Meet Zuhura Solutions: a Kenyan Startup at the Nexus of Energy and Food
Approximately 2.5 billion people eat street food every day, according to the FAO. Many consumers in developing countries rely on the convenience of street food for daily nutrition and job opportunities.
In Kenya, it is common for people to get three meals a day from street food vendors. Even though this sector employs and feeds so many people, it is still an informal sector – working conditions are tough, vendors do not make much money, and food safety and hygiene present ongoing issues.
Zuhura Solutions is here to change all of that! This year’s Kenyan TFF Challenge Finalist team got their name from the Swahili word “Zuhura,” which means Venus – the brightest planet in the Galaxy. And like their name evokes, they are lighting up all kinds of new opportunities for the street food sector, providing safe, accessible, delicious and nutritious food, served from a sustainable and attractive vehicle.
The brightest planet in the Galaxy
Zuhura’s solar-powered food vending trolley, called the Halisi Trolley, solves several problems for vendors and consumers. It eliminates the need to burn charcoal for heating and cooking, it allows food to be stored at a constant temperature, it gives shade to the vendors, and it provides lighting extending vendor’s operation hours and a phone charging station.
Benson Kibiti, Llyord Mwaniki, Nyangarisa Mose, Michael Mumo, and McKenzie Hanlon are the next-gen entrepreneurs behind Zuhura Solutions. They have diverse backgrounds, spanning engineering, energy, sustainability, finance, and water management – and together they shaped their initial idea, built prototypes in local makerspaces, and took on pilots – all leading to the Halisi Trolley being deployed in the market today.
Improving the lives of street food vendors
At the core of Zuhura’s Halisi Trolley is a human-centric approach that seeks to elevate marginalized groups at the bottom of the pyramid. Benson, Llyord and Nyangarisa went to university together and during their time there, they, like so many other students, often went to street food vendors for their meals. It was the cheapest way of getting food, and the reason so many depend on this industry. In 2018, the team did a study with some vendors, known locally as the ”Smokie Vendors”, and discovered many pain points. They wanted to come up with an innovative solution and realized that the key to success would be to work directly with the vendors in a collaborative way, following the key principles of design thinking: test, fail, learn, repeat.
With this in mind, they built a prototype of the Halisi Trolley and tested it with street food vendors. So far, twenty vendors have been given the trolley for a day, and the stories of their experiences are remarkable!
Dennis, an orphan who relies on his charcoal-dependent trolley for income, still calls the Zuhura team on a regular basis to see when he can have one Halisi Trolley for himself. The day he had the trolley, he made a much higher profit than usual and rejoiced in the fact that he could charge his phone with the trolley, and also make an additional profit by allowing others to charge their phones too.
Other street food vendors had similar stories, like one for Ephantus, a vendor operating in Nairobi’s Kangemi market, whose business shot up so much that he ran out of stock by midday and had to go back to his supplier to get more. Time after time, the trolley has been shown to help street vendors double their daily incomes! At the moment, it is a novelty so people come over because it looks great, but they also stay because they can charge their phones while consuming delicious (and nutritious) foods.
As few street food vendors would be able to pay for the trolley upfront, Zuhura Solutions plans to adopt financially inclusive business models like lease-to-operate and lease-to-own pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) where the vendor makes payments in daily, weekly or monthly increments through a mobile money account. Zuhura will also ensure the trolleys are insured, maintained and stored securely. The team is looking towards new types of business model opportunities, including integration of AI and data analytics, as well as advertising.
Creating a safer working environment
Benson has a background in energy but sees this as a topic inextricably linked with food. Traditionally, street food vendors use charcoal to heat their produce, which is costly, unsustainable, unsafe for the food, and unhealthy for the vendors. It is estimated that 2.8 billion people across the globe lack access to modern cooking energy services, suggesting a reliance on high-polluting solid fuels such as firewood, charcoal, and coal according to the World Bank’s State of Access to Modern Energy Cooking Services 2020 report. In fact, 22,000 Kenyans die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning, which is directly related to their use of charcoal. The cost of charcoal is also constantly rising, with prices having doubled in the last few years. Access is also an issue with the 100,000 street food vendors of Nairobi all relying on it. Taking charcoal out of the equation by adding solar panels and lithium-ion batteries guarantees clean, renewable, affordable energy. It also means the vendors no longer need to pay for charcoal – and the environment, vendors, and customers all benefit!
Making an informal sector visible
The street food sector is informal and yet it provides employment and income to about 38% of people across Africa, 90% of the vendors are women. The sector contributes about 38% to total GDP in Africa, according to FAO. A study of 11 African cities found that 70% of households regularly purchase their food from informal markets or street vendors. In Kenya, street vending falls within the informal sector which provides employment and income to about 83.6% of Kenya’s population, especially in urban areas. It’s a large chunk of the population that is currently overlooked by innovators and investors.
Part of Zuhura’s mission is to take this already popular sector and make it a serious business that is not just for those who cannot afford other types of food, but that provides a safe, clean source of food for everyone. This is the first step in uplifting the view of the street food vendor market. Zuhura believes stimulating productive uses of energy (PUE) through the adoption of the Halisi Trolley will be critical to catalyzing income-generating activities for vendors and for the sustainability of Africa’s urban food systems. If successful, they won’t just support street food vendors by giving them a safe workplace, they will also help them flourish by increasing the market size!
Zuhura Solutions is currently taking part in the TFF Academy, a three-month, personalized acceleration program that takes next-gen, agri-food-tech startups to the next level through hands-on mentorship and support in areas like pitching, storytelling, business model development, customer validation, and industry introductions. In addition, TFF will be working with them to increase their impact across the whole food system – for example, by providing healthier foods and nutrition information to customers who use the food trolley.
They are also taking part in the Food System Game Changers lab, a program run by EAT, IDEO, Thought For Food, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Forum For the Future in support of the UN Food Systems Summit.
So far, Zuhura has been enjoying their time with the unique, international community that TFF brings together:
“All too often we’re working in our team, in our country, with our specific issues at hand, so it’s refreshing to have a new audience to discuss matters with. Even now already, just 4 weeks in, we’re impressed by the mentorship and access to experts we are getting.” – Llyord Mwaniki
“One of the most exciting things so far has been the diversity of voices, people and the community. I joined the TFF Discord and instantly met people from 5 different countries, just in the first few minutes!” – Benson Kibiti
TFF is supporting Zuhura Solutions with their business model, with their pitching and their roadmap to raise funds locally, but also to reach their vision of changing the lives of street food vendors beyond Kenya.
If you want to find out more about Zuhura Solutions, partner with them, or meet the team, please reach out to email@example.com.
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