Nutridense: Cultivating change in Ethiopian agriculture and nutrition
Through her inspiring venture, Alem brings hope, empowerment, and a nutritional revolution through the introduction of oat cultivation for the low-income market in Ethiopia.
The journey of Nutridense began as Alem started her university studies. Despite her desire to pursue a degree in food sciences, her university offered no such course, and she ended up studying Chemistry. After graduating, she worked with an international governmental organization where she finally got the opportunity to explore her first passion. ’I was studying animal feed and at the same time analysing milk samples, 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, for everyone, in factories.’
After returning to Ethiopia, she quickly realised she had little opportunity to open her own food processing plant, when another opportunity found her. ’I opened the newspaper and began reading about malnutrition in Ethiopia.’ She immediately knew this was her calling, and decided she had to help. ’Malnutrition was killing a lot of children. This was because coffee plantations 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 had learned in Germany that oats were easy to grow, were cheap, and nutritious.’ Oats may not be part of Ethiopian agriculture, but Alem knew they were the solution. She approached the IGO she worked with and suggested that they train farmers in growing oats. It’s grassroots development, and they will be able to feed themselves and their children. However, she was met with a firm rejection as they only worked on emergency relief. Alem, understandably, says ‘I was not happy with that reply.’
Despite this experience, Alem extended her 6-month contract, and moved for work to Yemen, putting a pause on her plans. It would be 11 years before she thought ‘enough is enough’, resigned, and moved back to Ethiopia. Behind this was a desire to show that Ethiopians could be changemakers themselves, and not simply be the recipients of food aid.
She was ready to 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 around $6 million in breakfast cereals each year, there was certainly a huge market. However, Alem insisted that any product produced must be affordable and should primarily involve smallholder farmers, who would benefit from the employment opportunity, a guaranteed market, and improved income.
Indeed, oat-based food products like bread, biscuits, probiotic drinks, cereals, and infant food have quickly gained great popularity around the world. Research has shown them to be helpful in combating diseases, along with their high nutritional value.
Once back in Ethiopia, Alem began her research. ’We didn’t have oats in Ethiopia, we had Emmer wheat.’ Yet, oats grow well in the cool and moist climate of much of Ethiopia, and Alem saw that most 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 was introduced to high-quality seeds from Morocco, and had the support needed to begin with her project, first multiplying and then distributing seeds to farmers.
After gaining the farmers’ approval, now came the difficult challenge 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 the Innovations Against Poverty (IAP) project. She applied to, and successfully received, a grant to pursue her dream. Initially, Alem had purchased solar-powered equipment through a European company. Unfortunately, this fell through, with the supplier filing for bankruptcy, and she lost any chance of a repayment of her outlay. This left her still producing 100 kilograms a week from her own basement. With IAP’s help, she managed to see this climb to over 300 kilograms. ’Still, it’s not complete. IAP knows what happened, and they are helping fill this gap.’
Although frustrated by the hurdles she has faced, Alem remained unexpectedly positive, certainly holding faith in the potential 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 100 kilograms a week. The money just wouldn’t be there. Nothing would have happened.’
On the potential benefits of challenge funds for other entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, Alem explains; ‘Challenge in Ethiopia is normal. Whenever you see entrepreneurs, especially youth, who want to start something and just need a small amount of money, it’s impossible. They are forgotten.’ She adds that if the government is able to support large businesses, they really must consider helping smaller businesses.
On the great impact of Nutridense, Alem elaborates: ’I would say two reasons are at the heart of this impact. First, at the farmers’ level. They are feeding their children and generating income. 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 products were very expensive, making them only for the elite. All in all, I really believe we are helping.’
As of this year, Nutridense 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 with the support of IAP, Nutridense’s reach may truly astonish.