By Firmain Eric Mbadinga
Congolese entrepreneur Nick Tshikwat aims to present locally grown agricultural products, such as sweet potatoes, manioc, plantain bananas and yams to consumers worldwide in the most attractive and refined packaging possible.
It's what led him to start Nutrimeal NTM, a food processing startup that focuses on agricultural products fit for consumption for a shelf life of at least one year.
The products have so far received an enthusiastic reception in his home town of Lubumbashi, the second-largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that is located in southeastern region of the country.
Nick initially flirted with the world of teaching and humanitarian work, but in 2019 he pivoted to a sector that has always fascinated him. In his opinion, food pocessing was a gold mine undervalued particularly by lack of proper branding of products.
He set off by first working at an agro-industrial company where he learned the tricks of the trade with an aim to refine his business model that focused on adding value on raw produce.
The COVID-19 pandemic offered the moment for his breakthrough as food prices soared after supply chains were disrupted.
''I've always had a passion for food processing and I learned the techniques in this company. But because of a lack of resources, I couldn't go out on my own until 2019 when a project launched by the World Bank enabled me to get started.
"The first food products I processed were fruits, strawberries to be precise, processing strawberries into jam,", the 25-year-old tells TRTAfrika.
After getting his hands dirty, Nick took in lessons from each achievement as he perfected his skills. By 2021 he was sufficiently experienced to enter the big league.
He started with the idea of transforming sweet potatoes into flour to provide artisan bakers with an alternative to wheat.
''In our town of Lubumbashi, the price of wheat flour had risen and baked goods had become expensive. At the same time, plantain and sweet potato growers were making huge losses because they didn't know how to preserve their produce or whom to sell to," he explains.
"So, I did a bit of research on YouTube and with the knowledge I had already gained from other training courses I thought about turning sweet potatoes and plantains into flour,'' says Nick.
To stand out from the competition, the former teacher focused on processing entirely without additives and on forging close ties with farmers.
He branded his start-up Nutrimeal - a merger of words which means "healthy food".
"The motto of my company is 'organic right down to the taste',", says Nick in a rather satisfied tone.
French author François Rabelais once said: ''You get an appetite by eating''. For Nick, this appetite for processing led him to develop a pastry-making section in addition to processing agricultural produce into flour.
''I make baked goods such as biscuits, cakes, bread, doughnuts, waffles - anything that wheat flour can make. That's what I do with sweet potato flour and plantain flour," adds Nick.
He launched the company using his own savings and help from friends and family and is now reaping the rewards of his efforts in a city of nearly five million inhabitants where pastry products are in great demand.
The rudimentary knives, peelers and basins he started off with have made way for better suited equipment that guarantee hygiene and quality.
The 20 kilos of sweet potato processed on the first order have given way to thousands of kilos processed annually. His staff of professionals has also expanded to four.
''The 20 kilos of sweet potatoes I started with were used to make waffles, which many people ate and enjoyed. Later people kept asking for more and that's how it all started," says the entrepreneur with a smile.
The company has compartmentalised tasks for each staff - one person focuses on production (brainstorming and designing new products), while an agricultural engineer supervises and monitors product quality in the field.
A marketing agent is responsible for monitoring sales and getting new markets and contracts. The team also includes a multi-tasking operator who, like Nick, works on processing.
Digital marketing has also led to interest from clients abroad.
The professionals are supported by non-permanent workers who are called in when there are large orders.
''Sometimes I get a tonne or two of potatoes that I have to peel and turn into flour, so I sometimes have to recruit day laborers. I often choose people in need or those who are still finding their way in life," explains Nick.
Nick hopes to increase sales to further equip his start-up and create more jobs in his community. He is keen on supplying gluten-free flour to meet the needs of clients who are conscious on their health.
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