The team for this two week mission consisted of Noël Haegens (consultant bakery), Jan Leemans (logistics manager and maintenance), Chris Heyde (maintenance) Lorrie Vandeginste (general management) and Lieve Vanrusselt (local produce transformation and product development-incontinence products). After a long break due to Covid-19, we could finally return to Kisantu with a long list of to-do's!
On our arrival we were happy and impressed to see the Solfa building and garden so well maintained, and the inside of the factory was super clean! It was immediately clear to us that our staff's hard work during the past two years had paid off: apart from nearly doubling the revenue, a lot of effort had been put in maintaining a high standard of work.
On our first work day we were introduced to several trainees who were following a traineeship as part of their college degree. Solfa has become an important provider of traineeship placements for local education in Kisantu. During their placement, these students gain work experience in the three sections of our factory; the bakery, milk factory and kitchen. To finish, they are asked to write a detailed report on what they learned during their 2 weeks and our manager, Nestor, encourages them to learn about Solfa's goal and history in french! This way they can spread the Solfa story and learn french on a topic outside the standard french school curriculum!
In the bakery, our consultant Noël put a lot of focus on upscaling the production of our well selling items. We now have a decent number of travelling saleswomen and this number is steadily increasing. In addition, regular larger orders are coming in, so there is a need of efficient work planning around all this. The other main focus went to the transformation of the wet soy paste which is a leftover from the soy milk making process. Before, this paste would be partially used after drying it in one of our drying units but there has always been a wish to use the wet soy paste straightaway without drying first. Hence, as a result, a number of bakery products (gâteaux and mini-gâteaux, energy bar, baguette aux noix, pain-pro) are now made replacing the soy milk or dried soy paste with this wet paste which will save us a substantial amount of money and energy! A few new products were introduced: piccolo (using wet soy paste also) and a tasty cinnamon biscuit; both were well received and are ready be added to our recipes in the future!
In the kitchen, activity was high with always a lot of attention on product quality and food hygiene. With this focus, trainees were put to work here for all sorts of tasks so they became actively involved in following our standardised recipes. We particularly looked at the sugar content of our boissons de santé (juices) for which we aim to have a sugar content below 10%. We calculated sugar content while adding sugar step by step and double checked the sugar content each time with a refractometer (digital brix meter) confirming our calculation. Using this method we re-fixed the added sugar for our mango and papaya juice. We also introduced two new test products to taste: carrot juice and carrot jam, which were well received but early calculations showed our margins would not be large enough on these products, so these recipes/products were put on hold. Freezers were reorganised and cleaned out ready to receive the fresh mango harvest hopefully arriving sometime in December! Lastly, we set up a digital printer to print batch number and expiry date on the lids of our jars and bottles; this means that products' expiry dates are now set automatically and each product will now have a unique batch number as a reference.
In the milk factory, our pasteurisation machine first needed a thorough cleaning and flushing (with soda crystals) to get rid of the metal taste in our soy milk. This cleaning process was successful. However, our soy milk appeared to coagulate and we did not manage to resolve this. Hence for the moment we continue to produce the soy milk with the old machine as we have done before and in the meantime we will investigate this coagulation problem further which we think might be linked to the higher sensitivity of soy milk to heat and the fast increase in temperature taking place in the pasteurisation unit. Update to follow!
In addition to the pasteurisation unit, there was lots more of maintenance and logistical organisation to do during this mission. Jan and Chris worked through the long list. The whole stock of equipment was checked and put in the right place, machines and appliances were moved to create more workspace, required repairs were done and redone, tools were re-organised, deliveries were unpacked and put into place, shelving was built to provide clean storage. An industrial dishwasher was commissioned to clean our glass bottles (milks and fruit juices) for reuse in the shortest of times. We were very committed to install the autoclave (sterilisation of our jars-jams and sauces) delivered about two years ago, but after several hours attempting and going back and forth to the manufacturer to make it work, we found out that the level sensor was broken and so the proper installation will have to wait for our next visit. The installation work on this mission was extensive and it made us aware that our machinery is fragile and dependent on careful maintenance and intervention which is not always possible to be carried out locally. We are trying to find alternative ways to deal with this ex. protection of our water supply pipes by putting filters to stop debris clogging the machines, putting in a water collection tank with a pump so there is enough water pressure to deal with pressure loss across these filters, training local engineers to look after our machines, giving them support with video calling etc.
In general, a lot of time was spent on the accuracy and working of our production management software now in use for just over two years. A few recipes needed to be corrected and modified, a few new recipes were added, cross-checking was done with the current stock of ingredients and new stock re-ordered. The stock of bottles was verified to check the yield of our bottle take-back scheme.
For the medical programme, focus was on our incontinence care products: a stock was made of our washable incontinence ware, we re-organised the incontinence consultation room and met our seamstress to discuss some modifications to our washable nappies. A new Solfa incontinence patient dossier was put together and it was agreed with Dr Ndundu (gynaecologist of Hôpital St Luc) that he would visit the aires de santé up to the region of Matadi about our incontinence care materials. This makes us hopeful that we will be able to reach many more incontinent patients and that a proper record and follow up on each patient will provide us with the necessary information on the usefulness of our products. We also think that this way we might be able to reach out to patients who might need surgery in one of the next fistula missions. We hope we can expand this activity even more in the near future after some much needed feedback first. Some more time was spent on making pictures and video clips on how to use our washable systems and on how to make our washing liquid based on wood ashes (lye); this will serve as visuals for Dr Ndundu on his visits.
Then lastly we were really happy to see how well our Kisantu football teams are doing, kids, teenagers and older; we have provided them with football boots and outfits over the last years. Especially the team of the Albinos (see picture) have done extremely well and reached the national finals last June. With the recent arrival of football accessories, they will now have good quality boots to train so we are full of expectation for the next season!
This was all by all a successful mission. Communication with staff had not always been straightforward for us over the two years of absence but observing their independent way of working, the initiatives they are taking and all this combined with the good results they have achieved has given us a lot of confidence for the future. We have been impressed and inspired by their effort, creativity and friendly and hard working spirit and are looking forward to meeting them again online on a regular basis!
Hope to see you again soon!