Interview with Jane Maigua and Charity Ndegwa
Exotic EPZ is working to develop sustainable, inclusive value chains for coffee and nuts in Africa. Jane Maigua and Charity Ndegwa – two of the organisation’s three founders – have spoken to Spore about their work to support smallholders and rural women.
Drawing on more than 30 years’ experience in both the public and private sectors, three Kenyan women created Exotic EPZ to help foster profitable, sustainable value chains for rural African farmers – with a focus on gender equality. Working directly with growers, the organisation links farmers to processing operations as well as high-value export markets.
What motivated you to launch Exotic EPZ?
Jane Maigua: The three of us had all worked on different projects that focused on women’s economic empowerment, rural smallholder development and entrepreneurship. Charity Ndegwa and I then found ourselves working on the same project in 2014-2015 – funded by the International Labour Organization (ILO) – which focused on linking HIV positive women horticultural farmers with high-end hotels to sell their produce.
It was inspiring to see the farmers grow their incomes, educate their children and buy assets as a result of the ILO initiative. But, as the horticulture project neared completion, Charity and I – and Loise Maina, whom I had met on a project with UNWOMEN – wanted to establish something that would be sustainable, and felt this could only be achieved through the private sector. The majority of NGO projects often have a very limited timespan to build local capacity and deliver tangible impacts. I always felt that this approach was not sustainable and Charity and Loise felt the same. We also wanted to be role models to both young and older women on how to successfully run a business.
You previously worked as a programme coordinator at ILO and your co-founders have also held influential positions at large organisations. How have your respective backgrounds helped to drive the development and success of Exotic EPZ?
Jane Maigua: The networks we secured in our work lives and our ability to gain from these networks worked a great deal in our favour. I have worked in the private sector and with government, financiers, donors, communities and smallholder farmers. These actors have been a great resource in shaping our business. We were able to make contact with the government, for example, to secure licensing for the company, with financiers in establishing the financing mechanisms, and reach out to farmers to supply us with produce because of previous interactions.
Waste products, such as nut shells, are burnt at Exotic EPZ to fire the boilers that process the nuts. Why are sustainable practices important to your business model?
Charity Ndegwa: The greatest strength of our business across the value chain is that nothing goes to waste. Adoption of renewable energy means that, besides cutting down on energy costs, we operate within the company’s mantra of conserving the environment and curbing carbon emissions.
We are also able to sell any rejected kernels to companies that are pressing oil, which generates income for our business.
Eighty percent of your workforce are women and you have plans to help build the capacities of your women farmers. Why is it important to prioritise inclusivity and support women in agriculture?
Jane Maigua: Actually, it currently now stands at about 90%. There are numerous studies that show that up to 80% of those working in the agricultural sector are women. The question, then, is how much do they benefit from their ventures? As part of our research to identify which crop to concentrate on, we realised that traditionally macadamia trees were considered of little value as compared to coffee and tea, but that local women and children would sell the nuts at the markets. Now, macadamia has increasingly become a high value crop, but men have taken ownership of the trees. We have therefore started exploring ways in which to move women beyond the traditional duties of, for instance, working on farms, harvesting and de-husking macadamia nuts, to higher money-making activities, like marketing agents and nut processing.
What are the key qualities that led to your business winning an AWIEF award and how do you plan to build on these qualities as Exotic EPZ develops?
Jane Maigua: Our job creation model, which is to provide men and women with an avenue through which they can sustain themselves and their families, has been key to our success. The significant volume of nuts we have been supplied with since starting the business – about 700,000 kg – means that everyone in the value chain, from the farmers themselves to those at the collection centres and the workers in our EPZ, have a source of income. This is another aspect of our business success.
Charity Ndegwa: We also invest in high standard systems and processes, such as the Food Safety System Certification FSSC 22000 standard, to ensure that our business responds to market needs and international best practices. We have also extended our partnership portfolio as we look to new projects like oil pressing, which we are due to start next year. These have been key developments in helping us respond to a fast changing and dynamic market.