“I didn’t know how other people start and run businesses. It was a struggle. At times I would really cry,” says Jean Pankuku, owner of Tehilah enterprises and value addition centre.
She is a food technologist who has developed several products and runs a bread and bun bakery, which goes beyond bread to help build a healthy population.
Jean makes these products from orange fleshed sweet potatoes (OFSP), high in Vitamin A under the brand Thanzi.
Her bakery, also makes bread and bread products from wheat flour.
The entrepreneur also trains students and provides OFSP farmers with a market, apart from providing employment.
She narrates how she has managed to stay above waters despite struggles that could have made most in her shoes give up.
Thity-eight-year old Jean was born in a family of 11 children, the ninth born of three girls and eight boys.
Throughout her secondary school life, she aspired to be a medical doctor, but was selected to Bunda College of Agriculture.
Unwilling to accept a path in agriculture, she took too long to adjust and was unable to select a major.
She ended up doing general agriculture.
Unable to secure employment after graduation, Jean took to piece-works, doing short surveys.
In 2005, she started cooking at home, would package it in containers and sell in some offices at lunch hour in town,
“It wasn’t easy, but I needed to get going. The upbringing we have does not inpire confidence to leave school and go into business, especially after a college degree. People get surprised when you cook nsima and sell. They want to see you in office,” she says.
She says she did not do it for long.
Thereafter, she went to teach at a private school for two years and joined World Hope organisation as a home-based care officer, nutrition coordinator and also worked in agriculture projects.
She said her passion for food nutrition came back.
Under Hope, she took care of the elderly, orphans and chronically ill people in their homes in areas further from the hospital.
Her role was to help them with balanced nutrition as well as influencing to grow herbal or medicinal plants.
She then went to India where she got a master’s degree in food science and technology.
A food technologist’s focus, she says is in product development and value addition.
Jean joined Universal Industries for hands on experience.
She developed the Gluco Nutri-Phala- her first assignment- and soya pieces.
But her most outstanding contributions began when she started working on OFSP products.
Malawi has always grown orange sweet potatoes, however, the new varieties by the Irish International, through breeding, are highly fortified with vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency was a very big problem, especially in under five children, now brought down by different interventions.
They are known as by-fortification which Jean says is cheaper than government spending a lot of money on Vitamin A provision.
Jean went to Rwanda where she saw various products from sweet potatoes and all she wanted was to make products of her own.
She developed sweet potato flour which she says as opposed to the dried traditional method, exposing to the sun challenges takes out the vitamin, the flash drier (machine) retains a good amount of vitamin A.
The nutritionist says at the time Universal Industries received a sweet potato puree making machine, which was only lying idle as no one knew what to do with it.
As her own initiative, she made sweet potato crisps which were love, and later biscuits which also got good reception.
But she wanted to use the machine, but it was seen as a waste of resources.
With the help of a friend in 2016, she took the puree to one of the bakeries and made bread and buns out of it, as Universal did not have bread making machinery.
Though the bread was well received, the bakery owners were not as receptive and when ownership changed, her intervention went under.
Having encountered such hindrances, she decided to do it on her own.
She, however, could not find second hand machinery as most were too broken to fix.
Jean finally got her own set of equipment from South Africa in 2017, rented a place in Luchenza- closer to Thyolo and Mulanje- closer to Ofsp farmers .
Unfortunately, she needed three-phase electricity, which the building did not have.
Escom took two months before EW PAGE 7
responding to her that she needed to upgrade the transformer or buy her own. After a series of follow ups, she was told she needed about K9 million.
She then moved to Matindi where she found a building that had the electricity, but no water.
Hopeful that the water board would not take as long as Escom did, she moved the equipment, but water was only connected after four months.
All this time, she had not completed payment for the machinery, but kept paying rentals and other bills.
Hopeful all would go well after the water connection, she was met with the 25-hour blackouts
“You could make the bread put in the oven and lights went out. They are things made with yeast and with fermentation you throw away everything. I thought maybe it’s a wrong business,” she says.
All the supporting services were also what she couldn’t get.
The genset she needed cost K12 million and packaging material was another problem.
The certification process with Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) was not easy either.
She has been in situations where people undermine her ability and refuse to deal with her.
The seasonality aspect of the OFSP is also a challenge.
Between the sweet potato seasons, she rotates between Thyolo, Mulanje then down to Chikwawa and Nsanje who do winter farming.
She gets the potatoes from individual farmers and sweet potato growing associations in the villages through extension officers or famers clubs.
On harvest or field days, she gives talks on what she needs with partners who are training farmers.
Asked how far women can go with value addition, she says there is so much.
“I’ve travelled and seen how countries use their local grown crops. We have honey, but farmers are further away and remain stunted. We have cassava which can be made into bread. The big bananas in India are made into crisps and we have bananas in the north.
“With Malawi, you have the knowledge, but not the factories. Students may learn, but theory and practice are different,” says Jean.
She says what kept her is the excitement of mixing ingredients, not knowing what will come out and looking at the products after.
“I can have many ideas, but without resources, nothing can be done,” she says.
Jean won the Emerging Leader Award from the Institute of Food Science Technologists in 2017.
Her current plan is to train women identified from different women local markets, selling doughnuts and mandazi so they can start to use sweet potatoe puree. n