While studying in the U.S as a member of the International Youth Cultural Exchange Programme in the 90s, Elizabeth Jebiwot took part in a monthly potluck dinner where participants from different countries brought and shared cultural food.
Jebiwot was fascinated by South American meals whose basic component was maize.
“It inspired me. I thought we could do more with our abundance of maize and make our meals more exciting,” she recalls. “It was something like a calling.”
“I was amazed to discover that ugali crust was a huge global delight. It was referred to as Nacho or tortilla chips/crisp by the Mexicans,” she adds.
From this realisation came Bdelo, an award-winning company she co-founded with her husband Daniel Bischof that produces healthy maize tortilla chips/crisps using Mexican food production techniques and recipes.
Currently stuck in Saudi Arabia due to the travel restrictions, Elizabeth shared with Hustle her experience building an internationally recognised brand.
What were you up to in Saudi Arabia when the travel bans were imposed?
I am a consultant here in Saudi Arabia. I continue to work to support the business and family. Like many, I am also adjusting to the new way of life working from home. I am worried though that I am not with my family and the uncertainties around the length of the lock-down.
How are you able to run a big business like Bdelo when you are working a full-time job?
My husband Daniel and I have had to split roles. One of us has continued to work to sustain the family as well as finance the business. Loans or debt financing was not an option due to the general slow growth of the industry. Daniel is fully dedicated to the day to day running of the business, while I support financially and strategically. We have allowed each other to take the lead in areas that each of us is best at and enjoys doing. No doubt there are areas of friction and conflict, but we have learned to communicate and respect each other’s opinion and perspective.
So what did starting a tortilla chips manufacturing company entail?
We initially visited a couple of factories in Texas USA to purchase the equipment and benchmark as this was an industry we had little experience in. We saw how the process works and the requirements. We then came back to Kenya and got into the journey of processing maize. Initially, we brought in some experts from Mexico to support the establishment. We initially focused on maize, which we grew on our own farm to test and develop the products. it took about nine months till we were able to get the right consistency for local maize. Over the years, we have developed new products, using different local raw materials. To date, we have 11 varieties and over 20 new ideas to be executed for respective markets. Our products can be obtained in major outlets in Kenyan cities. In two weeks, they will be available in Juba Sudan at JIT supermarkets and in Saudi Arabia in July through GGA health solutions.
Was it an easy task establishing a market in Kenya?
It was a nightmare establishing the market and distribution channels. Our products are high-end and costlier than conventional snacks and foods. It took us a while but we made it.
What are some of the wins Bdelo has had?
We have acquired two distributors, one for Eastern and Central Africa and one for the Middle East, starting with Saudi Arabia. We got the orders through our friends and network, who pitched for our great products, our services, and our philosophy and aspirations. It is all thanks to our friends and networks’ referrals and testimonies that those doors opened.Also our products won two African Foodex awards in 2019; the 2019 best snack of the year and best ingredients food innovation award.
What are some of the challenges you have had to deal with?
We lost substantial amount of money and market share with the fall of Nakumatt and Uchumi; made worse by weak or absence of legislation to protect suppliers. Secondly, our type of industry generally takes years to build up to where one can live from the revenue. We have also had to deal with unfair competition from imports. The government does not apply same requirements to imports plus retailers do favour imports in their listings and shelf positioning. Also, the licensing institutions could definitely work on being efficient and friendly.
Would you say employment taught you values that serve you in entrepreneurship?
Absolutely. Any professional and personal experience regardless of source is always valuable when pursuing one’s goal and aspirations. I have over 15 years working in seven different countries with global companies such as General Motors, AGCO, Barry Callebaut and now with Saudi Oil Corporation.
They say that learning never stops, especially in entrepreneurship. How do you brush up your skills?
I learn a lot about business through documentaries, reviews and commentaries and the people I meet and interact with daily.
These are my top favourites.
1. Generation startup. It demonstrates what it’s like to truly begin a startup from nothing.
2. She did that: A truly empowering documentary about women building legacies and making history.
3. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It catalogs the company’s beginnings as a relatively small enterprise to its growth to being one of the richest and most powerful corporations in the world and finally going bankrupt due to corrupt business practices.
4. Food, Inc.: It raises questions about what companies should do when their financial interests’ conflict with their customers’ well-being.
Elizabeth’s advice to would-be entrepreneurs.
1. Have a good business idea With a whole universe of business start-up ideas to choose from, it is not wise to only look at a business idea because of the money you think you will make. What is most important is that you do what you know and/or do what you love or a higher goal.
2. Check your attitude They say that defeat is not bitter unless you swallow it. If you start your business with the attitude that it’s probably going to fail, guess what – it will. The businesses that succeed are the ones that were founded on an attitude of success. Learn from your mistakes and have a can-do attitude to reach your dreams.
3. Have a good business plan A good B.P is a roadmap that highlights the best routes to profitability and warns you of potential hazards along the way. If you don’t have one, it’s highly likely that you’ll be lost – and out of business – in no time at all.
4. Network Information is vital for any venture. No one is a master of all knowledge. It is important to look for people in the same situation as yourself to learn their techniques and ways of success.
5. Hard work is key Do not over-rely on others to bring you success, they do not know your dream. This means Sacrifice.
6. Have integrity Trying to cheat your way to wealth is not sustainable. If you are known as an honest and honorable business person then those with whom you deal will be respect you.
7. Have grit Hang in there. Times will get rough. David and our girls Safiya and Tula embody this to me. They have been supportive of the brand since its inception. Any venture, no matter how great, has its moments of doubt and hesitation, particularly when people reject or despise your ideas. Because of this, it’s important to keep trying and not give up without giving it your best effort