NatureLock is a business that exists to first alleviate food loss that occurs along the value chain before reaching the consumer and secondly to produce affordable, nutritious products by converting these foods that mostly go to waste into nutritious food solutions.
Africa boasts of having 60% of the world’s arable land and diverse agro-ecological zones. However, it is a sceptical paradox that nearly three-quarters of the region’s population cannot afford a healthy meal. With 40 to 50 percent of the people living below the poverty line, nutritious food is just out of reach for many.
Even though many people suffer from malnutrition, a lot of crop yields are lost before they reach the end consumer. Post-harvest losses across Africa can be as high as 50 percent due to inappropriate harvesting methods, unpredictable rainfall patterns, poor storage and transportation, and lack of infrastructure, threatening food security, incomes, and livelihoods in the region.
The food crisis is extraordinary in scale, an enigma that led Tei Mukunya Oundo and Wilco Vermeer, both with extensive experience in the food and beverage space to co-found Naturelock, a food processing start-up based in Kenya.
Prior to establishing NatureLock, Tei was running Azuri Health, a Kenyan company with the mission to reduce post-harvest losses by sourcing fruits, vegetables and tubers from smallholder farmers and turning them into dried snacks and flour for both the local and export market.
Meanwhile, Wilco was running Tuttifoodi, a company that developed a new revolutionary encapsulation process for fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs and temperature sensitive ingredients, after a career in operational and marketing roles at Unilever, Symrise, Coca Cola and Nestle, among other corporations.
The two joined forces in 2020 to realize their mission of reducing post-harvest losses while increasing access of nutritious and more convenient foods to the masses in the continent.
“NatureLock is a business that exists to first alleviate food loss that occurs along the value chain before reaching the consumer. And the other important mission for us is to produce affordable, nutritious products by converting these foods that mostly go to waste into nutritious food solutions. These are the two solid pillars that the company is currently anchored on,” highlighted Tei during an interview with the Food Business Africa team.
Novel technology working wonders
The company is confident that it will achieve its objectives courtesy of a novel Dutch innovation that it has adopted.
Spoken of in hushed tones, like the Coca-Cola secret ingredient, the invention is aimed to enable NatureLock to not only put at bay food spoilage but also add value to hundreds of tonnes of fresh produce. “The technology we have creates an oxygen barrier and dries a particular produce, preventing it from spoiling. It is a natural solution that enables the foods to be restored back to their original state when ready to be consumed,” explains Tei. “This means we can preserve any food item using the method.”
Despite drying being one of the oldest methods of food preservation, it hasn’t been an ideal technique as it results in distortion or loss of either flavour, colour, aroma, texture or nutrients. However, the drying process that NatureLock uses preserves the integrity and nutritional value of the product while increasing its shelf life. It is also a sustainable alternative to use for cold solutions which require significant investments, consume a lot of energy and are generally unaffordable to many.
NatureLock rides on familiarity to create star product
For its flagship product, NatureLock has chosen green grams/mung beans as its star ingredient to create a widely and commonly enjoyed soup in the region.
Under the brand name StewsDay, the new product is an instant stew made from locally sourced green grams and vegetables. Why green grams? Tei explains that “Despite green grams being a staple cereal in Kenya, internationally it is considered a superfood and is in the category of foods of the future. Also, institutions such as Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) are coming up with seeds that have suitable agronomic potential with desirable characteristics for local production, which will ensure the products will be widely and readily available in the local market.”
Turning rescued food produce to tantalizing stew
NatureLock undertakes the production of StewsDay at its recently opened processing hub in the country’s capital Nairobi, near the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. For its production needs, the company sources the raw materials locally, with the fresh produces such as tomatoes, carrots, onions, corriander, chilli and ginger acquired from surplus or ready-to-expire stocks.
Through this initiative, the company reduces food losses experienced by farmers and has plans to scale its local sourcing of surplus produce and build its supplier network. To avoid disrupting the market, NatureLock works with aggregators like Farm to Feed who rescue potential food from loss and waste. In a bid to guarantee steady demand, the food processor team ups with its partners to train farmers in sustainable agricultural practices.
From mis-shaped carrots and unsellable tomatoes, the food processing start-up concocts a delicious Kenyan-style green gram stew at the state-of-the-art factory equipped with modern facilities. “We pre-cook these products into a nice fine recipe that matches the palate of our consumers,” highlights Tei.
The production process is undertaken in a simple and precise way, under a sterile environment to ensure safety of the product. Its floor working area comprises of a wet processing section where the materials are sorted and cleaned in readiness for cooking. At the same station, the company uses a versatile steam cooker to uniformly cook all the raw ingredients under record time. After the cooking process, the aromatic and well-seasoned stew is gently dehydrated and dried using the patent technology that ensures the product will have a shelf-life of up to two years.
Rich in fibre and daily essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and proteins, StewsDay is packaged in convenient sized packs, will all the natural goodness locked in. “Other than being certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), we are currently working on attaining the FSSC 22000 certification to assure the consumers that our operations foster end-to-end robust production systems which guarantee production of safe food,” highlighted Michael Vermeer, Food Systems Impact & Communications Director at the company.
Driving convenience with nutrient-filled products
The new product, which is just months old, promises to become an instant hit for people looking for a convenient, healthy, and affordable meal.
“What we have discovered since launching the product in August 2021 is that convenience is extremely key for our consumers as we have offloaded from them sorting, cleaning and pre-boiling of the green grams. And we have further gone ahead and prepared the pulses into a rich meal that can be enjoyed with a wide array of accompaniments. Three minutes after simply adding boiled water to StewsDay the soup is ready,” states Tei.
The launch of StewsDay is timely as Kenya’s growing urban population is rapidly changing, with consumers demanding not only convenient food products, but also nutrients-filled delicacies. The corona pandemic has made people to be more aware of the importance of healthy eating. Food products that cover these two needs and are affordable are therefore promising.
With this, NatureLock has set itself as a strong contender in the instant food market currently dominated by breakfast cereals, noodles and soups among others. “Our targeted consumer is the juggling individual who has been busy the whole day and is in search for a quick, affordable and convenient meal that does not compromise on taste, quality and nutritional value,” highlights Tei.
Nature Lock pursues profit and purpose balance
Other than focusing on production of readily available nutritious foods and curbing food loss, NatureLock also aspires to be a B-Corporation, joining global companies that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
In line with this, the company has committed to increasing economic opportunities for women throughout its process. Creating a suitable working environment, NatureLock has created a day-care center for its employees to bring their children throughout the workday to make it more convenient for them. And to incorporate women into their distribution strategy, NatureLock is providing women with the opportunity to start their own micro-enterprises through turn-key street carts and kiosks used to boost brand awareness and increase sampling points of the StewsDay product in high traffic locations.
“Our consumer pool is majorly in the densely populated, low-middle income areas where an affordable product like StewsDay can sell and make a difference. Since we launched in the market, the response has been positive, which is encouraging us to roll out our second product really fast to be able to avail a wide array of choices for the consumers and make everyday a StewsDay,” Tei elaborates.
Nature Lock eyes the regional market
Looking into the future, NatureLock aims to operate multiple large production hubs across Africa and expand to other local produces.
“It is my commitment that by 2023 we will save 22,000 tonnes of fresh produce and deliver 60 million meals or 2.7 million kilos of meals. It is my resolve that 75% of our vegetables will come from rescued food from our farmers,” says Tei. By further expanding its portfolio, the company also seeks to extend its reach to supply the dried nutritious meals to schools and offer a sustainable food basket for famine-stricken areas, increasing local food security.
To further align its operations, NatureLock plans to build out decentralized collection and processing centres on mid-size farms and equip smallholder farmer networks with dehydration units to preserve their surplus, and sell the products directly to NatureLock. This will help to further eliminate food loss that occurs during transport from farm to processing facility and increase income opportunities at the farm level. Drying right at the source also creates more effective transport and warehousing by 70% and lowers the product’s carbon footprint.
“We have realised that if we want to create a systemic impact on fighting food-loss, we need to go to the source and find a solution that works for the farmers at the heart of their operations. With the small drying units as an alternative to the cold-storage units that have been making inroads into the farms, we are certain we will make great impact and contribution in that regard,” noted Michael.
“In our dream to scale and create as much impact for Africans by producing food at source, we will reduce on the need to import as we can make our own nutritious foods. In the long run we will create a culture within our people of eating what is produced at home,” reiterates Tei.
To drive the planned growth, NatureLock is appreciative of the fact that they will require a big pool of financing from grants, loans, own contributions and even equity partnerships. A recent financing from FINCA Ventures, is a major step towards this direction as it will help the company bolster its operations.
Still at its infancy stage, NatureLock may seem at face-value as any other company driving convenience by offering instant foods, but with its point of focus being offering nutritious products from wasted commodities, it has unequivocally set itself apart.