Why an American is starting a vegan snack company in Ethiopia

Written by Valerie Bowden

In 2013, I backpacked across the entire length of Africa by myself using only public transportation. It was a decision made for no particular reason other than a need for adventure and an unquenchable desire to see what the most talked about continent was truly like.

It was an awesome seven month journey in every way, yet despite being travel-minded, there was one thought that continually ran through my head.

There are so many business opportunities here.

Being so confident of that, I moved to Ethiopia after my trip where I have been living ever since.

Ironically while exploring many different business ideas, I stumbled upon a very unexpected journey. It all started when I noticed my women neighbors would lay injera, a fermented like pancake made out of teff grain, out in the sun to dry until it became crispy. While they used it for other baking purposes, I began eating it plain because to me it tasted like a chip.

vegantho2The more I ate it, the more I loved it. I think it’s because I had always been a big chips and dip fan. After becoming a plant-based vegan, however, I quit eating oil based on research from the China Study and many other health articles which meant that chips were no longer a viable snack option for me.

This dried injera, called Dirkosh, was not only oil-free, but also vegan and gluten-free. Realizing there was a niche for this, my Ethiopian partner and I experimented with several different recipes adding extra spices, reducing the fermentation, and altering the baking method until we came up with the perfect product ready for market.

Funding Challenges

Our biggest challenge so far has been funding. In order to do our first manufacturing run to the United States including our initial startup fees, we need $50,000 USD which at that point will let us become self-sustainable. Because of that amount we initially looked into agri-processing grants focused on African projects. Yet we quickly realized that grants were not an initial option because most of them required us to be in business for at least one year before applying. Others which will fund startups, however, are not taking new grants request until next year and are both highly competitive and have a long 6-9 month waiting period.

vegan3That is why we decided to turn to crowdfunding www.gofundme.com/dirkosh and our currently still raising funds in hopes that the vegans around the world will support us enough to get started (about $5,000) until we can apply for the grants. If we make more than that amount, we’ll be able to start exporting to the US and other countries around the world in 2016 versus 2017.

Why Manufacturing?

Since deciding to start Dirkosh, I’ve noticed that manufacturing in Africa is a cloud of confusion for the public. For example some have commented why we’re trying to raise such a large amount of money when, “It would be better to give that money to an orphanage or to build a school instead.” It’s a nice thought until realizing that many “orphans” in Africa aren’t really orphans but are given up because their parents don’t have enough income to feed them. And while building schools is noble, if the children do not have access to good-paying jobs upon graduation, they will migrate to a Western country leaving little impact on their own.

Others have asked “Why don’t you export the teff grain to the United States and make it there?” when they hear of our other challenges like finding good packaging locally and paying large fees to someone from abroad to certify our facility for international exports. While the idea has been tempting at times, I remember that unlike many Fair Trade products which do rely on this convenience, Dirkosh can create five times more jobs in Ethiopia by making it locally.

Adding jobs the economy might not sound that important, but after studying a lot of development research, I learned that there is no country in the world that developed out of poverty through charity. It was always through business particularly manufacturing. That’s why startups like Dirkosh are so important. And even though I believe business in and of itself is a great change-agent, I have a master’s degree in social work so we are still going to source our teff from women cooperatives. We are also going to partner with non-profits in the area who rescue individuals from horrible situations (women with fistulas, the disabled, the abused, etc.) to give them first priority to work at our company.

Africa’s Role Reversal

One of the reasons I find Dirkosh so exciting is because it’s symbolic of everything I hope for Africa’s future. A continent which has received foreign food assistance for decades is now in a unique position to turn its large agriculture potential into something not just for themselves but for the world. The United States and countries throughout Europe are facing an epidemic of obesity, cancer, and other diet-related diseases. How neat would it be if African countries now became their solution, ending years of dependency and forming the start of many mutually-beneficial and equal partnerships with the West? I hope if not for anything else, Dirkosh inspires people across Africa to take their local cultural healthy foods and innovate them into snacks that can be adored and eaten all over the world. To help fund Dirkosh, please go to www.gofundme.com/Dirkosh. Campaign ends November 18th, 2015.