Much Ado About Mangoes

A Kenyan social-business entrepreneur is turning his childhood pain into a scalable solution to fight poverty and hunger — and help solve the SDGs

January 29, 2020

3:52 pm

At one point in Didas Mzirai’s life, mangoes were a painful reminder of both his extreme poverty and his heart-breaking family history.

Today, on the long slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, on the Kenya side of the border, Mzirai is inching the world closer to solving the SDGs — one mango at a time.

“I was born in a very poor family, out of wedlock,” Mzirai recalls. “My parents had separated before I was born. When my mother gave birth to me, she left me in the care of my maternal grandmother, and went and got married to someone else. Her new husband never recognized me as one of his own.”

Because Mzirai, now 37, rarely had sufficient money for school, he found employment picking and packing mangoes for brokers of fruit-exporting companies. It was while doing that work that he saw “firsthand how poor, rural small-holder farmers are exploited by the middlemen,” both in terms of pricing, and in maximizing the full bounty of their harvest.

As is the case with most produce, mangoes are graded for quality at the point of exit for export. Roughly 50% of all mangoes don’t meet the quality standard for export, notes Mzirai. Not only is that wasted effort for the farmers (to grow and to load to market), but it is also a tremendous waste of food.

So in 2015, Mzirai launched Mucho Mangoes, a social business that is a life-long dream of his, to turn his anger from his own personal story and from the injustice of farmer exploitation into an enterprise that addresses multiple SDGs, including, among others, SDG1, No Poverty; SDG2, Zero Hunger; #SDG4, Quality Education; and SDG8, Good Jobs and Economic Growth.

Mucho Mangoes team, with founder Didas Mzirai in middle.

Mucho Mangoes connects to all of those SDGs by empowering rural smallholder farmers to improve the quality of their production and to help them access ready and reliable markets for their products, thus increasing their incomes and reducing poverty levels in Eastern Africa.

To address food waste, Mucho Mangoes utilizes good quality mangoes that may not have been accepted as meeting international-quality standards simply because of their shape or look. These mangoes, together with other high-quality mangoes, are dried, via solar-powered drying methodologies, to cushion farmers from losses. “Some mangoes may have black spots,” says Mzirai, “which means they are fine in quality, but they are not ready for export. Through solar drying, we can use the ones that are rejected for the international market and turn them into dried mangoes.”

Mucho Mangoes team with their namesake produce.

Mucho Mangoes also works with banana farmers, and addresses health problems, such as iron and Vitamin A deficiencies in East Africa, particularly suffered by women and children of the region. Thus was created Bambino, a gluten-free flour of dried banana, millet, pumpkin seed, and carrots, as well as Makafi, another gluten-free banana flour.

The business, which is a for-profit but is also a social enterprise, reinvests profits into farmer training — including giving them insect trappers to eliminate fruit-flies and introducing them to organic pesticides. And because not being able to use the internet means essentially being shut out of the modern world, Mzirai launched an initiative called the 21st Century Digital Farmer Program, which comes to rural areas to meet the farmers where they are via mobile ICT clinics, and gives them training on how to use computers, smart phones, and the web — particularly in how to find markets for their produce.

Just last month, Mucho Mangoes received recognition for its work, winning the Kenya SME of the Year 2019 award from the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI).

Didas Mzirai, 2nd from right, accepting the 2019 Kenya SME of the Year last month.

Through it all, Mzirai has learned to separate the emotional from the business.

“I grew up hating my mother, whose name was Fauster,” Mzirai recalls. “But before starting this company, I had forgiven her, and I wanted to name my company after her — African Fauster One. I was advised otherwise by my business mentor. He told me I had to remove feelings from the business — those are emotions — and instead advised me to name the company something that corresponds with what I'm doing. So that’s why we called it Mucho Mangoes — I named it after my childhood passion.”

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