Employees package snacks at Psalms Foods in Nansana. The agro-processing industry is worth Shs10 billion. PHOTO/COURTESY   


Ngabirano’s tasteless snack sparks Sumz crisps

What you need to know:

  • Dennis Ngabirano, the chief executive officer of Psalms Foods Limited, left the classroom and built a booming snacks business.
  • The company makes 20 products such as plantain (gonja) crisps, flavoured potato crisps, corn crax (a maize snack), roasted and salted simsim among others.

After 12 years of teaching, Dennis Ngabirano, took his skills from the classroom and applied them to create a successful business.

The second-born in a family of nine knew that it was time to ditch the classroom for business when family obligations kicked in.
After school, the teacher and psychologist had many responsibilities such as family, teaching and lecturers which prompted his fellow teachers to help him formalise his marriage.

But after the wedding, there was a balance of Shs620,000 which was eventually spent on a honeymoon in Mombasa.ss snack
While visiting Fort Jesus, the idea sprung.

“We saw a gentleman with a makeshift charcoal stove preparing raw banana crisps,” he says.
These were made from raw matooke with a makeshift setup just like these chapatti vendors by the road side with a vegetable slicer, one litre of cooking oil, polythene bag and salt. He also had some hot pepper.

“We bought some to  taste. At Ksh30 (Shs975), we got a packet and boarded back to our hotel. But the taste was weird,” he says.
The street snack from a vendor in Mombasa, Kenya, where he had taken his wife for honeymoon inspired his entrepreneurial journey.
When he ate the fried banana crisps, he realised the idea could be tried in his home country on a large scale.
Ngabirano saw an opportunity that required very little start-up capital. A fried banana crisp snack, which he had sampled on his honeymoon, inspired the idea for a snacks business.

Dennis Ngabirano, the chief executive officer of Psalms Foods Limited.

Changing business plan
He was required to present a business plan as part of his coursework for a counselling degree.
“Why don’t I change the business plan and then adopt this new concept because it looks unique and affordable?” He told his wife Maureen.

They agreed to try it using a different raw material – the plantain (gonja) which is sweeter.
On arriving in  Kampala, he re-pitched his coursework and business plan.

“I did not have the money to buy the goats which required Shs9 million in cash. So, I inter charged the goats for crisps. Where there was goat- I put gonja, where there was water – I put cooking oil. Where there were these poles for fencing – I put firewood and charcoal,” he recalls.
He adds: “I rushed to Owino after school and bought gonja worth Shs5000, in the evening boarded to Nansana to make the first trial at night.”

They also used wedding gifts such as saucepans, baskets, spoons, forks as start up materials for production.
The samples were popular among their neighbours. finished them and at the end of the activity, there was nothing to prove as samples.
He adds: “The following day, I bought gonja for Shs7,000. I made some samples but kept two packets for the lecturer to taste. The other 10 packets were taken to the school canteen.”

Although they did not have a chance to test the samples, they sold out.
“The packets at the school cost Shs400. The lecturer also approved of the samples.”
The business took shape on a veranda in their rented apartment.
“After teaching, I would go to Owino to buy plantain (gonja), head for lecturers at the University, go home in Nansana,  and then go to the veranda of a low-cost rental to light the charcoal stove and prepare crisps for sale,” Ngabirano recalls.
As business grew, the charcoal stove was not enough.

“We had to borrow that of the neighbour to match up with the growing demand.”
Ngabirano who was been scared to make the leap from teacher to entrepreneur eventually overcome his fears.  A study leave turned the business around.  

“When I stepped into the business, within the first two months, I doubled the sales. I ventured into the snacks business full-time. In the next six months, I bought off the place where we were renting,” he explained.

Changing names
Crisps are a lip-smacking snack for most people. Sumz crisps are a product of Psalms Foods Limited with a range of products such as potato and banana crisps, processed nuts and seeds, cookies, and nut butters.
As the business grew, he registered the name. He agreed on Psalms Food Industries Ltd as a company name and the brand name as Sumz created from Psalms).

“In the first three months of changing, we lost up to 40 per cent sales. Customers were confused with many thinking and attributing it to a counterfeit whereas others rejected the product,” he says.
Introducing a brand name that was contrary to what the customers were accustomed to was the most stressful moment in growing this brand.

 “Within the first two years, no penny would be diverted. Everything was ploughed back. That is how I grew the capital from the Shs43,000 an equivalent of $11 to the current over Shs10 billion business within 12 years.”
What started as a single product is now viral in the market.  This has been possible due to the desire to preserve his market or raw materials which opened up an opportunity to add another product such as crisps and groundnuts whose demand increased.

Today, the company makes 20 products such as gonja crisps, flavoured potato crisps, corn crax (a maize snack), roasted and salted simsim (sesame seeds), crunchy bagia (made from maize flour, sugar, and salt), cookies and fried peas among other products.

Shortage of raw materials
Psalms Foods Ltd currently employs 237 workers daily. They are dealing with many cooperative societies that are supplying them with potatoes and with cooperative Unions that have over 60,000 members.

However, competition for raw materials has increased as high-quality potatoes are scarce.
“We also face an issue with competition for the supply of plantains,” notes Ngabirano.
He adds: “We do not receive enough supplies of groundnuts.”
In addition, they are looking for more gonja (banana plantain), quality potatoes and cashew nuts which are not there in Uganda.

“We are importing these raw materials. This is a great opportunity to become a supplier,” he hints.

As they expand to the East African Community, there are logistics challenges of exporting from Uganda. It is capital intensive, needs more trucks and larger storage facilities,” he notes.
There is also competition from large importers of snacks such as supermarkets.

Import substitution
“By the time we started production, imported snacks from Kenya were flooding the market. We have narrowed the gap on imported products especially in the snacks industry,” he adds.

 In 2018, Psalms Food Industries sealed off its first export deal with a distributor from Rwanda.
In addition, Sweet Brands Africa from Kenya, reached out to buy the sweet plantain crisps and has since taken Sumz products to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

“We want to capitalise on emerging export opportunities.  We are also expanding as far as East Africa and require more financing to tap into this market to build a new plant,” Ngabirano adds.

The finances, he notes, will help set up the largest crisps factory in East Africa sitting on 12,000 metres squared to widen the market across borders.