Healthy lifestyles are taking the world by storm and Valerie Bowden, Co-founder of Dirkosh Crunch is seizing this opportunity with both hands. In the heart of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, Valerie with the help of co-founder Alula Kibrom developed dirkosh, a healthy oil and gluten free crisp made from teff grain, the first of its kind in Ethiopia and the world. We spoke to Valerie who is the Chief Cruncher at Dirkosh Crunch. She opens up about the journey of their venture, milestones and future aspirations.
We proudly manufacture entirely in Ethiopia by our competent female staff. This creates 6 times more impact in the community than exporting the raw materials only.
Dirkosh Crunch is an innovative venture in Ethiopia that produces a healthy snack known as dirkosh. This snack was inspired by a traditional Ethiopian food known as injera. While the original name dirkosh refers to injera that has been dried out in the sun, Valerie and her team took it, perfected the recipe, and came up with a crisp made from oil and gluten free teff grain. Dirkosh is packaged in four different flavours; garlic heaven, seed lovers, Afar salt, and spicy mitmita. Having raised awareness about their product through tastings during events and festivals, their customer composition narrows down to health-conscious individuals or vegans in general. Dirkosh Crunch is able to attract its customers to consume its product due to its unique offering of a favourite snack to many that doesn’t pose any threat to their health.
Valerie first visited Ethiopia 7 years ago to volunteer and she immediately fell in love with Ethiopian culture, food and people. After she graduated from her Masters in Social Work, she came back to Africa where she took a backpacking trip to several African countries. This trip was meant to assist her to have a better understanding of the African landscape. Valerie realised the great potential that Africa holds and she was convinced that development of more businesses could help fill most gaps around the continent. She finally settled in Ethiopia three years ago where she first worked with the Ethiopian Women Exporters Association which was inspired by her desire to see more women in business. Having turned vegan just before settling in Ethiopia, Valerie realised that she was missing her favourite snack of chips and salsa which she couldn’t find in Ethiopia. One day she found her neighbours drying injera to make dirkosh which was served as a breakfast dish. She began taking the dirkosh in plain form because it was healthy and crunchy. However, she didn’t like the taste of it. This prompted Valerie to work with her co-founders Alula Kibrom and Serekalm Sisay in developing a different recipe to make a tasty healthy crisp.
To fund their business, Valerie raised 3000 USD through a crowdfunding campaign in USA. They used these funds to develop the original product as well as purchase the necessary equipment. They are in the process of raising funding to help them export to London where in February 2018, they are set to launch their crisps at the Vegan Life Live Festival. Valerie insisted that when raising funds for the business entrepreneurs must focus on cashflow and making profits. “In the beginning I was too focussed on having a good product and developing the brand but later on realised that even though we had a good product, I didn’t focus on cash flow (outlets not paying on time, etc.) which caused a lot of issues.” Valerie stated.
Originally Valerie was sourcing for 150000 USD to help set up a facility, get the international certificates required and export more equipment. Since she couldn’t manage to raise this amount Valerie changed her approach and sourced her equipment from a distributor in Kenya. She is also in the process of moving her staff to work from a facility that she recently discovered in Ethiopia. This facility is fit with the required ISO certification, a transformer and a generator which serves as a back-up due to the power outages experienced in Ethiopia. These strategic changes helped reduce her original cost by a huge margin.
The biggest and most exciting experience in the building and growing of the business is a time when Valerie and her team first took their product to the first market at International Community School in Addis Ababa. They were very nervous because most vendors around them were selling chocolate and cupcakes which are a favourite to many. It was a moment of celebration when they became the first to sell out. What surprised them more was that contrary to their assumption that their customers would be mainly vegans, the feedback they received was that people bought their product because it had a nice taste. Valerie was also excited when this year, Cornell University contacted her with the aim of sending a team of students to intern at her company for two weeks under the Cornell University Smart programme in January 2018. The students are expected to also help conduct market research for Dirkosh Crunch in USA for the next semester after their internship.
Dirkosh Crunch strives to cause impact and support women in business. One of their team members, Tarikua is a young woman living with disability who had no possible form of income. Valerie and Alula Kibrom hired her and up to now, she has managed to raise enough money to get her own place and support her brother in school.
In the midst of these great achievements, Dirkosh Crunch faces two major challenges. On one hand, the healthy food industry isn’t popular in Ethiopia. It is therefore difficult to convince Ethiopians to adopt this healthy snack. On the other hand, even though the international market embraces their product, they must maintain a reasonable price despite competing against local companies with better machinery. Valerie and her team continue to raise awareness through events and festivals to make healthy food popular among Ethiopians.
In the next three years Valerie hopes to export to more countries across Africa and Europe beginning with Kenya, South Africa, Italy and London. She also aspires to develop more Ethiopian inspired recipes to cater for the ever-growing healthy living community around the world. Finally, she hopes that by manufacturing dirkosh solely in Ethiopia will change people’s view of the capabilities in the country.