Several loaves of bread are neatly arranged on shelves at the Meru Friends Sacco in Maua town.
In a back room inside the building, where the loaves are displayed, two workers dressed in white overcoats, matching caps and gumboots are busy making more dough, an indication that the bread is on high demand.
But this is not your ordinary bread, as one of its main ingredients is sweet potato flour.
“Bread is our main product but we also make queen cakes, doughnuts, crisps and sweet potatoes flour,” says Julius Inyingi, the chairman of the factory owned by some 1,000 farmers, who grow the tubers and supply to the facility.
Inyingi recounts that the factory was born of the need to improve health and boost livelihoods amid climate change.
Besides, miraa was the dominant crop in the region and it was found that sweet potatoes can be intercropped with them.
With the help of various institutions, including the Meru county government, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were identified as a crop that can do well in the region and boost Vitamin A, minerals, iron and potassium intake.
The factory was established in 2018 and to ensure sustainability, farmers were provided with drought-tolerant, disease-resistant and high-nutrient-value sweet potato vines that were propagated at Kaguru Agricultural Training Centre, which is owned by the county government.
Grace Kiambi, a miraa farmer who supplies the factory with sweet potatoes, says she intercropped the two like most farmers in the region.
This practice adds value to miraa growing since as farmers water and add manure to their vines, miraa also benefits, hence increasing its production and allowing them to generate income all year round — including very dry seasons.
Besides, the new crop has not challenged the status quo, making it easier to be embraced.
“Being a warmer region, sweet potatoes grow faster here and do well provided there is some little rain,” says Inyingi.
He explains that the crop that is drought-tolerant matures faster and can be planted at any time of the year.
“Our farmers are spread in nine sub-counties in Meru County. Previously, farmers had to rely on brokers, who exploited them by buying their produce in extended bags of up to 80kg at Sh2,000. In our case we buy at Sh50 per kilo,” says Inyingi, noting farmers are paid within seven days after supplying.
The sweet potatoes can be boiled, baked, roasted or even eaten raw for quick nourishment. The sacco sells its products in Meru, Isiolo, Laikipia, Embu Tharaka Nithi counties. A 400g loaf of bread goes for Sh40, buns at Sh20 each while 80g of crisps sells at Sh40.
Hellen Ringera, the county nutritionist, says the factory is helping increase household incomes, employment opportunities and extending the shelf-life of the produce.