Stacey Kakea, bird story agency
The rains may have started but residents of Umoja in Nairobi County are still able to enjoy a frozen treat from Azin Pops - and while they're at it, also support a group of small-scale businesswomen.
Azin Pops' owner Derrick Ochieng, a budding entrepreneur who puts a fresh spin on traditional Kenyan popsicles by blending them with modern-day flavouring formulations, is hoping that the treats he remembers from his childhood will continue to build demand and make him and his community of clients rich.
"When I was a kid, I used to see so many vendors come to our school and sell popsicles. We'd call them "Ice" back then. The most amazing aspect was how many kids would rush to them and buy. We'd fight merely to get the popsicles. I thought they made way too much money,” Ochieng said.
His idea to build his business into an offering that gives women an opportunity to start their own businesses came from his first foray into selling popsicles.
“My wife is my role model, being my biggest support system, she helped me budget my finances, and eventually she took over every financial decision while I ran the operation itself. I was the one working on the “ground.” When the savings eventually summed up to a good amount, I purchased a three-mold machine,” Ochieng shared.
To make his Azin Pops, Ochieng not only experiments with various flavours but also listens to feedback from his clients. The three-mould machine, sourced in Nairobi, cost 105,000 shillings (about US$697 at current rates) - a big investment but one which has paid for itself many times over.
The machine includes a tank that provides a steady flow of near-frozen fluid. After filling stainless steel moulds with the popsicle mixture, sticks are put inside the moulds and submerged in a tank that creates the popsicles.
To ensure optimum freshness for the trademark, his popsicles are delivered on the day they are ordered. Ochieng has also reduced the use of plastic by installing innovative storage freezers that can keep hundreds of popsicles frozen for up to eight hours.
“I use cooler boxes, which can hold a maximum of 500 ice popsicles, to deliver to the respective clients. This is our way of getting rid of plastic packaging and the need for freezers while also creating something sustainable and biodegradable,” Ochieng shared.
It took a while to get used to producing the popsicles with the machine - and early mistakes were costly.
"Our first week of production was a challenge, but our resilient nature did not allow us to give up. We had to give it another try. Every time I was ready to give up, my wife would push me to give it another chance,” Ochieng said.
A work day begins early for Ochieng in order to be ready for his resellers, who usually arrive by 9;30 a.m.
"In Umoja, we have quite a number of popsicle vendors. However, the early bird catches the worm," Ochieng remarked.
90% of his clients are women.
"The women that I work with, we all empower each other. We're attempting to construct this together — to be on the same page. Nobody is wiser than the other, and we can all work together to solve this problem since many brains are better than one."
Mary Achieng is one of the women who has worked with Ochieng since the inception of his business. She previously relied on other suppliers but his willingness to adapt to her needs won her over.
"I have been in the business for almost 30 years now, with my main supplier being Derrick. This business has seen me through a very dark stage in my life where I had nothing and a family to fend for. I have been able to educate my kids for all these years through this business. I hope I am able to progress and get a physical shop instead of having to walk around in order to make sales," Achieng shared.
Ochieng believes that through the small businesses they each run, his woman clients have learned to be independent financial operators - and managers.
"I am simply a huge dreamer, but my dream business is one where women assist each other, encourage each other, and are compensated equally," Ochieng said.
Maureen Awino is another one of Ochieng's clients who has managed to grow financially over the years. She doubted her ability to venture into the business industry, but with steady guidance, Awino found her way through.
"I did not think I would live to see the day when I would get a promising reward, but contrary to my thinking, I have actually managed to buy land and build my mom a house. I would rank that as one of my biggest accomplishments in life," Awino said.
Many of the approximately 30 women he works with have gone on to start their own businesses, while others have boosted their clientele through him.
The wholesale price of the popsicles is 3 shillings (about 2 US cents). In a good month, Ochieng earns up to 100,000 shillings (about US$664). His clients go on to sell popsicles at 10-15 shillings (between 6 and 10 US cents) with some employing their own distributors.
His income is directly related to the number of clients he has and the amount of popsicles they require.
'It's a seasonal business, and like all seasonal businesses, there are bound to be peak periods and fall periods too. One has to learn the pattern if maximum sales are to be realised,” he said
Dorcas Hera, a larger popsicle business owner who supplies major Kenyan supermarkets, believes that if young people start out with modest enterprises and expand them, they can become highly profitable over time.
"The nice thing about this business is that you can start small and still produce safe, consistent, and delicious treats, which will help with profitability in the long run,” Hera said.
She believes that the COVID-19 pandemic provided opportunities for many Kenyans. Despite the issues many suffered, Kenyans proceeded to start their own businesses, with selling popsicles being one of the most successful.
“Making popsicles with a machine that can produce more than 300 popsicles every 30 minutes is a profitable business. A successful popsicle business can make you thousands of shillings and some bring even more in a month." Hera stated.
Selling popsicles these days is not without its challenges, however. Increasingly strict health regulations and city by-laws mean more checks on vendors plying their trade.
"Over the last 3 years, the number of resident officials, police and municipality employees questioning people like me has only gone up. I have had a number of encounters with the police. The first time, I panicked. I was unaware that I could apply for a food license rather than paying fines to the cops," Ochieng shared.
Consistency and being ready to listen are what Ochieng credits for the milestones he has reached. But he wants a lot more for his popsicle concern.
"I aspire for my business to have a breakthrough and its name to gain popularity, just like the famous Lyons Maid,” he said.
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