#15 responsibility
Brendon Johnson

Baladini – Slow Food for Everyone

Food is one of the fundamentals human beings need to survive. So what about people who do not have access to enough food? What about those who don’t know what constitutes a healthy diet? These are the challenging questions Egyptian society faces every day. Obesity and under-nutrition are major problems in Egypt and numbers are on the rise from one year to the next, especially for women. The misallocation of available food supplies caused by socio-economic differences is only one of the factors driving this health crisis. Many poor households not only face food insecurity due to low income, high food prices and low agricultural production: They also lack awareness of healthy food. But who has the capacity to change this situation? In the past, the activities of private and public actors in the fields of nutrition, health and food safety could not mount an adequate response. This inspired the Nawaya social enterprise to found the Baladini Kitchen Incubator in 2014 to meet the needs of Egyptian women and their families. Brendon Johnson, one of the founders, talked to Digital Development Debates about the whole story behind Baladini.

Can you give me a brief overview of the business idea behind Baladini?

The Nawaya social enterprise was founded in 2011 after the Egyptian revolution with the mission of revitalizing Egypt’s agricultural heritage, bringing cleaner and healthier food products back to this country, and raising income and opportunities for farmers and women. One of the ideas that came out of Nawaya’s core agricultural programming was that farmers’ wives could transform raw products from their farms into food that could be stored longer, and would taste better and increase income through sales at local markets. But these women faced challenges regarding sanitation at home, and did not have access to the equipment and machinery required for food production. So the team came up with the idea of having a central kitchen space that allows farmers’ wives to add value to their products. After that, we started thinking about how this could become a more integrated concept that not only focused on increasing incomes, but also actually provided women with new opportunities, education and overall empowerment.

The women are initially introduced to the basic skills of artisanal food production. Then in phase two, they start learning the basics of running a restaurant or catering business.

That’s how the kitchen incubator started. The idea is essentially that women have access to a central space where they work as small-scale producers of different kinds of food they can then sell. And the incubator concept means that this space is also used for education. The women are initially introduced to the basic skills of artisanal food production. Then in phase two, they start learning the basics of running a restaurant or catering business. So the full concept has been transformed into a central space both for the production of goods that we help market to people in Cairo and for a variety of education and training programs, which help women set up their own artisanal food businesses. Because of my fiancé’s Italian background, we chose handmade pasta production as a way to introduce women to artisanal food. So backed by an Italian and an Egyptian, the idea of providing rural women with access to sustainably produced inputs and Italian pasta-making know-how, Baladini finally started.

And how is Baladini responding to the problems concerning food and nutritional awareness in Egypt?

Through our work on the Baladini project, we became aware of the challenges facing women and health in Egypt. First, many women in the rural areas are not allowed to work outside the home, do not have control over the family finances, and do not have enough money to ensure their children eat nutritious foods. Egypt has an extraordinary heritage of very healthy and nutritious foods, yet malnutrition and obesity are quite widespread. This is also due to the fact that knowledge of healthy food and how to produce that food is being lost in the cities in particular, but also in the countryside as well. All these challenges served as inspiration for the idea of this program to give women the opportunity to learn from one another about food and to gain food-based skills.

You know your food, you know your ingredients, and you know your season.

One of the core aspects of our program is therefore also the multicultural exchange among women about food across social, urban-rural, class-based, religious and ethnic divides with the basic idea that every woman has value to add no matter where she comes from. And through these women, we are spreading the concepts of the international Slow Food movement. The Slow Food movement is an answer to fast food and wants to preserve the regional kitchen with locally produced food made with locally sourced products. This means that we are trying to promote entrepreneurship based on the principles of good, clean, fair, and regional food. In general, we believe that food is healthier when it is produced by a small group of people. You know your food, you know your ingredients, and you know your season.

So you sell slow food. Could you please explain in a few words what is so special about this business model compared to other ones?

Our business model is special because we are trying to change society and we are trying to do it in a very positive way. So we are looking for more customers who are interested in buying something from us not just because it’s healthy, but also because we are doing the right thing. We have a unique plan to be socially responsible caterers. There are a few other caterers entering the market who are cross-cultural and healthy, but there aren’t any caterers who are a mixture of healthy, cross-cultural and socially responsible. I think that we can sell our story. Our story is actually a way for us to get more customers.

Many people say that founding a responsible business is more challenging than establishing a traditional business. What have your major challenges been?

We constantly confronted challenges as we were designing our products. Social entrepreneurs are at a severe disadvantage because they choose to work with inefficiencies in the market. They face problems that other companies don’t face. The multitude of challenges we encounter, like any entrepreneur in the rural areas of Egypt, range from electricity shortages while we are in the middle of production to the fact that the roads are terrible, transportation costs a lot more, and that there is a lot more food waste. But in contrast to traditional businesses in Egypt, we produce our food with people who have never done anything like this before. It takes a lot more education and training to get them to the point where they can generate the products independently. And because our model is a revolving one with cohorts that pass through, our training costs will always be higher. We are not training people who are going to work for us for twenty years. We want them to work independently because that’s our success criteria. My theory is that social businesses can’t compete in the market in the beginning because normal companies don’t have to do all these things. So social ventures need initial support to help them to get to the point where they can face these challenges while simultaneously competing in the market.

Have you been able to overcome these challenges? And if so, how did you do it?

We overcame a lot of challenges with the help of the Responsible and Inclusive Business Hub (RIBH), which supports the implementation of sustainable business models like ours. Essentially, the RIBH allowed us to realize our entire plan, because until we started receiving RIBH assistance, we were only able to do the educational stuff on a very basic level. We didn’t have any real room or capacity to set up a broader educational strategy. The RIBH helped us pilot an initial series of trainings by providing us with knowledge and access to a range of experts. Our idea was that the whole program should start with pasta while also teaching the basics of nutrition and hygiene. In the end, we had some training modules on how to produce your food more hygienically and on how to make the final food products more nutritious. The hub’s contribution allowed us to concentrate our personal funds and business revenues on buying a central space, equipment and supplies. We didn’t have a central kitchen before, and the project took place in our homes. The RIBH has really helped us jumpstart the program and advance it from a very basic level to the level where we can compete in the market.

So you were ultimately able to realise your business idea despite these challenges. What have the benefits been so far?

I think there are certain areas where we can be profitable enough so that we can cover our social costs. Our goal is to be able to make enough profit from selling our pasta and our catering services to cover the cost of training and everything that doesn’t generate revenue. We specifically chose those two business lines – pasta and catering – because they have excellent potential for high profitability.

We have stuck with it because it is our passion, and because we feel like we can really change something.

But in general, very few social entrepreneurs are really doing what they do for the money. Most of us want to help create a better society and to see change. Despite all these challenges, we have stuck with it for two key reasons. The first is because it is our passion, and because we feel like we can really change something. And the second is that we see the change created when women are working in the kitchen. You can see it, just a little every day. It is a tangible shift that is really noticeable.

Then you have the feeling that you have had a real impact on the women you employ. How would you describe it?

Yes, there is definitely an impact because we do not train as many people as possible in a short time. Instead we focus on a small group of people over a longer period of time. We have only worked with 20 women so far. If you look at our impact in numbers alone, a donor might say “ten people in one year… that’s nothing.” But we think that by putting all our energy into just ten women, we have given them the space and time to really develop. And one of the core ideas of our model is to give these women the skills to introduce other women to the program, and to train and educate more women in the future. So if you look at the core group, the women who went through pasta production, basic kitchen management, restaurant and catering production, and market sales, you see they have undergone an entire series of hands-on educational experiences in food production and business management.

Some of them are illiterate, most of them have very little schooling, but when we talk about customers and about business, they are able to analyze the topics we broach very easily and quickly.

This is not to say they didn’t come with some skills from the outset. Many have a wonderfully extensive knowledge of traditional recipes that you can’t find in the big city. They also have personal “catering” experience from preparing food for large family parties and weddings. But our program teaches them how to do it in a way that is more systematized, that is more of a business. Now they are very, very strong. You know, some of them are illiterate, most of them have very little schooling, but when we talk about customers and about business, they are able to analyze the topics we broach very easily and quickly. By going through these programs of training and multicultural exchange, they are not just learning skills. They also enrich the program with an incredible number of ideas. So there is a high level of potential there.

In the end the women sell these products to your customers via markets, individual sales or catering. How do your clients react to your products and your business model?

In the beginning, we focused exclusively on a small group in a niche market in Cairo. But it is growing and has gotten much bigger than it was several years ago. Even the farmers are now selling their products to markets that didn’t exist before, because there is an increasing number of high-income individuals who are interested in healthier and more sustainably produced food. So we have been able to tap into this market and we have made a name for ourselves there. The customers that eat our pasta love our pasta. There aren’t any competitors for this kind of pasta. And it’s the same with the catering actually, because we try to offer a cross-cultural menu. Everything we do is a little bit Egyptian and a little bit something else.

... you can find something that brings people together – food.

On the one hand, we have been able to bring our creative recipes to an audience of people who are interested in this kind of cross-cultural food. And on the other hand, we have been able to sell our traditional recipes to people who are interested in traditional and healthy food. Two things happened at once. First, everybody loved it, which showed that across all these different cultures and tastes, you can find something that brings people together – food. And the second really interesting result was that the local farmers really, really loved it. This showed us that we cannot only cross cultures with food; we can also start marketing our healthy and sustainably produced food to the lower-income base. Our goal now is to figure out a way that allows our women to sell their products to the local market to create a local sustainable economy in which they have more economic opportunities and in which the customers actually benefit from healthier and more sustainable living even though they are not high-income.

Interview: Kim Bauer/ Mareike Grytz

Photo: “Pasta with figs, radicchio and chick peas” by Keith McDuffee
2010 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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