Tackling malnutrition through business

Sunday December 2 2018

Fortunatha (left) with some particpants of

Fortunatha (left) with some particpants of Nutrition Africa Invest Forum, held in Nairobi in October. The meeting highlighted the role of small and medium enterprises in improving nutrition across the continent. PHOTOSI TASNEEM HASSANALI. 

By Tasneem Hassanali

36-year-old Fortunatha Mmari is a natural-born businesswoman. Her father owned a business in Moshi, which dealt with production of blankets. Her mother on the other hand owned a farm, who also underwent various courses on nutrition to better understand organic farming and what balanced diet meant. Fortunatha followed her parent’s footsteps into creating something of her own - to fight the battle of malnutrition in the country.

She made headlines in June during the introduction of new orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) bread where her idea was to link farmers and bakeries in production of this new bread to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency among children in Tanzania that stands at 33 per cent. She was quoted, “The most important thing is to ensure that nutritious food can be accessed by everyone at a reasonable price.”

Life&Style then got to meet Fortunatha at Nutrition Africa Invest Forum, held in October in Nairobi, a meeting that highlighted the role of small and medium enterprises in improving nutrition across the continent. Fortunatha’s company, Afco Investment Company was one of the six Tanzanian companies selected to represent the country and pitch for new investments.

Nothing stops Fortunatha, not even her eight-month-old pregnancy bump from an opportunity to grow her business. “Yes, I am expecting my third child and I am here to take my business one step ahead,” she tells Life&Style.

“Let’s go for some fresh air,” she says. She then settles sedately outside on a balcony chair after an exhausting day of pitching to investors. After completing her Bachelor’s degree in Commerce, Fortunatha worked with her father for a brief time, till she got a job in 2007. The following year, she got married and moved to Kigoma and fortunately got a job. “I have grown up with the passion of having my own business to handle.

Every month when I received my salary, I would use that to do small businesses, what we popularly call machinga. I would buy items such as accessories for women and clothes in wholesale and sell them to individuals at a retail price,” Fortunatha says. She would target office workers because they always have limited time to go for shopping.

When Fortunatha moved to Dar es Salaam, it was difficult to alternate job and her side-business of machinga. “When I moved to this city, everything seemed hard. The long commuting hours and competitive nature made me quit what I was doing. I felt stuck. But I thought to myself, I cannot just sit and do nothing. Despite having a job, I still wanted to live my dream,” says Fortunatha.

On one fine day, in 2012, when Fortunatha was preparing food for her child, she thought ‘why not make this into business?’ Trained by her mother on various ways to prepare food and the right composites, Fortunatha had neither store-bought food for children nor was she aware of such products. It was always making everything from scratch and at home. “When I was told by a friend that such products already existed in the market, I thought of visiting the supermarkets and that’s when I took note. They were so expensive! There were items named ‘unga lishe’, ‘ulezi’, ‘baby cereal’ all arranged neatly on the shelves. And that’s when I told myself, I have to be different,” she recalls.

Fortunatha wasn’t impressed with any of the baby foods available in the market, so she spent around Sh200,000 for branding and packaging unga wa lishe (loosely translated as nutritious flour), and began with 22kgs. She thought that was it and would sell automatically. But something was missing. “I started looking for market. It was difficult. Some vendors would call and tell me to take my product back as it wasn’t selling,” she says.

Even the big supermarkets refused to keep her product on the shelf because it was neither The Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority (TFDA) registered nor had a barcode. She says, “This journey wasn’t easy. Moving from registering business name to getting your product approved is a roller coaster ride. But I wanted to grow and I had to do this.” But this wasn’t it. There was something missing again.

In a struggle to make her product different, Fortunatha took one step ahead and paid a visit to Tanzania Food and Nutrition Centre to seek technical support to make her flour actually ‘nutritious’. “What I was doing was wrong. I was only mixing starch. But I was not only told by experts there on how to balance the food with proteins but was also made aware of the situation of malnutrition in the country. I was taken aback.” She continues, “People and children are eating but the rate of Vitamin A deficiency in almost one third of all children, remains high. Why? Because they eat only one kind of food; starch.”

After this, Fortunatha never looked back. She took various courses on nutrition and later came up with revised bio-fortified products (a process of increasing the density of vitamins and minerals in a crop through agronomic practices) targeting children from 6 months on, breastfeeding and pregnant mothers and to alleviate Vitamin A and iron deficiency in the country.

Fortunatha moved from 22 kilogrammes in 2012 to 79,000 kilogrammes in 2018.

Fortunatha’s husband, Mr Ayubu, took a keen interest to understand the vision she had. During her initial days, when starting to sell the product – her husband would wake up early in the morning, help arrange products in a basket, carry it to various spots. “

Not that my husband was jobless. He had a prime position as a Manager at a certain company. But every early morning we would board a daladala, carrying the basket from Mbagala to Kariakoo in search of market. After that we would head to work,” she recalls.

Fortunatha says her husband’s moral support meant everything. “He is even here today with me to make sure I am okay,” she adds.

As strong as she sounds, Fortunatha faced and overcame prejudices. “It is challenging to grow your business as a woman, especially if you aren’t stable. I faced a lot of challenges. While some purchase managers or decision makers asked for bribes others asked for sexual favours,” she says.

“But I had to stand my ground. My philosophy was you either take my product or don’t. There is no middle ground, no bribe,” she explains.

Fortunatha says all home businesses should operate formally. “The reason I say that because you ought to grow quicker. Register your business, product so that you are not limited, you can sell them everywhere. You get opportunities to pitch for investments, collaborate with NGOs and so forth. Be strong – let the challenges pass through and don’t ever go for shortcuts.”

Email: thassanali@tz.nationmedia.com