In April 2016, I moved out of my DC apartment, left my job, and got on a plane to Uganda. Motivated by a question, ready for a shift, and knowing that the fear of never trying was far greater than the fear of failure, I decided to finally act on a vision that had been festering since my studies in Uganda in 2012.
My research revealed a hedging of entrepreneurial potential - Ugandans are incredibly self-starting, often running several businesses at once, but many don't think in terms of long term growth and there is little concept of value-addition or differentiation. The reasons for this are many, but the result is clear: repetitive, small scale, short lived businesses, high unemployment, and a promising agricultural sector that remains untapped. I was astounded by the abundance of Ugandan agriculture - the sheer variety and unparalleled flavor of the native produce - from mangoes to jackfruit, plantains to bananas, tomatoes to avocados. While delicious in raw form, there was very little thought as to how hard-earned harvests could be used as ingredients or transformed into shelf-stable snacks. Government initiatives promoting industry in the agricultural sector were often out of touch with market needs, and didn't address the quality expectations in a growing international market.
To me, it was clear that there was a need for a connection to a market that would demand high-quality, value-added goods; utilizing the fresh produce going to waste, inspiring creativity, and creating employment opportunities throughout a production line in a way that ethically sourced and supported hard-working farmers.
One exception that I discovered: sweet plantain chips. I was addicted to the little sachets of chips sold at local shops, but they were undeniably low quality and unhealthy - fried in unspecified oils, poorly packaged, and many times stale or burnt. They remained a guilty pleasure throughout my travels there.
In the summer of 2015, I was talking with a friend who was returning to Uganda to build a community-owned fuel processing initiative that would encourage supply chain development and financial stability at the village level. Inspired, I found myself brainstorming again: tomatoes into tomato sauce, cassava into flour... and then I remembered those plantain chips. At first I dismissed the thought, it seemed silly. But those plantain chips stuck in my mind, festering, and in the winter of 2016 I finally decided that I had to pave a path to turn this vision into action.
APRIL - JUNE:
I returned to Uganda on a mission to find a point of entry. With limited knowledge of manufacturing and the food industry, I reached out to whatever contacts I had and boarded the plane, equipped only with the question: Can I import healthy and ethically sourced plantain chips? And if so, how?
My initial approach was to call the numbers listed on the labels of plantain chips and dried fruit in local shops. This proved to be fruitless - quality and consistency was so low, capacity was not there as many still produced out of their own kitchens, sourcing was questionable, and otherwise, my outreach went unmet.
I considered starting at the farmer-level. The challenges here were quickly made evident - locating organic farmers groups, training them in Fair for Life practices, and building trust and reliability alone would take years. From there I would still face the challenge of developing a product, and how would I process the plantains? Would I build my own factory? I simply didn't have the resources to make this work.
Giving up was undeniably appealing at this point, but I was incredibly lucky to cross paths with a woman that managed a local fruit-processing company that exported dried fruit. Their facility was FDA certified and they already worked in Fair Trade and certified Organic farming practices - they had their own team dedicated to extension services, locating and training farmers groups and organizing for the necessary audits. They were a small company and lacked the equipment I needed, but the standards were there, the quality was consistent, and our values aligned. With this foundation, I spent most of May and June traveling with them to find sweet plantain farmers, observing and participating in community farm meetings and organic evaluations, and working in their kitchen with their food scientist to develop my new product.
In June I headed home with a suitcase full of phase 1 plantain chips, an initial investment in the training of organic plantain farms, and a tentative path forward.
Back in the US, it was time to test these babies out. I spent most of July market testing and conducting market research. I designed branding surveys, marketability questionnaires, and sampled at events. There was clearly an interest, but the product wasn't perfect yet, and I wouldn't be confident until it was.
It was clear that "WhatsApp" messages to the food scientist could only do so much to help standardize and improve our plantain chip recipe. I planned for a whirlwind, one week trip (i.e. just 4.5 days on the ground) to focus on product development. This was a crazy plan. Things rarely go smoothly in Uganda and everything takes more time than it should (I have plenty of anecdotes on that, but that's for another time).But we made the most of those 4.5 days - together with their food scientist, I ran over 20 test batches of plantain chips in their tiny oven (that wouldn't hold a set temperature), invested in a new industrial oven for them, and came away with 2 suitcases full of new-and-improved plantain chips.
With improved product in hand, I was eager to put them out into the world. One small problem - I didn't have a brand name. Choosing the name Amazi was the most arduous process. Who knew that people could have such negative reactions and associations to Lugandan words? Amazi eventually emerged, and I spent September launching our website, building our branding, and started navigating the ropes of business start up operations.
Interest was starting to build, we were ready for our first import! Most of October was spent understanding the world of import/export. With the endless jargon, multiple forms and codes, and significant expenses, I found this to be one of the most stressful and foreign aspects of the entire process. It suffices to say that I was pleasantly surprised when the 200kg of plantain chips smoothly cleared customs and arrived at my door.
Bulk plantain chips sitting in your basement only does so much good. My good friend - Allison - and I had been working on label design for months and finally pulled the trigger. I ordered our labels, kraft paper packaging, and began packing product as soon as they arrived. Our online store launched a few days before Thanksgiving.
December was a month of putting Amazi out there and creating a vision for the future. I organized tastings and pop-up shops, ran promotions online, pitched our product to retailers, and started building a social media presence. Some things worked, some things didn't.
And what is a year without learning? Here are the biggest lessons I've learned:
- The highs are high and the lows are low. I often feel unsure, overwhelmed, lonely; I've had moments of empowerment, hope, and inspiration.
- Roll with the punches. Dwelling gets you nowhere and there's always a solution.
- It's never going to be perfect, and putting yourself out there is scary. I wasted a lot of time waiting for perfect, and probably would yet to have launched if I was still hung up on perfect.
- Maintaining curiosity will keep things light and staying humble will build connections.
- Don't compare yourself and be gentle.
Overall, after only a month and a half of sales, we've already had an impact. We purchase up to 500kg of plantains per week from a group of 31 farmers in Western Uganda (90% of which are women), and plan to add an additional 20 to our farmers network in the next few months. Our purchases have raised 631,750 UGX for our Community Development Premium Fund, and have led to the hiring of 6 new staff members at our supplying company. This may not be much, but Amazi is only in its infancy.
I am so excited to see what kind of progress we are able to make with your support in 2017. Here's to a prosperous New Year filled with more lessons, growth, and lots of plantain chips!