Prince Oppong was studying science at the University of Cape Coast when he had the idea.
“One day, after lectures, I saw a woman selling tiger nuts, so I asked myself why do we only sell the raw nuts and not process it into milk?”
Despite their name, tiger nuts are not nuts, but tuberous sedge grass rhizomes (cyperus esculentus lativum). They are widely cultivated the world over and are extremely high in fibre, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
In the west they are gaining recognition as a ‘super food’. In Ghana they’re known as ‘atadwe’, and despite being readily available, their potential as a crop had been under-utilized.
Prince enlisted a classmate, Sampare Owusu Banahene, and together the two friends challenged themselves to change the way Ghanains think about tiger nuts.
In 2018 the 24 year olds, excited by the potential of owning a business, decided to spend their school vacations on campus, so they could do more research. In addition to milk, they realized that the tiger nut chaff could be used for nutritious biscuits, so they started experimenting with it.
With their pocket money and help from families, Prince and Sampare rented a space on campus and turned it into a small laboratory. The Food and Drug Authority gave them approval, after inspection, to operate a cottage industry and their company, Tiger House Limited was born.
Production, according to Prince, quickly became overwhelming, as people out of campus in nearby towns became aware of the drinks and biscuits and started placing orders. They needed to build a bigger factory to meet demand.
That’s when one of their professors, David Kofi Essuman, Dean of Physical Science, stepped in.
“He said he bought our products. He invited us to his office and asked how he could help. We told him we needed a bigger working space, and he promised to help. Truly, he put up this big factory for us,” Prince says.
The factory was ready in 2019 but needed equipment. This was when the young partners saw the Youth Innovation for Sustainable Development (YISD) Challenge, supported by UNDP and the National Youth Authority. It proved invaluable.
“The grant was God-sent and made things possible. We were able to complete our production line by working with a local fabricator to make a grinder, washer, separation machine, holding tank, pasteurizer, and dough mixer for biscuits. We also increased our production capacity from 100 bottles of milk to 8,000 bottles per month, and the biscuits from 100 to 4,000 packs. Our customer base has also expanded, and we now supply to regular customers in Tarkwa, Kumasi, Accra and Cape Coast,” says Prince.
The business incubation aspect of the YISD Challenge was a good exposure. Prince met other like-minded young people, from whom he learnt a lot. “The connection makes you feel like you are not alone anytime you meet challenges.”
In any day on the production line you are likely to see Prince and his team grind tiger nuts in a mill and pass them through a strainer to separate the chaff from the juice. The juice moves into a holding tank for starch extraction, then to a pasteurizer to remove micro-organisms, and finally to bottling.
The whole process takes about an hour.
Tiger House has eight full time workers and five sales officers as casual workers. They also have 60 registered farmers who supply the nuts, in 80 kilogram bags, which can go for up to US$70, depending on the season.
About 60 farmers supply the factory and the success of the business has encouraged them to switch back to tiger nuts.
“We were into tiger nut farming, but selling was taking a lot of time and not profitable. Some of us stopped farming it and diverted to onions and tomatoes until Prince and Sampare started coming to buy,” said Kwaku Asempa.
The company is planning to expand to tiger flake cereal, yogurts and spray starch, which have all been prototyped. According to Prince, four kilograms of tiger nuts make 50 drinks and its chaff makes 100 biscuits. The two entrepreneurs are looking forward to adding more investors to address their remaining operational challenges such as cold vans to transport the milk drinks, and a fully automated line to extend the current two-months shelf-life of the drinks to a year.
The journey has shown Prince and Sampare, that no matter what obstacles lie ahead, they are able to rise to meet the occasion.
“There are a lot of challenges in Ghana and each challenge solved is a business,” Prince says.