Gender Mainstreaming and Women’s Employability: A Case of Cocovita Limited

Posted: September 18, 2020
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Joan Atamba is not an ordinary woman entrepreneur- She refers to herself as a ‘Coco-preneur’ with a passion to change the lives of the communities that live along the Kenyan Coastline. Her startup story was intrigued by the worth of the Kenyan Coconut sub-sector which is about $130million with numerous products that trend globally, yet back at her home the communities that grow coconut remain pretty much poor with nothing to show for their labor.

This noble thought got Joan thinking of how she could work with the small holder farmers growing coconut at the Coast so as to help them earn a decent living to uplift the standards of their lives and those of their children. Indeed, the nut got a special place in her heart and as a result, it led to the establishment of Coco Vita in March 2015 although operations commenced in June 2015.

Joan is the key face behind Coco Vita Ltd as the Co-Founder & CEO and has currently created   employment for 23 people 12 of whom are women. The company produces 100% Natural extra virgin coconut oil which is sold both locally & internationally.

We find out more about her company and working with MESPT as an SME in an elaborate interview.

What does your company deal in? Coco Vita produces 100% Natural extra virgin coconut oil while creating sustainable incomes for the rural coastal coconut communities. Coconut products are many (Oil, Milk, cream, flour, sugar, flakes, chips ,Vinegar, Fertilizer, coco peat/coir, briquettes, artifacts, wood for furniture etc.) and extremely versatile with a wide range of applications; our products address  needs related to household, beauty and health.

Why was Coco Vita founded (what gaps do you address)?

After much research on the coconut sub-sector, I realized its potential and saw a gap in authentic value-added coconut products as well as the desire to help farmers get a fair share of the market cake. Coco Vita is keen on creating a direct bridge between the farmers (mostly women and youth) and the end consumers ensuring that the coconut growing communities are the greatest economic beneficiaries of their very own natural resources of coconuts.

In 2016 you had an interesting encounter with MESPT, tell us more about it… (Was it useful and beneficial, if so how/ tell us the journey…) 2016 was not only interesting but a very special year; in fact, a turning point for our business. This is the year that MESPT launched, the Green Enterprise Challenge, a first in this (coast) region. It targeted Women and Youths with green business ideas and those in young existing businesses of not more than 3 years.  The Green Growth Business Criterion was focusing on utilization of natural resources in a sustainable manner as well as promotion of solutions that help eradicate poverty and promote economic development.

My county Kilifi was among those selected to pilot the project.  Over 300 applicants submitted their business ideas and business plans. We were taken through a rigorous business training on sustainable green jobs through canvas business modelling. This was amazing since I had not seen or heard of        anyone who trains participants before a business competition. This then means that all who participated but didn’t make it to the next level after the competition still took home invaluable business knowledge and skills, that would cost a fortune if secured on a personal level from consultants or paid for training.

It is after this training that I got clarity of the potential of my business for the first time. I managed to progress on well in the competition and made it to the National level. We were 18 Finalists from 5 counties and this achievement afforded us a 6 months incubation training at the World Class Business School – Milan University through one of their constituent local college; Tangaza University College.

After emerging among the top 3 National finalists, I was also awarded a cash price that helped to upscale and improve our business. The skills gained from the training have helped me to grow our business 2-fold in terms of production and sales. We used to have only two distributors; these have grown currently to 10. Our Packaging and branding has also improved. Our networks for business advisers, financiers and business partners is quite robust as well. The sweetest of all is the clarity I have regarding our business which continually feeds me hope even during difficult times.

Any additional information you can share on your ‘coco-preneurship’ journey with MESPT? MESPT unique model is an unbroken circle for value chains they support, looping in all the players/ stakeholders, creating an incredible synergy. As a processor, MESPT strives to ensure I have a reliable supply of raw materials and a market for my products.

MESPT has availed two 20Ft containers to serve as remote coconut collection centers in Makomboani & Chana Gande areas close to where CocoVita operates. Farmers are now able to drop their    harvested coconuts and they get paid on the spot. These coconuts are picked and taken to the CocoVita Coconut processing facility for processing.

Another great initiative by MESPT is the availing of the hybrid coconut seeds from India to Kenya. This is a notable breakthrough for those in the coconut value chain since the hybrid coconut is expected to mature within 2 ½ years compared to the indigenous one which matures in 7 years. MESPT has also been sponsoring value chain players to both Local and National Trade Fairs that give us an opportunity to exhibit our products to the public and as a result, we get sales leads that we convert into customers expanding our product distribution networks.

A remarkable moment with MESPT also happened to me in September 2016, when I got fully       sponsored to attend a high-profile Coconut Conference; ‘The 47th APCC COCOTECH Conference and Exhibition’ in Bali, Indonesia. From that conference, I interacted with a Coconut Expert from the Philippine who shared a solution to a stubborn problem that was affecting our products quality. I was exposed to various products that one could derive from the coconut and how to process them. It is a matter of time before Coco Vita introduces some of these. Finally, I got a sales lead to a UK Cosmetic Manufacturer, interested in sourcing Coco Vita’s coconut oil for the UK market, this was truly amazing!

As if going to Indonesia was not enough, in September 2017, I got another opportunity to travel abroad to attend the Green Growth and Climate Change Conference in Denmark courtesy of MESPT and the Danish Embassy. This was very timely given that we had just come from a difficult time following a prolonged drought that led to a severe coconuts shortage that really affected our business.

Finally, I commend MESPT for having a data base that has a pool of experts in the value chain they support and more including crucial information on Entrepreneurship, Finance etc. Working with MESPT as an entrepreneur is very fulfilling since information sharing and linkages are some of the many benefits that one gets.

Your words of encouragement to start up entrepreneurs? Entrepreneurship is a journey, and with every journey of 1000 step, you begin with one. Take that one step and keep walking. Along the way there are times that are tough, and there are many such times, but none should deter you. Tough times force us to think, be creative, and also look out for strategic partnerships that can alleviate our business, then for sure we get worthy partners (like MESPT) who hold your hand and lead the way giving you support and clarity in doing what you like doing.

This way, we grow from both a personal perspective and as an entrepreneur. Keep the faith and be decisive… the journey ahead is waiting!