A popping machine developed using locally available materials by Matayos Youth self help group with the help of a Japanese engineer is creating new snacks out of nutritious, native crops, by popping not just corn, but 13 other cereals and legumes, including millet, sorghum, fruit seeds, rice grains and maize.
The machine is part of Bioversity Kenya’s ambition to build capacity in community groups to use simple technologies like the pop machine to add value to under-utilised crops, bring extra income, conserve indigenous crops, and improve the nutritional status of local populations.
The popping machine, which is based on an advanced popping machine found in Japan but beyond the reach of the youth group, uses high pressure from a pressure cylinder fired by gas.
The internal pressure reaches about 10 times atmospheric pressure, compared with only twice atmospheric pressure for an ordinary pressure cooker. However, the group has to ensure that the machine doesn’t lose pressure during popping.
If the pressure drops too much the whole batch of seed can be lost. Mr. Yasuyuki Morimoto, a scientist working with Bioversity Kenya, connected the youth group to a Japanese engineer, Hideki Ishigaki, working at Kaplong Youth Polytechnic, who assembled the machine for them.
It can pop a single grain of rice into a snack eight to nine times larger.
The group is packaging the popped cereals in small plastic bags retailing from Sh5 to Sh30, and has found a market among shop owners, schools and hospitals in Busia town.
“We pop different cereals, and availability also matters. Maize is cheaper than sorghum so we either reduce the quantity of sorghum in each plastic bag, or we increase the price of some of the popped cereals,” said Francis Oundo, the group coordinator.
Using a bag of maize costing Sh450, the group can pop maize that sells for Sh1700. For sorghum, a kilo retailing at Sh80 sells for Sh500 once popped.
The youth group is now saving with the aim of buying the advanced machine from Japan. However, its marketing success has been primarily into urban areas, with consumption in low-income rural areas still limited.
The group is therefore looking at ways of producing lower cost snacks, by improving the efficiency of the cylinder, and sourcing cheaper cereals as well as identifying people’s particular favourites, and improving quality, labeling and packaging, and scaling up the volumes of the popped grain, said Francis.
Some of the popped cereals have been treated with suspicion by potential customers who are not used to them. Others dislike the taste of some of them. The group has therefore introduced new ways to encourage consumption and entice a larger customer base. For example, on market days, which is one of the areas where business is booming, the company offer free samples of the popped cereals to prospective customers.
The group also uses combinations of flavours and colourings, including sugar syrup and salt, to make them more appealing. But, says Francis, "not too much sugar or salt! We are aware of the health implications of adding flavourings, and only apply enough to add taste."
The success of the project has seen Bioversity Kenya recruit Francis Oundo to spread the word to other areas of the country about the new way of processing cereals. This has seen a take-off in the processing in Kitui, where Francis is currently moving with the machine from one district to another training community groups.
According to Oundo, the market is Kitui has grown veryfast within the period he has been there. “The proximity of the town to the capital city and the curiosity of the locals has fuelled demand for the popped cereals. I can’t even compare the demand here with that of Busia. It’s simply overwhelming here,” he said.
Bioversity Kenya aims to fuel this take-up further by increasing the number of machines made locally, in what now looks set to be something of a new craze for healthy snacks made locally.