Michael Kerr took a leap of faith when he started Blue Valley Foods in Knollis, Bog Walk, St Catherine, at the height of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At the time of registering the company in July 2020, Kerr hoped to begin operating a banana chips manufacturing plant some six months after. However, that did not materialise as he expected.
Undeterred by the delay, the managing director of Blue Valley Foods maintained his drive with two goals in mind — giving back to the St Catherine community and creating an authentic Jamaican brand that will have a presence on the shelves of shops and supermarkets in the United Kingdom.
"It's an idea that I had a long time. So I had been doing constant research as to what other business venture I could go into, given my background in technology," Kerr, a Jamaican-born information technology specialist and entrepreneur now based in England, shared with the Jamaica Observer.
"I was looking for ventures that could also benefit my local community, and not just the community but also the farmers," he continued.
The St Mary College alumnus recalled engaging in agriculture with his grandfather in his younger years on a family-owned farm in New Prospect, Bog Walk. During those years agriculture was a vibrant activity in the St Catherine community. But after migrating to the UK for work and returning to visit family in recent years, he witnessed the decline in farming activity and with it an increase in unemployed youth "loitering" about in the community.
While in England, Kerr said he found it difficult to find authentic Jamaican products on supermarket and shop shelves. Although a lot of the products he found were Jamaican-branded, he realised that they were only distributed by local companies but manufactured in the Philippines or Dominican Republic.
"Being from Jamaica, you always want a taste of home, you always want to be reconnected back with home, even though you're not [in Jamaica], you want to be as much as possible in the mix of things," he said, expressing his frustration.
Though he set about finding a solution to these problems, Kerr said that the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic provided him the "perfect opportunity" to ideate, since he would have more time at home.
"I realised that out of all the industries that were functioning [optimally] within COVID were technology and food. So it was the perfect opportunity to launch into manufacturing because anyone that was in manufacturing in the food industry still had jobs because people had to eat," the entrepreneur told Sunday Finance.
Though driven by his passion to give back to the farming community of Bog Walk and his loyalty to Brand Jamaica, much of Kerr's journey has been guided by research. He admits that the research may not be what many would expect, but as an entrepreneur, he also believes that taking risks now is better than starting later.
Another drawback for Kerr was that he had no experience in food manufacturing. However, when quizzed about this he said: "What I realised is that as an entrepreneur you don't need to be an expert in the area. What is required is the drive and you can source the expertise. Capital drives everything, so you can bring in the expertise you want."
Following the registration of the company in July 2020, Kerr and his contacts in Jamaica set about searching for factory space in the private sector and through the Factories Corporation of Jamaica. Though unfruitful for some time, Kerr would eventually find a parcel of land near his hometown in St Catherine, which he leased, and began building a 5,000 square foot manufacturing plant.
In-between his search for property, the businessman reached out to suppliers of manufacturing equipment in China and began discussing the design of the system.
"Basically, we went out and purchased a food processing plant for chips — an entire production line — from China without a space. I got a good discount because of COVID and then we built the factory to fit around the production line afterwards," Kerr disclosed.
Counting on supply chain disruptions to buy him time to acquire factory space, Kerr contacted the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association to become a registered member and gleaned from the organisation's wealth of knowledge in setting up a manufacturing plant.
Upon construction of the Blue Valley Foods factory and installation of the production line, Kerr again engaged in research to find recipes for manufacturing banana chips. At this point he was fortunate to receive help from an old school colleague who studied nutrition at The University of West Indies, Mona.
"…And the rest was up to Google," he stated.
Back in April when the Jamaica Observer joined a delegation of the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association Limited (JMEA) on a tour of the Blue Valley Foods factory, the company had completed a test production for banana chips. Within the almost two years that Kerr embarked on his journey, he had also tested production of cassava chips and potato chips.
Initially, he had plans to produce banana chips, cassava chips, dasheen chips, yam chips, and vegetable chips.
"These are the other varieties of chips I see in other countries, and these aren't available locally," Kerr explained.
"But we've got yams, we've got vegetables, but we don't do anything with them. We're not processing it into a finished product and this we can leverage to reduce spoilage and bring greater benefits to farmers," he pointed out.
However, the entrepreneur, who has begun splitting his time between England and Jamaica, has encountered challenges finding a consistent supply of raw materials. After the first test of 100 pounds of cassava proved successful, Blue Valley had to dump a second batch because the supplier brought a mixture of bitter and sweet cassavas.
With regards to bananas, Kerr has had to extend his search for the commodity outside of his community, going as far as St Mary. He added that he has also received assistance from the JMEA, Banana Board, and Rural Agricultural Development Authority in sourcing the good.
"We have to be scouring the country for bananas," Kerr revealed to Sunday Finance.
"We have to do a lot of searching. We started with the flagship banana chips product and we realised there isn't a constant supply or the supply is not enough from a single supplier," he added.
To address the issue, Kerr said he has had to pay farmers premium prices for bananas and ensure them of his return to purchase more. It is for this reason that he has plans, for now, to focus only on banana chips rather than create several product lines.
"So we want to get our primary product out, which is the banana chips, get a foothold in the market, and then we can gradually introduce other products," he said.
Blue Valley Foods has acquired three delivery vans in the past few months and has already begun delivery to over 600 supermarkets in Jamaica after securing sales through cold calling. In fact, Kerr said the company has managed to sell at a lower price point than its competitors — a strategy that he believes will help the Blue Valley brand to secure market presence.
Having invested heavily in the operation over the last two years, the entrepreneur said he was prepared to make losses in the early stages of the company. In fact, he pointed out that based on projections, Blue Valley Foods can begin breaking even by year end and can realise profitability within five years.
"We know the quantities we can produce starting with an eight-hour shift," he informed, adding that the semi-autonomous factory can manufacture 8,000 packets of chips per day and 190,000 packets in a month.
"For us, we did the numbers and brought the systems in... it is a numbers game for us," Kerr noted.