Kaoruko Ieda hopes that grain puffing will help improve the livelihoods of Kenyans. (Noriki Nishioka)

MINAMI-CHITA, Aichi Prefecture--Kaoruko Ieda recalled the smiles of curious villagers in Kenya after they sampled a snack that was produced with a “bang” from machinery resembling a large gun.

The “puffing machine” pressurizes and then inflates grains, such as rice or wheat, giving the expanded result a crunchy texture.

Ieda, president of the Ieda Seika confectionery in Minami-Chita, Aichi Prefecture, which specializes in puffed grain products, hopes the puffing process will improve the livelihoods of farmers in Kenya by adding value to the grains they grow.

Ieda, 56, demonstrated the puffing process in the village of Kyanika, about 130 kilometers east of Nairobi. Rice grains, for example, grow about tenfold in volume in the process, and the Kenyans who sampled the snacks said they tasted good.

For about two and a half years, Ieda has been teaching Kenyans how to use the grain puffing machine and make “okoshi” Japanese millet-and-rice cakes.

Okoshi resembles Kenyan biscuits called “kashata” that are cooked by binding nuts with syrup and other ingredients, Ieda said.

Kenya has about 850 traditional food ingredients peculiar to the region, such as sorghum and pearl millet. But most of them are out of circulation because of the popularity of maize and other mainstream products, she said.

Regional food ingredients sell for only about 20 yen to 50 yen ($0.18 to $0.46) per kilogram. Once they are processed into snacks, however, they can fetch 45 to more than 100 times the initial prices.

Ieda’s activities in Kenya began when she met Yasuyuki Morimoto, a 52-year-old associate scientist with the Rome-based International Plant Genetic Resources Institute. She got to know him through the Japan Association for International Collaboration of Agriculture and Forestry (JAICAF).

Morimoto has lived in Kenya since he was a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer in 1995 and became committed to preserving Kenya’s regional food ingredients.

He thought that grain puffing, which can be applied to a broad variety of cereal products, could make good use of regional food materials. So he contacted JAICAF and asked for help from a puffed grain confectioner.

When Ieda was approached, she was happy to hear that her skills would be useful. She joined Morimoto in Kenya in August 2016.

Like-minded Kenyans have held more than 50 farming-related events across Kenya, where they have demonstrated the grain puffing process and explained the selection of seasoning ingredients and other know-how to around 20,000 people, Ieda said.

In October 2017, Ieda invited two Kenyans, including a farmer, to her company’s plant in Minami-Chita. She spent a week giving the two men lessons on grain puffing and other processes.

One of them, now back in Kenya, puffs about 50 kg of grain once a week into snacks, which he then sells.

Ieda quoted the man as saying that he is happy to be earning more and feels more confident about traditional crops in his local community.

Another advantage of grain puffing is that it can use crumbled grains, which have lost part of their commercial value.

It also allows the use of regional food materials for seasoning. For example, the sour fruits of the baobab tree, which is used in Kenya to make ropes and other products, are being turned into seasoning powder.

Baobab fruits are rich in vitamin C, Ieda said.

According to the Foreign Ministry and other sources, more than 60 percent of Kenya’s population of about 49 million live in rural areas. Agriculture accounts for 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

However, more than 30 percent of Kenyans live on less than $1.90 a day, the poverty line defined by the World Bank.

“It is essential (for Kenya) to add value to its farm crops by processing them into snacks and other products,” a Foreign Ministry official said, adding that 90 percent of the country’s farm products are being exported unprocessed.

Last December, Naomi Kaliih, wife of Minister Counselor Paul Kaliih of the Kenyan Embassy in Japan, visited Ieda Seika to receive training in grain puffing.

Although startled by the booming sounds, Naomi worked deftly and expressed hopes for a revitalization of regional agriculture in Kenya, embassy officials said.

Only around five puffing machines are operating in Kenya, but Ieda remains optimistic.

“I will be very happy if grain puffing will help the livelihoods of Kenyans,” she said. “I feel excited by the future and potential of grain puffing. The day may come when I will be importing puffed grain products with adaptations added in Kenya.”