How do you successfully launch a completely unknown product in the already over saturated global consumer market? UK based company Aduna has successfully done just that with the African super fruit ‘baobab’ by creating a market share for themselves in the extremely competitive health foods segment.
Through their successful and very inspiring campaign to ‘Make Baobab Famous’, Aduna has contributed immensely to the wild harvested fruit sector in Africa, also known as African superfruits. A sector that has the potential to positively impact the lives of the poorest of the poor across rural Africa while challenging the traditional model for agricultural development favoured by the big development banks and agencies. A sector that has the potential to increase market shares of African products on the European market, as superfruits grow abundantly across Sub-Saharan Africa, and as sales increase, so will demand, creating further opportunities for suppliers across the continent for high quality raw materials.
A couple of weeks ago I met up with Andrew Hunt, co-founder of Aduna, and a man on a mission to create opportunities for millions of households across rural Africa by creating a market space for baobab and other African superfoods produced or cultivated by small producers. I took the opportunity to talk about among other things the potential of Africa’s wild harvested fruits, disrupting the traditional developmental model for agriculture, and not least the challenges of bringing a new product to the market. I left our meeting more convinced than ever of the potential positive impact of the African ‘superfruits’ on rural communities in Africa.
What is your background?
After university I went into advertising, specialising in launching brands – big brands. While working in advertising I was learning a lot, but did not really feel that the products I was working with were interesting. So I began questioning what I was doing. I had a major crisis, which led to a nervous breakdown, and I was only 25.
Looking back it was the best thing that could have happened to me; a blessing in disguise. During a particularly dark period, a family friend, a farmer who worked in both the UK and South Africa, got in touch to ask if I would be interested in helping him out on a project in The Gambia. I wasn’t interested. I had a very negative perception of Africa based on the outdated cliché portrayal of the continent by Western press and charities – lots of scary images came to mind of war, poverty and famine. But family and friends got me to the plane, and then something extraordinary happened: after a few weeks I came back to life and what was supposed to have been a 3-week trip turned into 4 years. It was very inspiring. Normally when you go somewhere the brochure is better than then destination, but here it was the direct opposite.
I came to the realization that West Africa, and Africa in general, is badly misrepresented. Before going to Africa, I wasn’t interested in business, only advertising. Being in The Gambia made me really interested in connecting small producers to the market, and with time I became a bit of an expert in African horticulture.
In 2008 I came back to the UK to do an MBA at the University of Oxford Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.
Where did the idea for Aduna come from and how did you get started?
It was while living in Africa that the idea for Aduna developed, combining commercial interests with social impact in rural Africa. It was also while working in rural Africa that I began to see that the traditional model for development wasn’t working as projects always seemed to be missing the most important element – linkages to the market. I wanted to turn the model on its head by creating a for-profit social enterprise that would provide the missing link for wild harvested products.
What makes Aduna different from other high impact agricultural investments that have been attempted on the African continent?
The existing development model for agriculture has failed. Hundreds of millions go into time bound projects every year. Whether they last 3, 5 or 7 years, the model is always the same; a consultant comes along, World Bank or the like, and I was one of those, who trains huge numbers of women in whatever cash crop is the next big thing. They take the women away from their daily activities, pay them per diems and host lots of workshops. The catch is that no one ever seems to have thought about who the final buyer will be. So inevitably, you end up with vast amounts of crops that can’t be sold and no income is generated for the women.
Aduna has turned that model around by focusing on creating demand in the market first. Further to this, the products we focus on do not take the women away from their daily chores. Wild harvested fruits grow freely in the communities and do not need to be farmed. They only need to be collected, thereby substantially reducing the workload of the women.
Baobab trees grow in 32 countries in Africa. There is no such thing as a baobab plantation. They are entirely community or family-owned and wild-harvested. An estimated 10 million households across rural Africa can supply baobab from the existing crop which grows abundantly but currently goes majority to waste. National Geographic has estimated that if there were a global demand for baobab, this existing crop could be worth a billion dollars to rural Africa (Sep 2010, Vol. 218 Issue 3, p28). What’s more, rights for the use of the trees normally belong to the women as the trees have traditionally not been seen as having any value. Today the trees are underutilized. In Zimbabwe alone it is estimated that 20.000 tons of baobab go to waste every year.
How many people are currently impacted by Aduna?
With baobab alone, we are working with 700 women in 13 communities in Upper East Ghana where our supply chain is based. We estimate that there are potentially 8000 communities in Northern Ghana alone that we could work with at scale. What is really uplifting about these 13 communities is that they are in the poorest and driest region of Ghana, a region that has been heavily impacted by climate change and is now experiencing a shorter and more unpredictable rainy season.
When speaking directly to some of the women, you get a much better understanding of the impact that Aduna sourcing baobab from the community has had. One of them, a lady called Weniamo, has had a safety net of 12 USD per year for emergencies, if the household ran out of food or the like. This year from wild harvesting her baobab fruit and selling it to Aduna she has a safety net of USD 177. The impact is immediate, as it means that all the children in the family can be sent to school. Weniamo knows that she is now able to feed her family, make improvements to their house etc. What we don’t know yet, is whether stories like Weniamo’s are representational, but we are aiming to carry out an impact assessment to find out.
In addition we also work with a number of women, who process the baobab into a powder. All processing is done in Africa.
What is you biggest achievement so far?
The biggest achievement has been that before Aduna came along, 95% of people didn’t know what baobab was, and sales were zero. Today baobab is an established superfood, both in the UK and globally. There were others that tried before us, but we were the ones that succeeded in creating the market and increasing the sale rates.
We have heard from a number of other suppliers of baobab across Africa that since we launched our “Make Baobab Famous” campaign that they have also experienced an increase in demand. They may be our competitors, but they are also our friends, for at the end of the day, we have the same purpose of positively impacting rural Africa. so getting this kind of feedback, only adds to our achievement.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is very much connected to our biggest achievement. Creating demand in a very competitive market is very difficult and has taken a lot longer than we thought it would. Getting our voice heard, when competing with all these brands that are spending millions on promoting their products and succeeding in getting a new ingredient onto the market, has been extremely challenging, but we succeeded. We have conquered the health food segment, now we need to expand to conquer the whole food market. That is the next goal.
What has been your biggest inspiration?
Africa, my family – in particular my mum and dad, and the investors in Aduna without which I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Do something you are really passionate about, and not just to make money, because getting started is so hard, you need the passion to keep you going.
And do something that will solve a problem, and a problem that needs to be solved and has a positive net impact on our world.
If you could change one thing for entrepreneurs in Africa, what would it be?
Availability of finance and networks. Angel networks don’t really exist. To some scale in South Africa, a little in Kenya and maybe in Ghana, but not anywhere else.
Entrepreneurs need support, advice and financing, a lot of the time it is just something as simple as having someone to give them advice on their business plan.
What are your future aspirations for Aduna? Where do you want to be in 5-10 years?
At Aduna, we actually have a 35 year plan with a vision to become the world’s first multinational lifestyle company that promotes and celebrates the vibrancy of Africa. A company that has a wide scope, not just superfoods.
All photos courtesy of Aduna