Short Takes: From Farms to Forks

For this entrepreneur, moving from Kenyan farms to forks can be a delicious — and profitable — journey.

February 21, 2023

Meet Delia Stirling, CEO of Brown’s Food Co. in Nairobi. She and her team are on a mission to spark consumer demand for foods made from indigenous Kenyan crops. Hear how their efforts are also helping small family farms and educating consumers about the environmental, economic, and taste benefits of eating locally grown food.

Delia Stirling has always been a foodie and entrepreneur. As a little girl, she sold ice cream at craft fairs, using a sleeping bag for insulation. And her family was the same, taking two cows and a little extra milk to make cheese, and then growing that company to become the largest cheese processor in the region. When Stirling returned from studying and selling real estate in the United States, she took over her parents’ company and was hungry to make a difference.

Creativity has been key to the company’s growth, and Stirling says, “It’s my superpower — and believing in the weird things I’m doing.” That creativity impacts everything from identifying ingredients and creating delicious, nutritious foods to solving challenges all along the value chain — from farmers to consumers. One of her key learning points was seeing her company as part of that value chain, rather than separate from it. This resulted in new ways of thinking. She explains, “As a food processor, we’ve started to look at ourselves differently, as a catalyst to not only be able to influence what the consumer’s eating, and then be able to influence what the farmers are growing.”

Stirling encourages entrepreneurs to believe in themselves and their ideas. “Sometimes you’ll self-doubt that you think you’re a little crazy. But those gut instincts and those ideas are really important. It’s always good to get advice, but it’s also getting it and putting it in context of what you know in your background,” she advises.

Hear how Stirling is making an impact on farmers, consumers, and climate change — one crop and one bite at a time.

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.

Full Transcript

Delia Stirling: It’s not about how hard you work. I’m a really hard worker and it was always instilled in me that it’s hard work will get you everywhere. But that burnout and managing that and getting the team there, to where they need to be, where you don’t feel disappointed and that you feel like they can do it, is the biggest change.

Darius Teter: Welcome to Grit and Growth from Stanford Seed, the show where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs. I’m excited to introduce another in our series of short takes as we prepare to launch season three of Grit and Growth in April. In this episode, we meet Delia Stirling, CEO of Brown’s Food Company in Nairobi. Delia has transformed her family’s cheese-making business into a regional powerhouse, and now she’s on a mission to spark consumer demand for foods made from indigenous Kenyan crops. We’ll hear what fuels Delia’s creativity and what caused her burnout, plus why she’s reimagined her business as a catalyst for change. Here’s Delia Stirling.

Delia Stirling: Our company is called Brown’s Food Co. We’re a large food processing company here based in Nairobi, and the business was started about, gosh, 40, 45 years ago by my parents, and they started making cheese for themselves. They had two cows and a little bit of extra milk and started making it, and people started showing up trying to buy it at their doorstep. So the rest is history from there. We are 45 years on. We’re the largest cheese processor in the region, and so we have a much larger range of products now than just cheese.

Our mission is to craft wholesome and delicious foods from nature’s bounty. So we work on making sure food’s wholesome for the consumer and good for where we are and try to be creative with what ingredients that we have locally.

So I grew up here, and then I went to school in England, and I went to Cornell University in the States. And then stayed in the States a long time selling commercial real estate, medical buildings, and moved back around 11 years ago and my parents were going to sell the business. So they were about to sell it and we felt like there was a lot we could do with it, and we’ve transformed it since then. We were processing about 3,000 liters of milk then, and we’re at about 22,000 now.

So I’m fourth generation in Kenya, I’m Kenyan, and always grown up in an entrepreneurial family. From when I was little, I would sell ice cream out of a sleeping bag as the insulation. At little craft fairs I was always selling something. Also, being quite a self-sufficient family, we started making our own cheese. We make all our own food. If we want to eat something, we generally make it, and that’s our philosophy still now. We make all our own breads. We have our own organic vegetable garden, we do our own processing of meat. So it all sort of stems from that. Everything from Brown’s does sort of start in our kitchen, very much with things that we want to eat ourselves as a family, and then it progresses from there. I think my creativity is my superpower — and believing in the weird things that I’m doing.

Darius Teter: So do you have a specific creative process? I mean, how do you tap into that superpower?

Delia Stirling: It’s through the ingredients that are there. And taking the time to be on the ground and on the farms. That’s where the creativity comes from. So on the cashew farms, do you know how cashews grow? They grow as a nut outside, like, an apple, and they have a cashew fruit, and in the rest of the world, they make juice out of those fruits and they even sell it to Pepsi, like as a Tropicana juice. But in Kenya, they don’t eat the fruit. The fruit just rots. So sometimes you have to be on the farm to be like, “Oh, that’s weird. Why is there waste that’s not being used? And then what is the cultural influence of why that’s not being used?” And so then it asks the questions, and then you go down a rabbit hole.

We look at food in a different way. So there’s a typical way of food scientists and what you can do with a product or with an ingredient. And because of the fermentation, it opens this whole other world of preservation and of taste. So we’ve got a lot of unique products right now that people think are super creative and unique, and I think that comes from this fermentation background and this four generations of being sort of self-sufficient. And I think, in a way, I wouldn’t want to be a food scientist because it gives us this unique way of looking at our ingredients that typically people wouldn’t do.

So I’ll give you an example. Most of the plant-based yogurts use modified starches and imported powders to bulk up this coconut yogurt. But then 80 percent of your ingredient is being imported. So you have a look, okay, what starches are here in Kenya and how could we use them? So that’s how we look at it. We say, “Well, we don’t want any, we’re not going to sell a product that’s 80 percent imported product. So what can we do with our experience on fermentation to be able to use cassava?” So ours is with cassava, raw cassava from the farmer that we use and process with raw coconuts to be able to make a product that works.

Darius Teter: So in my previous life in the nonprofit space, we had a lot of projects where we worked with smallholder farmers in rural areas, including in Kenya. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you interact with farmers. How does that work?

Delia Stirling: So because of where we’re playing in the ag space, there’s a lot of people that we interact with, obviously from NGOs working on smallhold farmers. A lot of tech that works on assisting the smallhold farmers as well. So most of our collaboration is through other companies helping or assisting on the farmer level. We assist them with the microloans. We have our own vets that go out to visit them. So if we fail your milk for quality, that triggers the vet to come visit your farm in person. So most of our community work is through the farmers that we work with. Before you can just go in and buy an input, an ingredient, you need to understand what the challenges are in that value chain, and you learn all sorts of interesting problems that unless you’re on the ground talking to them, you would never guess because you can’t look at them as one. They’re not just a dairy farmer, they’re a farmer. They’re a smallhold farmer. So that’s the kind of work we do. It’s more grassroots level on really trying to understand that cycle and the holistic approach to the farm.

Darius Teter: Delia had big ambitions for Brown’s Food Company, but to accomplish it all, she stretched herself thin. Too thin.

Delia Stirling: Yeah, I was the hero with the cape and I could do everything and everything needed me, and I drove the business and grew it very rapidly, but I was also on the edge of burnout. So during the program, I had a total burnout in hospital for two weeks. Lots of times where it would just be easier to give up and do other things, but you’re also fueled by that. So it’s probably the hardest thing, but it’s also the thing that fuels you because you’re moving with a lot of moving parts as an entrepreneur and a business leader. So you’re juggling, juggling a lot. So sometimes it’ll feel like it’s all falling down, but the thing that feels like you want to give up is the thing that you need to fuel yourself to get back up and keep going.

It’s not about how hard you work. I’m a really hard worker and it was always instilled in me that it’s hard work will get you everywhere. But that burnout and managing that and getting the team there to where they need to be, where you don’t feel disappointed and that you feel like they can do it, is the biggest change. So right now I’m working on all these R&D and startups. It’s like a whole new startup business, and the whole core business is running there because of the good team. So we kind of had to break down, get a really good HR and get the right people, trust those people, build the dashboards to be able to get the visibility that we need, which is now we’re at that point where I can… I’m just not in there very much. I’m doing this startup with these new foods and it’s all good.

Darius Teter: Building a great team, adopting systems to measure performance and establish trust, and shifting her own mindset allowed Delia to delegate more of the everyday operations and focus instead on the things that she was passionate about. It also gave her the space to see where Brown’s fit in the bigger picture, what we at Seed like to call focusing on the business, not in the business.

Delia Stirling: One of the key learning points for me was looking at ourselves along this value chain and that impact that you can have along it, rather than seeing yourself as this business that was separate from that value chain. So what we do with our small-hold farmers, we have about 4,000 small-hold farmers that we work with. We’ve made a big change to their lives. We work directly with them so that we can train them, work with them on the quality standards that we need.

Darius Teter: But farmers are just one part of the story. Brown’s is also in a unique position to affect consumer taste on a large scale, creating demand for more sustainable indigenous crops.

Delia Stirling: And as a food processor, we’ve started to look at ourselves differently as a catalyst to not only be able to influence what the consumer’s eating and then be able to influence what the farmers are growing. So right now we are working with a lot of resilient grains, some forgotten foods that are delicious, are very nutritious, but just need a little help in being showcased to our customers and be released as healthy products to the market.

That’s where we’re a bit different. We look at the ingredients and what we can do with them because we’re trying to assist farms that are resilient to this climate change and something has to change, and so what we’re growing on these farms has to change. And so how can we say, “Okay, we’ll buy all your millet and you can grow millet, and then what can we do with that millet?” Yeah, we’ve got a puffed granola bar right now that’s using puffed amaranth, sorghum, millet. Millet and sorghum — some of them are higher in protein than soybeans, but we still import soybeans here even though those products are available. So it’s trying to showcase the nutritional value and the value back to farmers, where if there’s a consistent market and a supply, they’ll start regrowing those crops that were a little bit forgotten.

Darius Teter: There’s an important perspective here that I want to highlight. If you think supply chain, your imagination may be limited to just that. Who is supplying my inputs at what price? If you think value chain, and your ability to influence that on the supply and the consumer side, it opens up a world of interesting possibilities to actually create value.

Delia Stirling: We’ve submitted a project for COP27 [United Nations climate change conference], which is based on a food process of being the catalyst for change. So a lot of the help with smallhold farmers will come from NGOs or from this very focused drive on what are the problems of the small-hold farmer, but without demand uptake, nothing happens. So right now the yield of maize in Kenya is as bad as it was in the eighties. So if you add up all the help and all the money that’s gone into maize on improving yields, we’re still at where we were in the eighties. So something has to change and we’re right in the middle. We influence 600 customers. Every time I talk to them about a new product because we have a good brand name, they’re like, “I would love that now. Where is it? I’ll take it.” Right?

So we do a lot of marketing and talking to the consumer to try and influence what they’re using as well as ingredients. And a lot of people just don’t think about that chain. When you are sitting at a restaurant, has that restaurant thought about where all those ingredients have come from and that impact of choosing? How do you choose rice over maize? How do you choose millet over maize? What’s that impact? So we went all over Kenya, identifying ingredients, indigenous ingredients, potential ingredients, ingredients we already use, and really trying to identify what those challenges were and which groups we could work with. And so that’s most of the work of what we’ve done.

Darius Teter: Given your experience, I’m curious: What advice would you give an entrepreneur who’s just starting their own business journey?

Delia Stirling: I think trust in your ideas, because sometimes you’ll self-doubt, that you think you’re a little crazy, but those gut instincts and those ideas, I think, are really important because if we start listening to too much outside noise or influence, you will give up on a lot of those ideas, and that’s where the real creativity comes from, I think. I think the hardest bit about entrepreneurship is talking to too many people where you start to self-doubt and you say, well, maybe we’re not big enough. Maybe we need 50,000 farmers. Why are we caring about the holistic health of 500 when we could be buying one ingredient from 5,000? So sometimes it’s, yeah, you have to trust what you think because otherwise it’s hard to go on with your projects. And it’s always good to get advice, but it’s also getting it and putting it in context of what you know in your background. So I think that’s the best advice I would say, is try and stick to what you believe in.

Darius Teter: I think Delia’s story is interesting on so many levels. She finds creativity through context from visiting a farm or working with interesting ingredients. She envisions an impactful role for her company, both through farmer assistance and consumer uptake of key crops. And she’s restructured her own role in a way that sustains her passions rather than draining her energy. I’m excited for what the next chapter brings, and I very much want to get my hands on one of these granola bars. So thank you, Delia Stirling, for sharing your story.

This has been Grit and Growth with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you like this episode, leave us a review on your podcast app. It really helps us to share the stories of these incredible entrepreneurs with as many people as possible. To learn how Stanford Graduate School of Business is partnering with entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia, head over to the Stanford Seed website at seed.stanford.edu/podcast. Grit and Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Erika Amoako-Agyei and VeAnne Virgin 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. Sarah Johnson was our production assistant for this episode. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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