpha Grain Millers is a market focused and customer oriented organization with dedicated and hard-working team of well trained staff from wheat and maize procurement to flour milling, product development, quality control and sales and this has enabled them to leave a positive imprint in the market.
“Within a short period of time, the KIFARU product has grown in popularity and is now a favorite in many household This is due to its quality products which consumers have come to appreciate and identify with says the Managing Director.
Mr. Khalif also cites fair pricing as another factor behind the popularity of the KIFARU brand of flours in all leading supermarkets and retail shops in the country.
KIFARU maize and wheat flours are available in 1, 2, 5 and 10 kg consumer packs, offering choice and variety to consumers of the company’s products
The products are widely available in the country, with some products finding their way into Uganda and Tanzania through distributors, even though the company doesn’t distribute directly to these countries.
The company has a wide distribution network within Kenya but plans to increase its production to meet rising demand. “Demand for our products is quite high in the country, especially in Nairobi,” according to the MD.
He adds that this gives them the incentive to invest more so that they can meet local demand and plan to get into the regional market in the near future.
Therefore, the company is planning to increase capacity of both the maize and wheat milling operations to reach this rising market and to get into the bulk baking market so as to cater for the needs of the local baking industry.
It has plans to venture into animal feed processing within the next one year.
Alpha Grain Millers has a number of community activities that it involves itself in to further the interest of the community.
The company has done various activities in conjunction with Uchumi Supermarket in Dagoretti area of Nairobi and with Mulleys Supermarket at a children’s home in Machakos County in Kenya.
They have also donated some food during last year festive season at the Kenyatta National Hospital the sick children’s ward and visited Kayole Children Center.
They have also taken part in a golf tournament organized by the Kenya Wildlife Service, where the proceeds of the competition went towards protecting the rhinos in the country.