Exotic EPZ – Making Remarkable Strides Towards Ensuring Macadamia Nut Safety.
Growing up, macadamia nuts was a product deemed to be mainly for young boys and rodents. However, years down the line, the product is considered as precious as gold in the world of nut lovers.
The production of macadamia nuts in Kenya traces its history from 1944 when a European settler called Bob Harries introduced the crop from Australia in his estate near Thika town for ornamental and household consumption purposes. He would, two decades later, found Bob Harries Ltd. to invest in the widespread expansion of the crop by introducing two key macadamia types – M. Integrifolia and M. Tetraphylla – and other hybrids from Hawaii and California.
A macadamia tree isn’t just another pretty face in the landscape. When it reaches maturity, it yields an abundance of sweet, creamy nuts that demand a king’s ransom on the market today. High global demand for the crop has led to a local mad rush in its cultivation, marking the revival of the forgotten trees.
A dynamic trio of Kenyan ladies Jane Maigua, the Managing Director, Loise Maina, the Director External Affairs and Charity Ndegwa, the Operations Director, saw this opportunity and grabbed it with a goal of starting an organization that would bring healthy products from the African continent to the world, have a positive impact in the community and the environment and promote social-economic growth in the country. This marked the birth of Exotic EPZ in 2017.
“Having previously worked with smallholder farmers and especially women and understood their challenges such as inadequate support programs, access to markets and/or unstructured market systems that provide a room for exploitation of farmers, and the overall lack of women’s participation in the higher value part of the value chains, the co-founders saw the need and set out to become solution providers,” Charity, the Operations Director, told Food Safety Africa in an interview at their plant, which is based at Sameer Industrial Park on Mombasa Road in Nairobi, Kenya.
Working with farmers to ensure sustainable production
Exotic EPZ processes premier macadamia nuts destined for the export market, primarily into the US, Europe and Asian markets, considering that the world’s largest consumers of macadamia nuts are Australia and North America, accounting for about 50 per cent consumption of the produce worldwide.
The plant, which has an annual processing capacity of 360 tonnes of kernels, has a current workforce of 160 plus, 85% being women and 75% youth.
The company sources its raw materials from a network of 7,000 farmers in 11 macadamia growing counties in Kenya, which has around 200,000 small farms spread across Embu, Meru, Machakos, Kirinyaga, Kiambu, Taita Taveta, Tharaka Nithi, Baringo, Murang’a and Nyeri counties. Recently, several counties in the Rift Valley region – Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet and Nandi counties – have joined the troop, as the area under cultivation of the crop expands across Kenya.
After flowering, the nuts take about 6-8 months to mature, the peak harvesting season being between March and July every year. Once ready, their husks begin to dry out, lose their tackiness, and gradually change from bright green to brown. They shrink and split open, their split edges turn brown, and the brown nut inside becomes visible. To avoid harvesting unripe nuts and breaking the brittle macadamia branches, the farmers manually pluck the nuts from the tree and use a mechanical dehusker supplied by the company to get rid of the husks.
At harvest, the macadamia nuts can have a moisture content of up to 30%, which is dried down to kernel moisture content of about 1.5%. This is a crucial process to maximize product quality and shelf life. The kernel shrinks away from the shell, allowing shells to be cracked without damaging the kernel.
To curb the menace of low-quality produce from farmers, the company trains them on good agricultural practices such as pest management and harvest and post-harvest management.
“There was a time when the Kenyan macadamias had a very bad reputation in the international market mainly due to low quality standards. This, however, changed with factories investing more in their processes,” informed Charity.
Over the last 4 years, the company has increased its annual local production capacity from 60 tonnes to 360 tonnes due to increased demand of high-quality macadamia nuts in the global markets.
We have taken our team through environmental management practices training to enhance our capacity to contribute to environmental conservation.
Charity Ndegwa – Operations Director, Exotic EPZ LTD
Quality not an option
Given the stringent demands of the export market, Exotic EPZ has to ensure the quality of every processed nut to maintain market share. It has aggregation centers across the supplying counties to aid in collection of the nuts, where the company employs the skills of government registered agents who comprehend the quality requirements to inspect the raw materials.
“We have developed a robust quality analysis process. The process involves sorting out of the visible non-conforming nuts such as those that are immature, insect damaged or are infected with mold,” says Charity.
Once the nuts arrive at the factory, they undergo a more detailed re-inspection, which involves sampling and comparison against the defined quality specifications. The delivery vehicle is also inspected for cleanliness and the observations recorded.
In case of non-conformance, the nuts are rejected and returned to the supplier. The analysis is also counter-checked against the one conducted at the collection center for any inconsistencies.
After reception, the nuts are loaded into the drying bins, where the drying occurs in two phases. The first phase involves cold air blowing, where normal room temperature air is used to dry the nuts up to a moisture content of below 10%, followed by hot air blowing/heating till a moisture content of below 2% is achieved. From here the nuts are first graded into different sizes before being loaded into the cracker to expose the kernel from the brown shell. Macadamia nuts have an extremely hard shell that cannot be opened with a regular nutcracker.
“The cracked nuts then proceed to the production area for sorting. The shells and moldy nuts are separated from the kernels before sorting the remaining kernels into wholes and halves. These then proceed to the color sorter machine which distinguishes good quality nuts from bad ones,” enlightened Regina Njihia, the Quality, Environmental, Health and Safety (QEHS) Team leader, as she took the FSA team through the production process.
Grading to satisfy customer demands
From the color sorter the nuts undergo the final sorting, which is done manually to remove insect damaged, colored and immature nuts that might have not been detected by the sorting machine. The nuts are then graded into 8 different grades as either wholes, halves or chips to meet the various demands of the customers.
When packed in wholes, the kernels can be packed in three different styles namely Style 0 ( larger than 19mm with minimum 95% whole nuts), Style 1L (larger than 16mm with minimum 90% whole nuts) and Style 1S ( 14mm-16mm with minimum 90% whole nut). Halves can exist in two styles: 4L(14mm-16mm half nuts) and 4S (9mm-14mm with 80% half nuts and 20% whole nuts) while chips are packed in 3 styles. They include Style 5 (7mm-9mm pieces), Style 6 (5mm-7mm chips & pieces) and Style 7 (3mm-5mm chips).
“The nuts are then inspected before they go for packaging. A kilogram of nuts is sampled and sorted manually to find out the percentage of insect damaged and immature nuts that can be gotten from the good quality nuts. If it’s above 1%, the nuts are taken back for resorting,” explained Regina.
Following the online analysis, the nuts are ready for packaging after they pass through a metal detector that is capable of detecting ferrous, non-ferrous or stainless-steel materials in the product. If the metal detector senses any metal contaminants, it makes use of compressed air to close the flap hence eliminating the defective nuts which are then collected in buckets. The rest of the nuts then proceed to the vacuum packaging machine.
The macadamia kernel deteriorates rapidly and requires a storage environment that is very low in moisture and oxygen. This is best achieved by a combination of gas flushing with nitrogen and partial vacuuming before sealing the pouch. The machine creates a vacuum within the aluminium foil packaging and then feeds in nitrogen gas as a preservative before finally sealing it.
“Our macadamia kernels are packed in 25 pounds (11.34 kg). We use food grade aluminium foil pouches flushed with food grade nitrogen gas,” said Charity.
To ascertain the integrity of the packaging material, the nuts are held overnight. In case of any deflation by morning, the nuts are repacked and a record is kept. The nuts are then stored in the chilled warehouse at a temperature of around 8 degrees Celsius as they await cartoning and dispatch.
At Exotic EPZ, quality is at the heart of every process and as such the company is committed to high food safety standards.
To rubber stamp this, the company attained the highest level of food safety certification coveted by every company, the Food Safety Systems Certification, FSSC 22000 in 2018. In 2021, they received recertification; a testament of the company’s commitment to efficient, safe and robust food production and management practices that are globally trusted. To top it up, the company is ISO 9001 certified and is also registered with the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (FDA).
“We have undergone training on ISO 45001- Occupational Safety Management System and ISO 14001-Environmental Management System, both of which we shall be audited and hopefully certified in 2022,” revealed Charity.
She informed us that they plan to undertake organic certification of their farmers and the processing factory as well as Fairtrade certification in future. Organic certification certifies that products have been produced using natural substances and processes hence having minimal environmental impact. Organic farming is a fast-growing area in agriculture, which is a direct result of increased consumer interest in organic products. On the other hand, Fairtrade certification takes an ethical standpoint placing the producers at the forefront to promote fairness.
“These certifications will enable us to expand our products offering as well as tap into the growing premium market of sustainability conscious consumers, resulting in better value transferred to our farmers,” she pointed out.
As employees are the engines of every business, Exotic has invested in equipping all their employees with food safety and quality management skills. “One of the main things we ensure is capacity building. When people come on board, we make sure they are fully trained on the company’s activities and other aspects like leadership, financial literacy, first aid, fire safety, nutrition among other areas. We make sure that our staff are actually holistic individuals,” says Charity.
As companies closed down amidst the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the company directors took the opportunity to virtually facilitate the training of their staff on FSSC 22000. They have cultivated a handwashing culture whereby employees have to wash and sanitize their hands after every 30 mins with the aid of automatic soap and sanitizer dispensers. The company has also installed foot pedals at the tap that curb recontamination.
“Initially we used to use hand dryers but realized that it harbored microorganisms. So, we have moved from that to using paper towels,” explains Charity.
The quality staff conduct random hand swabbing for microbial analysis. The company utilizes an accredited third-party laboratory to carry out microbiological and chemical tests in accordance with the Kenyan standard and customer requirements.
The employees also have weekly counseling sessions on the much-needed psychosocial support.
Race towards a sustainable production
Ultimate efficiency is a trait that all business owners strive for. This was no different for Exotic EPZ’s facility where sustainability has been taken into account to ensure the best use of resources.
The company has installed a 47.5Kwh solar generation plant resulting in a drastic reduction in heating costs, and best of all, a lowering of the carbon footprint. It also holds sensitization sessions for its employees and has put up signages around the factory on water and energy usage, use of LED lights to save energy, recycling of waste like the nut shells to fuel the boiler and conversion of non-conforming kernels into oils.
“We have taken our team through environmental management practices training to enhance our capacity to contribute to environmental conservation. Towards this we have put in place an Environmental Policy as part of our commitment towards environmental sustainability,” explained Charity.
Future investment priorities
In terms of investment, according to Charity, the company’s main investment priorities are in product development. “We want to expand our product portfolio to include products for consumers in Kenya and Africa,” she stated.
They are looking forward to launching roasted and tasty macadamia nuts for the Kenyan market, adding that the company is also looking to break ground in new international markets.
“We are also looking to double our production capacity to 600 tonnes in the medium term as well as automate our processing line to increase efficiency and improve on the quality management process and at the same time ensure we are keeping up with the quality standards of the global market,” she noted.
In terms of raw material quality, Exotic intends to increase the farmers’ production capacity through the development of a seedlings propagation and nursery unit that will supply farmers with high quality seedlings.
An uncertain future plagues the subsector
However, with growth also comes new challenges. The Operations Director voices concern that the nuts demand may outstrip the supply available in Kenya, hence increasing competition of raw materials among industry players. Statistics by Smart Farmer Kenya indicate that Kenyan farmers currently produce an estimated 41,000 tonnes in-shell nuts, constituting about 20 percent of global supply.
Production of the nuts has increased tremendously in the last decade from about 11,000 metric tonnes in 2009 to over 41,000 metric tonnes and 30 processors today, making Kenya the number three producer in the world, after South Africa and Australia.
South Africa is currently the world leader in macadamia production with 54,000 MT tonnes in-shell produced in 2021, followed by Australia at 44,500 and Kenya. Kenya overtook the USA in 2013 and has continued holding onto its spot.
“Kenya also faces a threat from China, which has invested in planting macadamia trees. However, Kenyan farmers have adopted the planting of macadamia trees and continue to increase the area under cultivation and improving yields of existing trees.,” states Charity.
Researchers expect the global macadamia market that was valued at around USD2.99 billion in 2017 to grow to about USD4.5 billion by 2024, driven by a growing demand for natural-(plant)-based food products by an equally growing number of health-conscious consumers.
Despite the challenges, Charity is confident that Exotic EPZ will continue playing its role of ensuring a viable macadamia value chain in Kenya, while growing its products line, markets and impact on communities in which the company operates into the future.
This feature appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Food Safety Africa. You can read the magazine HERE