Profile of Purpose: A Tough Nut to Crack
Ten Senses is not only growing a successful agribusiness, it’s also doing right by farmers — and combating climate change in East Africa.
Meet Frank Omondi, wildlife biologist turned entrepreneur. As CEO, he took Ten Senses Africa, a Kenyan producer and distributor of macadamia nuts, from the brink of bankruptcy to a modern, sustainable, and successful venture that satisfies customers and supports farmers.
Frank Omondi approaches business differently than most entrepreneurs: “I look at business in a way that helps uplift more people. I think the future of Africa’s food production lies in the hands of the small-holders.” This belief influences every decision that Omondi makes for Ten Senses.
“Ten years ago, we set it up as a company that is going to be fair to farmers. We found small-holders were being taken advantage of,” Omondi explains. Instead, Ten Senses developed long-term relationships with farmers, committing to buy all their products and pay them a fair price. And they brought in technology to facilitate mobile payments and farm-to-shelf traceability.
“We’re able to pay farmers directly on mobile phones,” Omondi said. “Instantly, each person can move nearly $2,000 to $3,000 on their phone. You don’t get that anywhere else.”
Ten Senses is not only doing right by farmers; the company is also helping to combat climate change and deforestation. To date, Ten Senses has provided over one million seedlings to farmers. And it has doubled its sales in the past five years, too, proving that success and sustainability can go hand-in-hand. “We are not only helping vulnerable farmers to get income, but also giving them climate change resiliency, ” says Omondi.
Listen to Omondi’s mini profile to hear how his company is cracking the nut on sustainability, traceability, and profitability for small farmers in Kenya and, soon, Tanzania and Ethiopia.
Bonus: Two of our future guests, Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld and Dr. Margaret Neale, are the faculty directors of Stanford’s Executive Program in Women’s Leadership. This intensive, one-week workshop will take place on campus from May 1–6, and it will transform the way you negotiate, manage teams, and lead. The deadline to apply to the program is March 18, so don’t wait. Learn more and apply.
Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.
Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.
Darius Teter: Two of our future guests, Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld and Dr. Margaret Neale, are the faculty directors of the executive program in women’s leadership here at Stanford Graduate School of Business. This intensive, one-week workshop will take place on campus from May 1 to 6, and it will transform the way you negotiate, manage teams, and lead. You’ll get insights and strategies to navigate the workplace from Stanford faculty and you’ll have a chance to create a network with dedicated and daring women that you can leverage throughout your career. The deadline to apply to the program is March 18, so don’t wait. To find out more, visit the link in our show notes.
Welcome to Grit and Growth from Stanford Seed. I’m your host, Darius Teter. Thanks for joining us for another installment of our Profiles of Purpose documentary series. These short-form stories are told entirely from the perspective of business owners and they offer firsthand accounts of the struggles and joys of building impactful businesses in challenging markets.
Sometimes, successful entrepreneurs don’t set out to be entrepreneurs at all. That’s the case with Frank Omondi. Frank was a wildlife biologist who acquired Ten Senses Africa, a Kenyan company that produces and distributes macadamia nuts. Ten Senses was on the brink of bankruptcy when Frank took over, but he saw great potential to help both small farmers and the Kenyan ecosystem. So Frank got to work. He modernized the company. And we’ll hear how he implemented tech solutions and created a purchasing process that was both sustainable and fair to farmers, and we’ll hear about his journey from uncertain business owner to seasoned entrepreneur. Here’s Frank Omondi.
Frank Omondi: Many African societies, agriculture remains the backbone for the societies because people have got to eat, but as land gets smaller, less arable land is available. We need to figure out how to make this work. My name is Frank Omondi. I am the CEO of Ten Senses Africa. Ten Senses Africa is a macadamia processing business in Nairobi.
Macadamia is very rare, actually it is almost, less than 3 percent of the world tree nut production. You start getting a harvest after three years. And the good thing about it, it’s a “pension tree.” As it grows older, you get more product, then you have to just wait there and it falls when it’s ready. So just pick it up and take it to the market.
We work with small-holders who are really farmers with small pieces of land. And they grow these macadamia trees for us. So we work with them, train them, give them seedlings, and then we buy the product from them. And we process the product in a big factory in Nairobi and all this product is exported to the US and Europe.
Darius Teter: Ten Senses doesn’t just provide product for consumers; they also solve problems for the most important part of their value chain — the farmers that they partner with.
Frank Omondi: Ten years ago, we set it up as a company that is going to be fair to farmers. We found small-holders were being taken advantage of. We had a middleman who comes, buys a product at a lower price, keeps the product and sells it to the processor for maybe three times the price. And nothing goes back to the farmer.
Small-holder farmers need a guaranteed market, which they normally don’t get. But Ten Senses decided to have long-term relations with these farmers. And we commit to buy all of their product. We give farmers fair prices and we provide contracts for them. We built our own software and on the software, we are able to track farmer product, we’re able to pay farmers directly on mobile phones. Instantly each person can move nearly two to three thousand dollars on their phone. You don’t get that anywhere else. And we have traceability using the software, our bags from the farms. They have a tag on it and we can trace that product from the farm to the shelf.
I got into this business at a point in my life when I was changing careers. I had worked for the government at that time for three years. And then I have this opportunity to work for a wildlife charity, which is a fancy job. At this point, Ten Senses was available on offer; the company was nearly bankrupt. For some reason, we got in and decided to grow the business.
It was a difficult journey. I’m not business-trained, I’m a wildlife biologist. And so to get a wildlife biologist to run a complex export business requires skills. The business was growing fast. We had 30 employees in 2014 and by 2017 we were nearly 300. So the complexity of that, you realize that now you have to have people skills. The business when it’s fast-growing means you strain on cash flow, means you need to find more money. I have to learn the investor language and the lingo that comes with it. And you need to look at the future value of the business. They’re all skilled information, and you just can’t wake up and get it. I was looking for an MBA program for myself and so then I was on Twitter and I saw the Stanford Seed link. I went into it and I felt very excited about it. I think I was just a day before the deadline and I just went and filled it out and I just jumped in. We’ve doubled our sales since the program. And that’s been very interesting to us. We’ve also been able to raise the funds. We’re just closing on $4 million now, it’s exciting for us. So it’s been a business-business all the way. And every time I look at business, I look at business in a way that helps uplift more people.
Darius Teter: By giving farmers the tools and incentives to plant trees, Ten Senses also combats climate change and deforestation.
Frank Omondi: Our country has challenges: the climate today, and it’s even becoming difficult to predict the rain; it’s because we’ve cut most of our trees. And we feel having macadamia and cashew tree seedlings into the hands of farmers, we are not only helping these vulnerable farmers to get income, but also giving them climate change resiliency.
We employ a lot of people, about 600 people now, and we could easily in the next 10 years get into 3,000 people. I think the future of Africa’s food production lies in the hands of the small-holders. We’re working with 30,000 farmers. We are now one of the largest suppliers of seedlings. So we’re looking at impacting a hundred thousand farmers directly in the next 10 years.
I see Africa as a next frontier for producing food, producing export products from agriculture, providing employment, as well as providing organic products. We may never beat China or America on making motor vehicles, but we can beat them on producing food and macadamias.
Darius Teter: I’d like to thank Frank Omondi for sharing his journey with us. And that journey is just beginning. To date, Ten Senses has provided over 1 million seedlings to farmers. They’ve also doubled their sales in the past five years. And I’m glad to say that others have been noticing Frank’s work as well. In 2018, Ten Senses secured a $2 million equity investment, and more recently Frank negotiated a working capital line of $1.5 million from the Dutch-based Common Fund for the Commodities. This money will help Ten Senses as they expand into new countries, developing farms in Tanzania and Ethiopia. We wish them the best of luck as they continue to grow.
To learn more about Frank and Ten Senses Africa, visit their website at tensensesafrica.com, or read about them on the Stanford GSB website — we’ll put a link in the show notes.
Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller and Erika Amoako-Agyei researched and developed content for this episode. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us, we’ll see you next time.
I am looking forward to kicking off season two in March, featuring full-length interviews with up-and-coming business leaders from across Africa and South Asia, together with insights from Stanford Faculty and global experts — all designed to help you grow your business.
For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.