Nutridense: Alem’s journey to transform Ethiopian agriculture and nutrition
The journey of Nutridense began as Alem started her studies in chemistry. There were no courses to study food at the university and she thought that chemistry at the very least came something close. After graduating, and working with an international governmental organization, she got the opportunity to explore her first passion. “I was studying animal feed and at the same I was analysing milk, which was really my interest: food.” A scholarship to Germany furthered her journey into food and nutrition. “I got to see real food being produced. Produced for everyone. In factories.”
Returning to Ethiopia, she quickly realised she had little opportunity to open a food processing plant when another opportunity found her. “I opened the newspaper and began reading about malnutrition in Ethiopia. I thought ‘Malnutrition? Where?’ I’d never worked outside of Addis.” Alem decided she had to help and headed south. “It was green, it was nice. Like here.” And gestures, around her own obviously well-tended garden, studded with banana palms and passion fruit trees. “Malnutrition was killing a lot of children. This was because there were coffee plantations that were not doing well. The leaves had started to rot. So, the first affected were the children. Their fathers were not working, and they suffered.”
“As I looked around the camp, I kept thinking about how to feed them. I knew from Germany that oats were simple to grow, they were cheap and nutritious.” Oats may not be part of Ethiopian agriculture but Alem kept asking herself. “Where are these oats? You can grow them simply. You can feed your children with them.” Alem approached the IGO she worked with and said why not teach them to grow oats? It’s grass roots development, and they will be able to feed themselves and children. She was met with a firm ‘This is not our mandate. We only do emergency relief’. Alem, understandably, says “I was not happy with that reply.” Then waves it off, and with a sardonic smile, shrugs and simply adds. “Well, that’s another topic.”
Despite this experience, Alem extended her 6-month contract, and it would be 11 years before she thought ‘Enough is enough’ and resigned. Behind this was a desire to show that Ethiopians could do something for themselves and not simply be the recipients of food aid. A crisis in Yemen briefly interrupted her plans. Again, in Yemen, she faced the same problems. “I thought, okay I’ll back to Ethiopia and work on something more sustainable.”
Now she could start her company, Nutridense. An agro-processing business that would go on to be the first to produce oats for the low-income market. In a country that imports some $6 million in breakfast cereals each year, it certainly could not be said that there was no market. However, with her experience of famine, Alem was ardent that any product produced must be affordable and primarily involve smallholder farmers who would benefit from a guaranteed market, improved income and secure employment.
Indeed, oats have such a high nutritional value that, along with research showing them to be helpful in combating certain diseases, oat-based food products like breads, biscuits, probiotic drinks, breakfast cereals, flakes and infant food are fast gaining in popularity around the world.
Once back in Ethiopia, Alem began her research. “We didn’t have oats in Ethiopia, we had Emmer wheat. When I asked about growing oats, the answer was a simple, ‘no’.” Yet, oats grows well in the cool and moist climate of much of Ethiopia and Alem saw that much of the Ethiopian population, where 80% are farmers, would be able to grow it and feed their families and children.
Working with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, Alem met some Americans who had brought high quality seeds from Morocco. With these institutes behind her she was now able to begin to first multiply then distribute seeds, to farmers.
The farmers approved. Now came the difficult stage of trying to expand her new business, Alem approached banks for loans, but, as she explains. “There’s nothing. When you start a business in Ethiopia, you have to fight for yourself. There really is no help. Even if you apply for microfinance, you have to be part of a group of at least 10 or 15 people.” It was then that she heard of Innovations Against Poverty. She applied and was selected as a recipient of a grant. Initially, Alem had purchased solar powered equipment through a European company. Unfortunately, this fell through. And with the supplier filing for bankruptcy, so did any chance of a repayment of her outlay. This left her still producing 100 kilograms a week from her basement. With IAPs help she managed to see this climb to over 300 kilograms. “Still, it’s not complete. IAP know what happened and they are helping fill this gap.”
Although frustrated by the hurdles she has faced, Alem remains unexpectedly positive. And she certainly is resolute in her faith in the size of the market in Ethiopia and, she hopes, across the region. The difficulties she has faced may well have slowed the scaling of her business but the IAP support has at least allowed her to retain the staff she needs and to order new equipment from Germany. “If it weren’t for the grant, I would have stayed producing a 100 kilograms a week. The money just wouldn’t be there. Nothing would happen.”
On the potential benefits of challenge funds for other entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, Alem simply nods. A little resigned she explains. “Challenge in Ethiopia is normal, it’s just impossible. Whenever you see, especially youngsters, that want to start something and just need a small amount of money, it’s impossible. They are forgotten.“ Continuing she says that if the government can support large businesses, they really must consider smaller businesses.
She explains the impact Nutridense is having. “I would say two reasons, first at the farmers’ level. They are feeding their children and then the income generation for the farmers. Then there are those with no land. We bring the produce to the shops so they can access it. It has a holistic advantage for the country too. Everyone can afford it. It’s good for the national economy. Now we don’t need to import using foreign currency, which, again is very important, because it makes products very expensive. That would make it only for the elite. All in all, I really believe we are helping.”
One doesn’t need to rely simply on Alem’s enthusiasm for Nutridense’s impact. As of this year, the company was able to engage more than 400 smallholders as suppliers of oats and test the market for the product with the low-income customer base. Once the company acquires its new equipment, Nutridense’s reach may truly astonish.