[Interview] Blayne Tesfaye, CEO, TruLuv Granola, Ethiopia
Blayne Tesfaye is an Ethiopian-American entrepreneur committed to creating affordable, nutritious and natural snacks for the Ethiopian and African food community. TruLuv Granola was founded in 2016 for this purpose and Blayne has been consistent in her mission to create a sustainable healthy diet through her snack bars, made locally by Ethiopian women.
TruLuv Granola was recently recognised globally by the United Nations as one of 50 winners of the Best Small Businesses providing Good Food for All.
Africa Business Communities talks to Blayne Tesfaye about her enterprise:
Could you introduce your company to us?
TruLuv Granola is a dynamic female-led agribusiness based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We make healthy foods made with ingredients we seek to sustainably sourced from local smallholder farmers, and that are crafted by Ethiopian women.
Were there particular circumstances in your community that led you to start your agri-food business?
The idea for TruLuv came out of daily long commutes to and from work every day. I was hungry, and I wanted to eat something convenient, but the only options available were chips, biscuits and kolo (a local snack of roasted barley).
I needed something to fuel me in a healthy way, and that was convenient to eat on the go, and that’s what drove me to get into the kitchen and explore how to make a convenient, all-natural snack food. I developed a product and that led to building a business, and throughout the past four years, our mission and vision has continued to evolve, as we see more and more potential for growth and impact.
Over the years, a confluence of two additional factors inspired me to grow TruLuv's vision and impact.
1. The first is that I noticed that more and more products like chips and biscuits or cookies were becoming available and at very low prices-- while more healthful food was not as affordable for the average Ethiopian.
2. I became a certified integrative nutrition coach—which gave me a lens through which to understand that the trends in urban Ethiopia are moving towards diets that are deficient in whole, nutrient dense foods. This education also supported my awareness of the importance of quality food in creating healthy, productive lives-- how a balanced diet rich in whole foods can create a brighter future for a country like Ethiopia.
Having said all of this, I know changing embedded dietary habits is challenging. We may not be able to change Ethiopians’ entire diet overnight (we love our injera too much!), but we can use our snacks as a lower risk, affordable way to introduce healthy eating and nutritional awareness into their lives.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic directly or indirectly impacted your business operations?
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were in the process of fundraising to begin addressing the target market of urban Ethiopian low income ($3-8/day) consumers, a new market for our business which until then had a niche target market of foreigners residing in and visiting Ethiopia. Of course, this fundraising was put on hold when the pandemic started, and on top of that TruLuv’s sales were almost non-existent for a long while.
Not only was our work on exporting, fundraising, improving our sourcing and providing affordable healthy snacks to the Ethiopians had all been paused for a good 6 months, our existing revenue streams were nearly nonexistent.
However, the TruLuv team used this challenging time to create a prototype of an affordable healthy snack product and tested it in the market with minimal investment into product development. We used our team of all-women granola makers to develop a product and brand completely in-house.
With this prototype, we managed to launch a food donation model in which donors would pay TruLuv to produce these new healthy and affordable snack bars to women and children in need. For this campaign, known as the “ShareFoodShareLuv” campaign, we produced and delivered over 8,000 healthy bars for this purpose.
For this campaign, we partnered with Tikuret Leseotch Ena Lehitsanat Maheber (TLLM), which is an indigenous, non-profit, non-religious organization that was established to improve the living conditions of vulnerable women and children. In developing this campaign, we searched for a partner organization that supports women as improving the livelihoods of women is a key element of TruLuv’s mission. We also were searching for a partner that would be happy to receive a majority of in-kind donations in the form of our healthy bars and a small portion of in-kind donations in the form of grains, diapers, and cleaning materials. Furthermore, in the face of the pandemic, TLLM’s need and importance has only grown as sources of employment and income shift and vulnerability increase, and funding has almost completely dropped off. In Addis Ababa alone, the organization supports 2,000 women and children.
We also applied for and received funding from the IKEA COVID-19 Emergency Facility (IEF), which supported us to keep our employees on, and gave us time to continue to work towards a place of more stability for the business.
Describe what it means for your agri-food enterprise to be selected by the UN as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses in the world?
We were incredibly honored to be selected by the UN as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses in the world, especially after such a challenging year as 2020 was for us. We are a small business with a big vision for the future, and it’s wonderful to have recognition and support for this vision. We believe that health and environmental protection are critical elements of a sustainable future for Ethiopia and these should be available to all Ethiopians, and all Africans—and it will take continued recognition and support to bring this vision to reality.
What is your vision for 2022 and beyond in delivering a more nourishing, sustainable, equitable and resilient food system?
For 2022, we intend to leverage our challenges and lessons learned, in addition to a renewed commitment to our vision, to drastically scale up production to help address the nutritional needs of all Ethiopians first, then all Africans, by launching additional health food products for lower income groups.
We have a strong leadership team and strategic partners with complementary skill sets that will take us from small startup to scaled up business.
We have secured initial financial and advisory support from the Innovations Against Poverty Challenge Fund Round 2 (funded by the Swedish International; Development Cooperation Agency, managed by SNV, and in collaboration with bop inc and Inclusive Business Sweden) in addition to our partners Business Minds BV. Our work under this project will lay the groundwork for future investments and loan opportunities as to allow us to move towards our ambitious vision of reaching 400,000 LIP Ethiopians with healthy snacks within five years, and partnering with 150 smallholders within that same period.
What further support does your business and others like you need to create good and sustainable food for all?
Our business, and businesses like ours, needs advisory support on the management, development and implementation of the growth strategy, along with financing. We also need support from our governments so that it is not so challenging to produce affordable, sustainable food products for people within our countries, but also strengthened regional trade mechanisms for products that can also support wellbeing in neighboring countries.
Last but not least, we require funding from funders both within and outside of Ethiopia.
What key advice would you give to others that would like to follow your example to become passionate, values-driven, innovative food entrepreneurs?
I’d say that being clear on your personal purpose will make it easier to have a positive impact. Early on, a mentor helped me drill down and articulate what I felt was my purpose in life. The wonderful thing about that is that you really get to the core of who you are and aspire to be: what gets you out of bed and excited about life. That purpose will ALWAYS apply, it will always be true, but as you grow in your career and life you’ll constantly find new ways for that purpose to come to life in your work and life.
Beyond this, if your personal purpose connects to some positive impact, and you align your work with your purpose, you’ll find that you’ll always have a compass, a True North to look to, and you’ll never compromise your values nor your impact.
Is there anything you’d like to add that you feel strongly about in providing Good Food For All?
I would say that in Africa, we have an opportunity to bypass a lot of the chronic health issues caused by changing lifestyle and diet. The earlier we make changes in accessibility to nutritious products and information around creating a healthy lifestyle, the better the chance that we build a brighter future for the continent.
For instance, the issue of over-nutrition presents a major challenge to Ethiopia’s bright and productive future, as obesity leads to increased chronic health issues, such as diabetes, heart problems, stroke and more, all of which can have such a big impact that it can reduce a country’s GDP by 3.3%.
I'd also share that promotion of plant-based diets is one of the best ways we can move away from the unsustainable production and consumption of animal-based foods. Doing so supports preserving valuable water resources and ecological diversity, and it will significantly lower the greenhouse gas emissions, that otherwise would arise from the production and consumption of animal-based foods.
This interview is part of a series covering the winners of the United Nations Best Small Business providing Good Food for All global competition.