A bright red drink of Senegalese origin is becoming increasingly popular in Belgium. Senegalese farmers supply the organic hibiscus flowers at a fair price. Entrepreneur Eva Ba tells us her story.
Entrepreneur Eva Ba and her Senegalese husband Jules Dabo
Producing a Senegalese hibiscus drink in Belgium, adapted to Belgian taste
Because Belgians like the healthy exotic drink and it gives 70 Senegalese farmers hope for a better future.
My father is Senegalese, my mother Belgian. As a child, I regularly travelled to Senegal. After my studies in hotel management, I worked for nine months as a management assistant in a hotel in Senegal. It was during this stay that I got to know my husband. Afterwards we settled in Belgium.
Meanwhile, I have been working for a long time for the job site StepStone, while my husband works as an IT project leader for the meal voucher company Edenred. But we felt the need to do something else besides our regular jobs. That is why, five years ago, we started the catering company SéRégal to bring the 'Senegalese experience' to the people: typical dishes and drinks, dance, percussion,...
Among other things, we served bissap, a Senegalese hibiscus drink. Many customers liked it and asked us where they could buy it, but in Belgium it was hardly available. That gave us the idea: why don't we produce it ourselves?
70 hibiscus growers
That is how our search to put our idea into practice began. Bissap is an infusion of dried hibiscus flowers. We found them in Senegal, but soon we discovered that hibiscus growers are often underpaid.
Eventually we came into direct contact with a village of about 70 hibiscus growers, mainly women. We helped them with the paperwork to start their own cooperative and to obtain a bio-certification. After all, we want to improve the living conditions of the growers by paying a decent, sustainable price and by making the cooperative more autonomous and allow farmers to take their fate into their own hands. We work hand in hand. Last December - the harvest month - we paid them a visit.
Meanwhile, we have already imported two tonnes of hibiscus flowers - a container. Getting a container from Senegal to Belgium requires a lot of administrative work. There is very little support for this in Belgium. The Trade for Development Center does not give support until you have been working for five years, and the fair trade label is only given after five years at the earliest. But we managed to import the flowers and next time it should be easier.
We want to improve the living conditions of the growers by paying a decent, sustainable price and by making the cooperative more autonomous.
We did change the recipe however. The Senegalese bissap is very sweet, whereas our hibiscus drink - named 'talina' - contains 30 percent less sugar. It is true that we like to play off the health aspect: the hibiscus drink is rich in vitamin C and oligo-elements, lowers high blood pressure and stimulates digestion.
We have our drink bottled in a sheltered workshop in Waremme. The company even invested in a machine for cold bottling under high pressure. As a result, you do not need any preservatives or pasteurisation. We give our drink a expiration date of four months after bottling.
Yet there is one disadvantage: processing under high pressure is only possible in plastic bottles, but a number of health food shops refuse drinks in plastic packaging. All the same, our PET bottles are perfectly recyclable.
Setting up a business and running it really requires a lot of time, efforts and money. And you do not get much support. But we remain convinced of our product and feel supported by the positive feedback of our customers.
Another significant hurdle: distribution! For the time being, we have contacted a number of individual franchise stores of Carrefour and Delhaize. That works pretty well. The only problem is that we have to supply all those stores ourselves. The ideal scenario is that you can deliver directly to the central buying offices of the supermarket chains. We are currently engaged in negotiations. If these succeed, sales at the big supermarkets should also be possible.
Finally, of course, we must promote our product. For the time being, our marketing is mainly limited to social media, to reduce costs. We have also developed an attractive website. But we certainly want to go a step further in terms of marketing in the future.
Two years ago we got the idea, six months ago we started selling the drink in Belgium. But we cannot make a living out of it so far. Setting up a business and running it really requires a lot of time, efforts and money. And you do not get much support, you have to search for it. But we remain convinced of our product and feel supported by the positive feedback of our customers.
We have already taken many hurdles and hopefully we can make a living out of our company by the end of this year. Doing business is not an easy task, but it is very exciting, especially if you can involve your country of origin and give some people hope for a better future.