Using underutilized plants and crops to create nutritious meals for on-the-go urban consumer
Founded in 2019, Böna Factory is an Africa-focused food startup burning with ambition to solve the continent’s food security problem. Before Böna, attempts have been made towards solving Africa’s food security crisis. In fact, billions of dollars have been pumped into development programs aimed at unlocking Africa’s food potential as the world’s grain basket. Although noble in motive, these development programs have not achieved much, years after they were first initiated. As recent as 2020, more than one in five people in Africa faced hunger—more than double the proportion of hungry people in any other region, according to report by Brooking’s Education. Böna’s seeks to change this narrative by tapping underutilized plants and crops to create nutritious meals for consumers from all walks of life.
Repetition of the same without any meaningful outcomes
Having been in the Africa food industry scene for more than 10 years, Sara Ahlberg, Founder and CEO of Böna Factory, simply found food security development programs to be a repetition of the same without any meaningful results. “While Europe is taking huge leaps in future food technology and science, we in Kenya still put millions on projects thinking how to store maize in a hermetic bag and how to sell cash crops to the European food industry,” Ahlberg tells Food Business Africa Magazine. Frustrated with the lack of results, Ahlberg tried in vain to convince old employers and some international companies to focus on African markets. “The only solution was to start something which is right to do,” she says. The desire to do the right thing gave birth to Böna Factory. “This is not just something we try out for a sake of being in a start-up scene, this is something we can truly build and create something new,” a confident Sara says.
A plantastic fantastic revolution
Sara reveals to us that her company is focusing on plant-based foods, given their proven potential to sustainably feed the world population. Plant-based foods are already a market sensation in Europe and North America where consumer concern for the environment and need to guarantee future food supplies is driving demand. A report by Bloomberg Intelligence even predicts that the plant-based market will undergo explosive growth in the next 10 years and could make up to 7.7% of the global protein market by 2030, with a value of over US$162 billion, up from US$29.4 billion in 2020.
Settling on plant based and gluten free innovations was therefore a no brainer for Sara. This is the future of the food industry and therefore the perfect solution to Africa’s food problems. Sara describes the shift to plants as a “plantastic fantastic revolution.” To have the greatest impact, Sara and her team at Böna are targeting customers from all walks of life. “We are not focusing on niche specialty category of vegan and gluten free foods but streamlining new innovative options for all the consumers.”
We start with githeri, with a Böna twist
Being based in Kenya, Böna Factory is out to offer its customers meals that they know, love, and enjoy but with what Sara describes as a Böna twist to make them even more exciting. The company’s flagship product is known as Bö Pasta, a (dry) high-protein and high-fibre plant-based gluten free meal that has yellow grams and cassava as the main ingredients. Several variants of these products exist in the market with spirulina, greens, beetroot, chili, baobab, moringa, and lemon used interchangeably to bring out exciting flavors. The use of a diverse range of ingredients makes it easier for consumers to have more nutritious meals easily, diversifies their diets and helps them get a wider range of nutrients from one source, according to Sara. Although unique in both formulation and taste, Bö Pasta is already creating a buzz in Kenya’s food industry with over 5,000 packs already served to both first and repeat customers.
Bringing food to more Kenyan homes has been the target from the start and the company is already exploring other local meal options that Kenyans already know, love and enjoy. Under the company’s Hakuna Matata Series the company is planning to roll out ready-to-eat meals for busy and urban consumers who don’t want to spend their time cooking. “We start with githeri, with a Böna twist, ugali and greens, and peanut plantain with rice,” Sara reveals. “All these are amazing traditional plant based, naturally vegan and gluten free foods from Kenya, but of course with our Böna twist.” With the Hakuna Matata series Sara also hopes to enhance access to healthy and nutrition meals in addition to providing meal options that Kenyans will consider rather than going to burgers, pizzas and chicken wings.
Solid product development processes have been done, and we have learned from the sourcing to markets and consumers and updated the plan to provide better products.
Research and development are most crucial for Böna
Böna stands out from peers for its mission to have a lasting positive impact on the food system. For this reason, Sara and her team have made Research and Development a key pilar of the business. “Research and development are most crucial for Böna; we are driving for new innovations for consumer convenience from neglected crops and plants,” She says. According to the Böna CEO, Africa has thousands of underutilized plants and crops, but our food systems have pushed few crops (maize, wheat, sugar, rice and soy) to even 80 % of products. Through R&D, the company is tapping into these rarely used crops to provide new options, mainstreamed in availability, accessibility, usage and pricing. So far, the company has managed to use plants such as baobab, moringa, spirulina to bring out quite interesting food profiles. “This makes it easier for consumers to have more nutritious meals easily, diversify their diets and get wider range of nutrients from one source,” Sara explains.
Work in this department is certainly not slowing down any time soon as Böna has ambitious plans for tomorrow. “In the future, we will launch our plant-based milks, designed now especially for the local consumer taste and usage, and our main target is in “plant-based protein products” or “the meat alternatives”,” Sara reveals. “For these, several steps need to be done, but we can assure, these will be amazing and change a lot in the industry!”
Sustainability is inbuilt in all our operations
Globally animal based foods are responsible for over 30 % of the greenhouse emissions and are also significant drivers of deforestation and water pollution. Operating in the more environmentally friendly plant-based market therefore puts Böna a step ahead when it comes to sustainability. “Sustainability is inbuilt in all our operations,” Sara boasts. The company, according to Sara, focuses on plant-based innovations from crops and plants that are largely climate smart, drought resistant and adapted naturally to the ambient conditions. This reduces the need to invest in further practices such as fertilizer and irrigation which can also have an impact on the environment. When it comes to innovation, Sara reveals that Böna focuses on products where it can provide a better alternative for animal-based products. “Also, these products are combined from different ingredients to ensure better biodiversity through seasonal availability, regional differences and avoid increasing monocropping systems,” she adds.
“Food waste is also a huge food security and economic loss in Africa, partly because of lack of processing capacity,” Sara points out. Through R&D, Böna is working to tackle this challenge by providing food products that are packed with modified atmosphere (MAP), extending the shelf-life of the meals significantly up to two weeks.
Beyond the factory, Böna is working to build solid partnerships with local and regional farming communities for value addition and better livelihoods. This is however a work in progress. “At the moment, we are still forced to buy through middlemen and traders, which is increasing our purchasing prices, but also decreases traceability and quality unfortunately,” Sara reveals. “Let’s take an example of our pasta – it’s impossible to get grinding quality we would require for us to ensure high-quality products, which now impacts our product quality directly.” By working with farmers directly, Sara hopes Böna will help farming communities transition to highly productive modern farming systems. “This is how we can create value at the source level, and Böna can focus on the consumer product processing.”
Back at the factory, the company is also looking after the welfare of its workers so they can sustainably manage their lives. “This means good employment, good salaries, and work-free time balance,” Sara explains. “Also, for employees, we are looking to provide day care for children to providing basic health care and legal services for our employees as these are taking a lot of time and resources for people.”
Starting a business as a foreigner in Kenya was first huge step
Böna has been commercial only from end of 2021 but has been there since 2019. The journey has been long but Sara is proud of what she has been able to achieve thus far achieve. “Starting a business as a foreigner in Kenya was a first huge step which needs to be acknowledged,” Sara boasts. The journey was not easy as Kenya, unlike Europe lacked the necessary infrastructure to support a food startup with goals as ambitious as the one Sara envisioned for Böna. If Böna was to start in Europe, all Sara needed to do is to tap into existing food hubs for her products R&D and then transfer production to contract manufacturing which is also available in enough capacities. Sadly, in Kenya, “there are no contract manufacturing possibilities,” Sara points outs. This made it difficult for her to affordably innovate and develop new products. Even putting up the first R&D stage facility up and running took a while but Sara was unflinching in her resolve to be part of the solution to Africa’s food security problem. Teaming up with other partners and directors, she pulled together resources that were enough to get the company from the ground. Böna also received funding from EU Horizon2020 program for food safety research and product development. “This has allowed us to focus on innovation, and to trial what’s possible to do with the ingredients on hand.”
Getting products to market has also not been easy for Böna given its unique product offering. “Launching new products has been challenging in terms of not meeting the standards as such, and fitting those categories has been a bit weird,” Sara explains. “How to name a new product in a category which doesn’t necessary exist yet? We have not been able to figure it out yet.” How to reach large consumer groups in informal sector has also been a million-dollar question for the Nairobi based startup. “At the moment we are going through the urban shops, online stores and major supermarket chains in Kenya,” she reveals. These channels although satisfactory for now, Sara knows that they may not serve them full in the future, but she has a plan when that need arises. “We are looking for direct delivery systems especially when we have more product options.”
A 600,000 Euro Investment
Böna’s target from day one has been the large consumer groups, low-income and mid-income mass markets. “At the moment, we can’t reach them as our capacities are too small, but we are building towards that,” Sara reveals. “Solid product development processes have been done, and we have learned from the sourcing to markets and consumers and updated the plan to provide better products.” With the progress made so far, Sara is confident that Böna is ready to enter the next step in its growth plan. This will however require an investment of 600,000€, according to the CEO. The funds will be particularly useful in getting Böna the technology, machinery, and infrastructure required to run the production at a level that will push more Böna products to the market. Sara cannot wait for this next step to happen. “With smart choices, deep industry knowledge and good planning we can definitely create something robust, flexible and suitable for our current and even more, future needs.”
Selling to the right investors
Kenya has seen food startups launch and fold a few months or years down the line. Sara is however committed to her course to see Africa’s food industry transformed. “I am a food industry professional; this is not just something we try out for a sake of being in a start-up scene, this is something we can truly impact and create something new,” she says. Her long-term vision for the company is however to have it taken under the fold of investors with necessary capital and expertise to expand its reach and impact. “I would see that the business would be ready to be sold for right investors certain targets have been achieved,” She admits. What she and her team will be looking for when that time comes is an investor that shares Böna vision of contributing to Africa’s food security. “We need to keep in mind, we have very unfortunate examples globally how old, traditional, simply wrong investors are buying out new businesses, but are lacking the deep vision, creativity, desire, and even organizational flexibility to create and sustain change at the level original founders saw it required,” Sara explains. “Many have failed because of this, and I will not want this to happen with Böna.” But first things first, Sara and her team are working to achieve the company’s short-term goals. “We need to ensure we have built our own cutting-edge, example leading manufacturing plant to lead the way for new food industry, and, we have strong academic relationships to region’s educational institutions to ensure high-tech learning, innovation, and creation processes.”