Aduna is a health and beauty brand that uses superfoods like baobab and moringa to create superfood powders and energy bars for detoxification and revitalization. Co-founders Andrew Hunt and Nick Salter started Aduna to create a social enterprise uplifting women in rural sub-Saharan Africa while creating a global market for exceptional and under-utilised natural products — starting with the nutrient-dense baobab fruit. Aduna recently emerged a runner-up in the Virgin Media’s Pitch to Rich competition where they competed with other entrepreneurial heavyweights for the chance to present their idea and philosophy of the brand to Sir Richard Branson. Ayiba‘s Akinyi Ochieng and Joy Mwaniki spoke to Andrew Hunt to find out more about Aduna, the economic opportunity of baobab, and why we should all #makebaobabfamous.
Well, congratulations! You’ve just come off of an impressive campaign for Pitch to Rich where Aduna was one of the finalists? How do you feel? Can you tell me a little bit about how you decided to enter the competition?
That was great. It was opportunistic, really. We heard about it and thought we could actually win this, because Aduna is a social business and our mission is to actually create demand for underutilized natural products from small producers in Africa, starting with baobab. So we’ve got this campaign to make baobab famous, but we haven’t really launched it yet and we thought that was the ideal vehicle to effectively start the campaign. It’s amazing because we got 13,000 votes. We finished top of the leaderboard and almost 24,000 shares. What we found is that people really proactively supported our mission and campaign and people were sharing it all over Africa and the world, because they want to make a difference, not because of aid or sympathy. It’s just a positive initiative with people supporting it. It was really great; at one point it felt like we were channeling the love of people from all around the world, from communities who share our values, because we are keyed in to a lot of different communities. We are keyed in to inspired communities, and we are also keyed in to the raw foodies, yogis, health bloggers, and all those different communities rallied behind us. So it was very emotional, actually. In the end, we didn’t win outright but we won a 100,000 pound marketing campaign from Virgin and we got to present our idea directly to Sir Richard Branson, David Gandy, Jo Malone MBE, and others, and that’s what we set out to achieve. I was personally a little bit disappointed that Sir Richard didn’t make us the winner because we really believed that we were going to win, and it was just a bit disappointing that he saw more value in making more parking more convenient than potentially transforming millions of peoples’ lives, but we’ve got no complaints, we are really happy about it.
What was your strategy for the competition?
Well, with that competition, people were using very different strategies from one another. For us, our overall strategy was enrollment, which is, people wanted to vote and share the vote because they wanted to, rather than, for example, because they want to win an iPad or something. So because our concept required a lot of explanation, and because most people have never heard of baobab, we had to explain what baobab is, why it’s good for you, and the possibilities for rural Africa. So, for example, we couldn’t do that on Twitter because you have a limited number of characters. Email was the most powerful medium for sharing the votes. Apart from that, Whatsapp, because it was shared by friends and family. So how do you make it convenient for people to read quite a long paragraph of information and be able to vote instantly? Facebook and Instagram. Instagram because it is our primary social media. We work already with a lot of health bloggers from all around the world, and generally people who are into health foods; whether they are bloggers or entrepreneurs, they are people with really strong values because they believe in living a healthy, holistic lifestyle. So we got amazing support from our bloggers who were sharing the vote and regramming our posts. Some of them have 50,000 to 100,000 followers. We also have an investor and co-collaborator, Nana Kofi Acquah, who is on Instagram as @africashowboy and is a celebrated photojournalist, and he was contributing quite a lot as well (he’s done our photography in Ghana). So it was a community effort and that’s what we are most proud of aside from the prize money. The real prize was the engagement and collaboration of all our communities.
Can you describe everyday life for some of the farmers that you interacted with?
With baobab, we mainly work with women who are farmers during the rainy season and grow other crops like rice and vegetables. During the dry season, life is a big challenge—they call it the “hungry season.” It’s four or five months with no rain in the drought-stricken scrubland. To look after your family when you are a subsistence household with no regular income is very difficult. A lot of women would have to collect firewood for a very marginal living. Some women would have to leave their families for long periods to seek work in urban areas to generate some income. Baobab harvesting makes a big impact. One case study of a woman our partners interviewed said that her entire household income for last year was the equivalent of six pounds and she was making that last over a four or five-month period. This year with the baobab harvesting, her family sold the fruits from the two trees that they have and got 160 pounds. So, if you’re the kind of household that can make six pounds stretch over a few months, then 160 pounds is quite revolutionary. When you look at it at a grander level, it makes a real impact and that can be extrapolated across savannahs in thirty-two different countries in Africa. That’s the potential across the whole continent; to make that kind of impact and put a reliable sustainable source of income into the hands of women who are going to spend it looking after their families.
How did you first come across baobab and moringa?
Well, when I was living in Gambia, I was looked after by a lady called Fanta, my Senegalese mum basically. She used to make baobab juice for me and leave it in my fridge. When I used to go to the gym, I would mix baobab into my protein shakes because it’s one of those things that you can just taste and know that it’s good for you. I didn’t really know much about the health benefits but I knew that it had some. It was years later, after I did my MBA at Oxford, I did a consulting project for the World Bank looking at how to commercialize the wasted mango crop in West Africa. I was thinking: how can we add value to this mango pulp which is not very high quality, so that you can sell it to big smoothie companies or anything like that? I started thinking, what if we added baobab to it and started making it into our own branded smoothie.
I went to Senegal to meet with the Baobab Fruit Company and they told me all about the properties that I never knew about baobab. I ended up working with them for six months and got re-inspired with the potential of baobab. I met my business partner, Nick, through a common interest in baobab. [Laughs.] Five years ago, you didn’t meet many people who are interested in baobab, or who have even heard of it. He got in touch with me because he was researching baobab and he got my name from the Baobab Fruit Company. He came across it when he was travelling in Senegal on a business trip. He was served baobab juice in a hotel and thought to himself, “This is really delicious” and started looking into it. So we came together and started from the point of the potential of this fruit to be worth a billion dollars to rural Africa and it’s got all these amazing properties. So, how do we get from where we are today, which is, nobody’s ever heard of it, to being a billion dollar industry for Africa? We are only three or four years into that plan which is probably going to take another ten years or maybe longer, so we are on the right track.
Why do you think Africa’s rich botanical species so rarely find their way to health and beauty retailers?
I think it’s a lack of investment in research, development, and marketing. If you think about it, here in the UK, anywhere in Europe, or in the more developed world, they can’t find any new species that they haven’t already learned about and haven’t dissected a million times. In Africa, there is a lot of indigenous knowledge on how it would historically be used medicinally and maybe there is a couple of academic papers that have been written, but after that there is nothing so there is a lack of investment in understanding the benefits and the properties.
But I think the greatest missing link is the connection to the markets. Most of the products are grown by smallholder farmers. If you look at the producers that we work with, who are ninety-five to ninety-eight percent illiterate, they don’t know much about the world that we live in and the market we’re in. In order to create a value chain, you need the market; a big piece that is missing from so many NGO and aid projects where they get thousands of women to grow something is that they don’t have the market. At the end of the day, they’ve done the work to say that this is a promising project, this is how you produce it, and they get all the technical consultants and agronomists over into air-conditioned offices, but they don’t have the market. When the project expires, those women end up having to uproot those crops and go back to their subsistence activities while waiting for the next project to come along.
The big missing thing is the market and in order to have the market, you need to understand it. Therefore, that is opportunity for Africans in the Diaspora who understand both sides: how it works in rural Africa and international markets. They can help in capacity building to improve the quality of the product, the processing, the health and hygiene standards, organic certifications, HOCCP, and all that kind of stuff to get their product to a point where it is acceptable to an international market. Then they need to spearhead into the market. There are all sorts of examples, like Divine Chocolate, which has an interesting model. Generally and historically, what we see is more of an extractive commodity type of model, like the cocoa, where you’ve got a big multi-national company, often with colonial roots, that is sitting in the market and then the producers themselves have very little part in that value chain other than just the raw material. What is needed is a different value chain where communities themselves are part of the added value and have access to the international market. That is what we’re trying to create.
Why should we #makebaobab famous? What’s so special about it?
[Laughs.] Baobab is the most special thing about the #makebaobab hashtag. I come from an advertising background and I’ve worked with so many talented people in advertising and marketing—planners, creatives, account people, strategists—and so many of them are left with a sense of emptiness in terms of what they’re actually promoting. Genius strategies and creative executions of things that don’t really mean much to them. What occurred to me was that we have the potential to quite feasibly create a billion dollar industry for rural Africa. When I say a billion dollars for rural Africa, I don’t mean a billion dollars turnover and then small parts of that filtered down. I mean it could actually be worth a billion dollars to the producers—the crop is that big. We can create that through marketing, we don’t need any aid because it’s economics. If you create the demand, then the supply will create itself, and baobab producers are going to spring up all over Africa in response to the demand. By making baobab famous, we can create a market. We could direct that amazing creative resource that we see in the advertising industry into making baobab famous, on a much smaller budget, it would cost a few million to achieve that compared to hundreds or thousands of millions that would be wasted on production-based development projects that don’t have a market. I actually believe that through marketing, we can create a more successful, more sustainable intervention in rural Africa than we can through many of the incumbent methods, and baobab is just the first example. If we can make baobab famous, then we can make other things famous, too.
You mentioned that Aduna also sells moringa. Can you tell us a little bit about its properties?
Baobab is known as the “Tree of Life” and moringa is known as the “Miracle Tree.” From a marketing perspective, that’s gold dust because we didn’t make that up. The reason it’s called the Miracle Tree is because every part of the tree can be used for a different medicinal purpose. For example, the roots can be used to cure gout, the seeds can be used to purify water, and those things may become interesting to us in the future, but right now, we’re focused on the leaf. When the moringa leaf is dried, the nutrient density multiplies by ten and it becomes quite possibly the single most nutrient dense food in the entire world. In fact, I heard a radio documentary on BBC World Food Programme by Angela Robson about two orphanages in Cameroon, one that had started fortifying the food with moringa and one that hadn’t. The one that had started had seen the incidence of other illnesses completely drop off because it’s used to combat malnutrition in infants and breastfeeding mothers as it’s highly rich in iron and protein, which are very difficult to get if you don’t have meat in your diet. It’s an amazing product and baobab and moringa are both going to be the huge ingredients of the future. The difference with moringa is that it has to be cultivated whereas baobab is just harvested.
Which countries does Aduna source from?
Currently we source baobab from Senegal and Ghana but our own project is in Ghana, in the upper east region. Moringa is a very difficult product to source, we visit five different producers in Africa because our objective is always to work with small-scale producers; we have a community-based model. But we found that out of twenty moringa samples we tested from all over the world, ten of them were not fit for human consumption. The reason is that moringa has to be washed, but unfortunately, these products are in rural parts of developing countries, whether it be India, Asia, or Africa. They wash it in local water and often downstream from the local village, so it becomes contaminated in the washing stage. We found traces of E. coli and Salmonella, so you have to be extremely careful with moringa. Initially, we weren’t able to source it or find a producer in Africa who could supply us. This is actually what our business model is about, demand creation first. A lot of the producers would say to us, “If you can guarantee to buy ten tonnes from us, then we can afford to invest in improving our quality,” but we can’t do that unless we’ve got the demand. We started by selling moringa from India because that would help us establish demand, which we’ve now done. Now, we’ve redirected it to Egypt and we’re in communication with several sub-Saharan moringa producers with a view to bring them online. The idea is that once we have our sales and demand established, then we can plug them into it. They need to build their capacity further in order to enter that market, so it’s a step-by-step process. The first step in our model is creating the demand, then the question of where to direct the demand so that we can have the most impact.
You’ve incorporated a lot of African voices at the bottom of the supply chain, but how are African voices represented on the corporate side? Do you hope to expand African representation among Aduna’s core staff?
We do now. We have Banasa, who is a Canadian-Jamaican, Oyinda, who recently joined us and is a British-Nigerian, and Ellie, who is half-Ethiopian, half-Greek. We are a very diverse bunch, kind of what it’s like in London. At any given time, we may have six interns, and usually none of those interns are English. At Aduna, we always start with the most important thing to us which is, “Why do you want to work at Aduna?” If people are aligned to our mission, then we’re interested in hearing what they’re good at. It doesn’t really matter where they come from. We have Nana Kofi Afa who is an investor. What we do want to do is get some representation of Africa in the Diaspora on our board. We think that’s an important voice to have at our board. We’ve been talking to TEDxEuston which is TEDx chapter in London. It’s probably number one in the world for inspiring ideas for Africa. I spoke there a couple of months ago and a lot of the people who were there said they’d be really interested in being investors.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from launching Aduna?
That’s a difficult question. Probably, it’s a marketing lesson, which is, you can’t expect people to buy something, even if it looks really beautiful, if they don’t know what it is. That’s what we did to start with. We created what, people tell us, is beautiful packaging for baobab and we put it on the shelf in the five or six Planet Organic stores in London—the absolute bulls eye for where you’d want this product to be in terms of the retailer and the people who shop there. In the first two months, we only sold ten units, and I bought one and my mother probably bought quite a few. [Laughs.] So we learned pretty quickly that nothing has an automatic rate of sale and that if we didn’t do something about it, then the whole project was going to fail. We recruited ten interns and they were in the stores every single day wearing Aduna t-shirts, with a baobab fruit and a nutritional table explaining where the tree and the fruit come from, its properties, and letting them taste it. As a result of that, it went from being in danger of delisted to being the best-selling super-food in Planet Organic. We’ve learned now, in three years, how to introduce completely new products into the market. That’s our specialty, we cracked it with baobab and now, with moringa, it’s a lot easier because we knew what to do and it’s going to get easier for us. That is a very difficult thing to do but the lesson is people don’t buy things unless they know what they are and what they’re good for.
I’m going to ask another difficult question: what’s the biggest lesson you learned from the farmers?
Going back to my time in Gambia, on a personal level, what I learned from working with the farmers is that the most important thing is to wake up every day inspired in my work and that comes from a sense of contribution. I got so much from working with these communities, I got so much love. When I visited the communities, love and friendship was golden and made everything worthwhile. I am sure I’ve learned practical things from them as well, but I always just use the word vibrant because when we go to Ghana and visit the baobab communities, they do a dance for us—that’s their way of welcoming us—and we have to dance as well, under the baobab tree. By the time you’ve done that, you feel completely different; you shake off all your European restraints. That vibrancy, warmth, and sense of community is so valuable, and that’s also what we try and communicate with our brand: positivity and vitality. That’s what we want to share with Africa.