Kenya boasts one of the largest markets in the African continent, giving rise to a number of industry leaders across various sectors of the growing economy. Agriculture, which is the largest income earner in the country has seen the growth of both companies that have positioned themselves as regional leaders in the products they sell to the general public. One such company is Raka Cheese.
Based in Neri, 145 Kilometres from Nairobi, the company which has been in operation for over two decades, manufactures and distributes cheese both locally and to several other countries within the East African region.
Speaking to WoK on Friday, June 24, 2022, Raka Cheese Managing Director Kalpa Padia revealed that the company has over ten varieties of products which are all available on the shelves of all major supermarkets in Nairobi and other leading vendors countrywide.
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Just like many other businesses when they start out, Raka Cheese had its fair share of challenges before it rose to become the regional market leader it is. WoK in this article details the company’s rise from inception to the variety of its products.
The idea to start a cheese company was first initiated by Kalpa’s husband Rajesh who ran a cheese business in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he had to close down the company due to economic challenges that affected most of the SMEs in the country at the time.
“In 1991 the gulf war hit and the cheese market was affected. Local people were also not so much into cheese and some did not even know what it was,” Kalpa told WoK.
Kalpa arrived in the country from India in 1995 and together, they rekindled her husband’s passion for the cheese industry. They began operations in 2001 under the company name, Raka which was derived from the first two letters of the couple’s names, Rajesh and Kalpa.
Rajesh’s family owns Highlands Mineral Water Company, and when they started, they ran Raka from the family company’s premises. At the time, they were small-scale. They bought milk from local farmers and their machines could only handle 200 litres per day.
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“We started as a hobby actually. We were doing 200 litres of milk. 10 litres of milk will give you 1 kg of cheese, so we started small. I also didn’t know much about cheese so I was learning in the process.
“One year into the business and we were so focused on Highlands that we didn’t give much attention to Raka. We were just producing cheese and I had like 7 tonnes of cheese and I didn’t know what to do,” Kalpa recounted.
They started selling to small supermarkets in Nairobi and other parts of the country. In 2003, Inscore (Pizza Inn) came into Kenya and went into business with Raka. They wanted 500 kgs per week. However, Raka did not have the big machines, and could only produce 45 kgs per day.
With an increase in demand, Rajesh and Kalpa were forced to begin industrial production of the cheese and had to acquire bigger machines.
“We ended up purchasing a bigger machine for 1,300 litres. Today we have grown to a capacity of 10,000 litres per day,” Kalpa revealed.
The company expanded rapidly and in 2012 acquired its new premises at KIE opposite the prisons in Nyeri.
Rajesh passed away in 2010, and since then, Kalpa has steered the company into the regional success that it is by herself. She has two sons, and the eldest, 23, is a chef and helps her run the company while coming up with various products to add to their brands.
Raka boasts ten products which include; Cheddar, Feta, Mozzarella, Pizza, Paneer, Nyeri Blue, Halloumi, Brie, Gouda, and Shrikhand.
Paneer – Made without rennet, by curdling hot milk with lemon or lime juice, vinegar, yoghurt or citric acid. Popularly used in curry dishes and is, when wrapped in dough and fried, delightful for snacking.
Gouda – Gouda Cheese is a delicious ingredient in most sandwiches, quiche or fondue. Raka Gouda Cheese is made from cow milk and is a star in texture and taste, because it is just soft enough, while succulent and stiff to be easily melted or eaten the way it is.
Mozzarella – A very fresh and young cheese with high moisture content, slightly rubbery texture, with an extremely mild flavour.
Halloumi – is a robust cheese that tastes great grilled, barbecued or fried. It lends a meaty texture to salads, sandwiches and vegetarian dishes.
More details on Raka Cheese products can be found on the company website.
With the ever-growing consumer market in Kenya and the growth in preference for fast, take-away foods, the demand in cheese in the country continues to grow, and Raka Cheese products have made their way to the shelves of various retailers across the country.
“We have a lot of international restaurants entering the country like Domino’s Pizza. People have travelled and tasted different pallets, so they are demanding more cheese. Children are also more inclined to eat fast food than traditional home food; they like things like pasta, pizzas and sandwiches,” she told How We Made in Africa during an interview in January 2022.
Though the entry of foreign companies into the country creates a bigger market for food products, some of them import cheese from other parts of the world, however, Kalpa is confident that that does not affect the sales of Raka Cheese.
“The Kenya Dairy Board gives first preference to the Kenyan market. Foreign imports have a lot of taxes. And Kenyans still prefer ‘made-in-Kenya’ products,” she said.
Raka Cheese has penetrated into the export markets of Juba, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Tanzania. A proof of expanding tastes and appreciation of Raka products in the East African region.
Kalpa in January revealed that South Sudan is surprisingly one of the largest importers of Kenyan cheese in the East African region, attributing it to the growth of a large United Nations base in the country as well as demand from the local population.
Just like any other business, the cheese industry has its fair share of challenges. Kalpa notes that the biggest challenge is the shortage of quality milk in the market. She also noted that a few powerful individuals in the country control the dairy market making it hard for others to manoeuvre the market.
Kalpa also notes that buying milk from various small-scale farmers proves a challenge since the milk may differ in quality due to the different ways in which they rear their cows.