Valerie Bowden, the author of ‘Backpacking Africa for Beginners’, has an inspiring story to tell. And it’s not about her book. By Des Langkilde.
It’s about a snack made from Teff and a business that she plans to use as a social upliftment initiative aimed at creating jobs for marginalised Ethiopians.
Before delving into Valerie’s story, though, we need to clarify what teff is. According to Wikipedia, Eragrostis tef is a species of lovegrass native to Eritrea and Ethiopia. The word “teff” is connected by folk etymology to the Ethio-Semitic root “łff”, which means “lost” (because of the small size of the grain). The US National Research Council characterised teff as having the “potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable land care.”1
In Ethiopia, teff is used to make injera whereby the seeds are fermented for 3-4 days before it is cooked as pancakes or sun-baked to create dirkosh – a crispy snack with a mildly sour or bitter taste.
And this is where Val’s story comes in.
“Although I was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana I’ve called Ethiopia home for the past two years. During my time here, I transitioned to a plant based, low fat, vegan lifestyle, which has changed my health dramatically. One thing I miss though is [kettle fried] chips. I think chips and dip are everybody’s favourite snack. But for me finding a chip that was low fat and didn’t have oil in it was impossible. That’s when I stumbled upon dirkosh as the perfect option. It’s so delicious and filling at the same time,” says Val.
She discovered from an article published in the Washington Post that ‘one serving of teff offers 7 grammes of protein, 4 grammes of dietary fibre, 25% of your daily recommended magnesium, 20% of your daily iron, and 10% of your calcium, vitamin B6, and zinc [requirements].’
Armed with this knowledge Val started to experiment with her own unique recipe that lessened the time of fermenting and created a more suitable flavour for foreign taste buds. After a few tweaks, she made it lighter and crispier resulting in the perfect snack.
So what’s in her recipe?
“I use just a few ingredients. In fact, maybe it’s better to begin by listing what’s not in Dirkosh. It’s oil, preservative, chemical, and gluten free. So Dirkosh is all natural, low-fat, vegan goodness. Besides teff, just a pinch of volcano salt is added. Even our flavoured Dirkosh chips only have a few added local spices. Nothing you can’t pronounce or find in a typical Ethiopian kitchen is in our snack,” says Val.
After meeting, falling in love, and marrying her then neighbour Alula Kibrom, the couple set about turning their newly created ‘Dirkosh Crunch’ product into a business with export potential.
“One of the reasons I wanted to take my new passion for plant-based foods into a business is because of the social impact we can have in Ethiopia. I actually have a master’s degree in social work and after living here I noticed that creating jobs in a conscious capitalism kind of way is one of the best ways to make a difference”, says Val.
“Now that I am aware of teff’s benefits, I think everyone in the world should have access to it. They might not like eating it the same way Ethiopians do, but they can enjoy it in different recipes. For example, a lot of people in the West like crunchy foods. That’s why we adapted dirkosh to make it into a crispy snack that more people would want to eat,” adds Alula.
Embracing their love for Ethiopia, Val and Alula plan to put a unique fact about Ethiopian culture onto the packaging of each new batch of Dirkosh Crunch.
“Why? Because stereotypes matter, and it’s time for this country’s image to be updated. More than that, though, we want to create sustainable jobs, which is what African countries, including Ethiopia, need to move out of poverty. Experts believe that Ethiopia has more agricultural potential than most countries in the world, yet they profit little. Why? Because even if a farmer produces a crop that can be sold to Western countries, it is sold in bulk and processed and packaged outside. This creates little impact on the community.
“Dirkosh is different. Everything, including the processing and packaging, will be made within our community using local skills. And to be honest, there are not a lot of great options for packaging currently available within the country. That amount gets even smaller when we focus on making it green friendly and up to international standards,” says the entrepreneurial couple.
Val and Alula’s Dirkosh Crunch concept has been accepted into the Growth Africa Accelerator Program, beating almost 100 start-ups in Ethiopia to become one of the twelve finalists chosen for Growth Africa‘s first Ethiopian Cohort. They are now receiving six months of business and marketing training, and the opportunity to become investment ready.
To get the business started for local production, a crowd funding site at Gofundme.com was set up and the couple used the first funding of $3000 to hire their first workers.
“When we first set off, we said we wanted to provide jobs for at-risk women. Then we hired Tarikua. Tarikua is funny, sassy, caring, and hard-working. But she never had a job because physically she’s put together differently than others. I wish I could have captured the look in her eyes when she was handed her first paycheck ever. For the first time in her life, she can provide for herself. But hiring Tarikua made us realise something important. She doesn’t want to be defined by her challenges. And she earns her job. So we decided that we no longer “give” jobs to those with disabilities. But we do give a fair chance to anyone who wants to work, an opportunity to try. And our hope is to keep our workforce 90% full of women or those who were previously overlooked for employment an opportunity to be a part of our Dirkosh Crunch family.
“Almost everybody has told us to move production of Dirkosh to Europe or the US or anywhere else but Ethiopia. But we believe that the future of Africa depends on being internationally competitive. No developing country has moved out of poverty by charity or donations. It’s become sustainable, prosperous, and healthy because of JOBS.
“If African farmers could grow crops that are produced and processed in their local countries, they would create food and prosperity for their people and the world! We’re talking about kids getting medicine, food, and going to school because their parents can provide!
“That’s what Dirkosh Crunch is all about. A sustainable future for Ethiopia that will inspire more agri-processing on the continent.
“But there is a gap. In order for us to register the company legally in Ethiopia, and get it ready for grants and investors, we need to invest $50,000 USD. Which we don’t have,” says Val.
In conclusion, if there are any angel investors or NGO heads reading this article who would like to fill this missing gap, Val is more than willing to sign contracts or provide financial statements showing that money is going where it is intended to go.
For more information visit www.eatdirkosh.com or to make a donation visit www.gofundme.com/dirkosh. Funds raised from the sale of her e-book ‘Backpacking Africa for Beginners’ will be ploughed back into the business.
1. National Research Council (1996-02-14). “Tef”. Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I: Grains. Lost Crops of Africa.