Valerie Bowden from Dirkosh Crunch tells us what it's like to run a business in Ethiopia.....
When I started our crisp company in Ethiopia, I was so excited by the future and what it would bring. I wanted to create a snack that was as tasty as it was high in minerals. I found that in teff grain. Just one example of a native African plant that is off the charts in terms of nutrition.
More importantly, I wanted to help the community I fell in love with. I wanted to partner with farmers who too often aren’t treated or compensated fairly. Our mission as a company was to hire women, especially those at-risk because of a disability.
The Biggest Challenge
Then we started and hit the biggest, #1 challenge of every African snack company: infrastructure.
I grew up with a dad who built and managed factories in the United States. Never once did he come home and say, “Electricity went out again” or “Water didn’t come today.” Yet as a small, struggling, African start-up, we face the same issues as big international companies (marketing, branding, shelf space). Plus, we don’t have power to start our ovens.
Soon, we couldn’t fulfill orders. We struggled to pay our bills. And most of all, we couldn’t expand and help the farmers and women we were (and still are) committed to.
Power in Africa
The irony is that Ethiopia has an abundant supply of electricity. When we do get power, around 90% of it is bio-energy. Which means our production is green and environmentally friendly.
The problem is distribution. Only 27% of the population has access to the grid. And even though we are connected, the country’s cables are outdated and can’t actually handle the electricity efficiently. Which is why they break and we lose power for hours, days, even weeks at a time until it can be fixed.
How UK Consumers Can Help
The great advantage of African snack companies is that when we sell to countries like the UK, we bring foreign currency into our communities. It’s so crucial to countries like Ethiopia that it gives us more clout with the government.
When we can show that we’re helping farmers, hiring women, and selling our snacks to trendy Brits, the power company is more willing and financially able to update our network.
How Power Helps Our Neighborhood
The best part is that our power line is connected to our entire neighborhood. Which means that as we get more power, all the surrounding houses, schools, and medical clinics are lit up too. That means less women have to give birth in the darkness of night and more children are able to do their homework after dinner.
A Brighter Future
I can’t put a number on it and specifically prove how many sales are needed to improve our chances of getting better electricity. But I can tell you that the more people in London or Cambridge or wherever choose Ethiopian Teff Crisps or Kenyan Dried Mangoes or Cacao Nibs from Uganda as their afternoon snack, the more we, as African snack companies, can drive change.
When we started, I wanted our company to empower the community. Little did I know we’d also struggle to power it- literally. Since we’ve been out of the market for months directly due to electricity, I can tell you that we aren’t successful yet. But with customers like you, the ones that previously bought our snacks and the ones that are willing to support African endeavors likes ours, we are hopeful that the future is indeed bright.
Author: Valerie Bowden is the founder of a teff crisp startup in Ethiopia. Before that she spent 7 months backpacking Africa solo.