Francis: Stephen is a leader in the industry and what we’d want to bring to the fore is the role of the leader of the business is as important as the person who is enumerating the bacteria in the plate. You can enumerate the bacteria and say we are above the limits, but Steven has the final say. So Steven you are here because we’d want to know more about you and your business and how someone like you is important to this food safety agenda. So please introduce yourself.

Steven: Thank you, Francis. My name is Steven Carlyon. I’m fortunate to have the job title ‘President of SimpliFine’, which is a 15-month-old business. We’re part of a bigger organization called Black Ivy Group – a Washington-based business that talks about sustainability and making a long-term difference in people’s lives, the farming industry, and creating permanent change.

We acquired three businesses in the space of six months last year in the space of French fries processing, meat processing and the last one was a bakery called the Ennsvalley bakery. In the space of six months, we’ve now got 250 employees, we’re growing in size every four months.

Francis: You’ve talked about the Black Ivy Group, animal feed, bakery, and French fries. I would want us to focus on the French fries (potatoes). You’re coming to a sector that has been largely local. What are some of the challenges that you see in terms of streamlining the sourcing and quality of potatoes in this country? What is the bigger picture?

 Steven:  In terms of the challenges that we’ve faced, it’s finding partners. When we started this journey a year ago with the French fries business, we were pretty much alone. We were acquiring products off the market, it was the wrong type of potato as well, a shiny variety that is not ideal for processing. And ultimately the whole supply chain needed to change. We started the journey, we started to run into like-minded partners. We wanted to make a change and it was only when we started to join these partners together, that we started to make a difference. The industry here is full of opportunity and I think the potato industry is allowed to go through a revolution. I think we’re very proud to be part of it this time, in this place where these partners are coming together. We’re looking at nutritionists, farmers themselves, and more importantly as well, the finance sector.

Thus to transform the supply chain around what we need, we need to develop a supply chain for the marquis potato which is not a popular potato here in Kenya. It’s harder to grow and more expensive. The input costs are more expensive than Shangi. It’s been a long journey of convincing farmers and suppliers to convert the fields into marquis which has a longer growing cycle of four months against Shangi’s three months. In terms of processing the French fries, we needed the marquis variety, so at any one time probably going into August-September we’ll have around 150 acres of marquis growing under contract for us. As you see this is a small beginning. Companies I started my career in a long time ago produced 800 tons of French fries per day. So you can imagine you’re into potatoes and you’re consuming 60 tons an hour (convert that to French fries). Here I’m looking at 15 tons a month.

We’re on a journey back to that.

Francis: What is the market requirement in terms of safety and quality and how are you trying to get that while doing business?

Steven: Walking back from the consumers’ points of view. What’s in food needs to be safe and if not handled properly it can do us harm. I’m sure all of us must have suffered the consequences of something that went wrong somewhere in the supply chain. So from the consumer who can’t see what they’re expecting in terms of food safety, the product should be heat treated properly, and at least be within its shelf life. We talked about extending the shelf life, freezing is one of those solutions in which we’ve invested heavily. Our sister company Big Cold has invested heavily in distribution vehicles. We’ve also installed GPRS trackers in our vehicles, to enable us to keep tabs throughout the whole supply chain from our facility in Naivasha through to Big Cold and then to the stores. The temperature is maintained at -18 Celsius. So that’s critical as well.

And then we start to work backward in terms of quality. Quality for me as an engineer means that we also have to consider the inputs. Although quality is an over-fruit for us within SimpliFine, quality is also routinely measured in the different departments. We consider quality in training and selection of our employees and protection as well whenever the process is going wrong. This is about precision. When we go into the supply chain as well, we make sure that you we talk about the evolution of the industry. farms need to bridge the gap and become certified at some point to meet the global Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) expectations. So this is a journey that this whole industry is about to go on. We’ve seen potatoes being supplied in gunny bags making the potatoes strain. We’ve just acquired enough priority of packaging so we need to ensure that we eliminate that from the process because there is always a sub-minimal risk in developing a product nobody wants to put on their plate. By investing and educating the farmers to move away from gunny bags, eventually, we will have what the rest of the world has. Lastly is to get the potatoes out in the ground, safely and efficiently without having trucks stuck in the rain.

We acquired three businesses in the space of six months last year of French fries processing, meat processing and the last one was bakery called the Ennsvalley Bakery.

Steven Carlyon- President, Simplifine


Francis: How many cheques have you signed and how tough has it been on that journey to transforming the mind of the value chain so that as a leader you can go to bed knowing that my truck that has gone to KFC will be accepted?

 Steven: I don’t write cheques but I do bend the ears of investors. And so this has been quite a journey and always continues to be a journey with the folks on the other end of the line in Washington. You know this was a journey that was built on trust, a journey that’s still evolving that all parties need to be playing a part in. I think there’s confidence in the states where the money is going. We’re about half a million dollars invested.

We’ve invested heavily in this knowing that by being East Africa’s leader in French fries processing, we’ll be able to service not just the consumer with locally sourced potatoes but

also the farmers and employees.

Francis: You know, I’m not used to buying potatoes in the supermarket. It’s just something that Kenyans are not much used to. You go to the nearest market and you get your nice dirty-looking potatoes and that’s what we know. How do you intend to continuously work around changing the supply chain, over time so that that food safety culture starts from the ground?

 Steven: So going back to the consumer’s preferences, I think in the modern world we’ve got less time. Kerry exists because of convenience, and SimpliFine is there as well. Nobody goes to McDonald’s and makes their own sauce, it’s there, and it’s delivered. Unfortunately, the way we’re evolving, we’re spending more time working and less time being able to socialize or even cook for ourselves. So there’s an evolving change here; one of convenience foods. We’re very well positioned within SimpliFine to use all of the resources available with quality meat, potatoes, and also the bakery unit, to combine some convenience. In the second half of this year, we’re going to invest in convenience meals.

In terms of the whole supply chain, there should be no compromise in this country, there’s no compromise in New Zealand, Dubai, and where I’m from. Kenyans have accepted compromise and that shouldn’t be the case because your lives are just as important as any other lives. The fact is that food culture is at risk, when handled properly it’s not a risk. But when mishandled these players have to be removed from the field, whether you’re shipping a product that is perishable on a truck that is belching diesel out into the atmosphere, that’s a risk. You see a motorbike with the produce on the back of it, that’s a risk. So this has to change and people like SimpliFine and BlackIvy will continue to be a part of this change with no compromises on food safety.

 Francis: I guess my last question is what kind of partners are you looking for and what is the future of your business?

 Steven: I think the most important thing is to reflect on our values because our values talk about the type of people that we aspire to be. One of those values is imagination, people who can think of the bigger picture, people who can aspire to be something that currently this country and this industry are not. And then we’re going about relentlessness and about not giving up and finding partners that can help change the whole infrastructure and supply chain in this country so that the consumer here has got a good choice of safe quality food and it’s there all the time. Then you start going about forthrightness, forthrightness to us as a business is that when you screw up you handle it better, you don’t try to hide away from it quickly and then try to fix the issue. So as probably the most forthright person in the business, that’s one of the attributes we welcome, and it’s about having that common language, a partnership that says, “you know, let’s see where the journey ends”. Thus we’ve identified some key partners now, we’ve even financed their businesses as well…because we’re offering 18-month contracts to farmers. You know if they can see that we’ve got favorable payment plans, it’s very easy for them to go to the bank and say, “look we’ve got an 8-month contract with an off-date schedule with SimpliFine.” That enables them to get financing to buy the seeds and all the fertilizers to prune the plants effectively. That’s what we’re looking for, so it’s about partnership and trust.

This feature appeared in the November 2022 issue of Food Safety Africa. You can read the magazine HERE