How This Ethiopian Entrepreneur Is Harnessing the Plant-Based Revolution to Build Her Lifestyle Company

Feven Tsehaye wants to take Ethiopia to the world stage on the back of the fragrant herbs, seed oils and flowers found in its biodiverse forests. This Room member and nature lover is the founder and CEO of Tchakka Origins, a natural ingredients company and social enterprise that crafts exquisite personal care and wellness products. We caught up with Feven to find out some of the trailblazing methods she’s using to keep sustainability at the core of her business — from partnering with women farmers to preserving forest ecosystems.

What inspired you to establish Tchakka Origins?

I started Tchakka Origins out of a deep desire to showcase homegrown natural ingredients that pay tribute to Ethiopia’s rich biodiversity, while finding a way to play our part to combat climate change through the work we do. From that point forward, I have been fixated on addressing supply chain issues and ensuring that smallholder farmers, women farmers in particular, are a central part of how we do business.

What is your mission and vision for Tchakka Origins?

Credit: COP26UK

The vision for Tchakka Origins is to be the lead natural ingredients supplier for regeneratively-grown products from Africa’s biosphere reserves, producing everything from personal care to wellness products, and eventually, getting into herbal supplements and other natural products from endemic plants in the forests of Ethiopia’s biosphere reserves. Our mission is to make quality, sustainable and impactful products available to customers in cosmetic oils, herbal teas and food ingredients by closing the gap from the source to the customer, providing traceable natural ingredients for direct consumption or formulation.

Where does your appreciation for nature stem from?

Being in nature is the single most transformative realisation that we are a small part of a vast universe, and it is our duty to better safeguard our natural ecosystems so future generations can also find solace in the grounding that our environment provides us so freely. For as long as I can remember, I have always found deep joy and grounding in natural settings. Whether it’s a mountaintop, the sea or a forest, being in nature is the quickest way of coming back to myself.

As an entrepreneur, what does it mean to create a truly sustainable business?

It is imperative that we intentionally build in ecological and social impact as part of the new wave of how businesses are built.

Creating a sustainable business from the onset is difficult, primarily because the examples of such businesses in our industry (or most sectors for that matter) are limited, and the incentive cost is not in favour of sustainable businesses, especially in the initial years.

With that being said, in an era of witnessing the devastating effects of climate change and deforestation, it is imperative that we intentionally build in ecological and social impact as part of the new wave of how businesses are built. In absorbing these higher investment costs, Tchakka Origins also recognises that alignment and partnerships with networks or communities that share our values help us de-risk and provide viable leverage opportunities for collective success.

Why is it important for you to promote the use of Ethiopia’s indigenous plant species, particularly in the personal care and wellness space?

Anyone living in Ethiopia will tell you that the personal care products they use are either synthetic or imported because the domestic manufacturing capabilities for personal care and wellness is nearly nonexistent. Added to this is the fact that natural and organic products are unavailable. Even when research and data shows the benefits of natural and organic products, only a handful of producers are entering this space.

After careful market research, Tchakka Origins embarked on the journey of sourcing and producing locally in 2019. Currently, the goal is to focus on indigenous plant species that are slowly losing their traditional foothold, as the market is being inundated with synthetic and more widely accessible inorganic products.

In short, Tchakka Origins is here to build a community of natural product suppliers, together with other personal care and wellness producers, to ensure domestic customers can be proud of quality, locally-made ingredients from endemic forest ecosystems.

Are you seeing more awareness around the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle?

The notion of leading a plant-based lifestyle has become more popular at a global scale, with the rise of data and research around the health detriments of synthetic products, whether in condiments or food or on skin or hair. Added to that is the fact that natural and organic products are not only better for the body; they are also better for the environment and provide small ways in which the average person can feel they’re at least making product-level choices that are not harmful to the environment. In the more mature markets, where disposable income is higher, there is opportunity for Tchakka Origins to export and target the customers and consumers that are already part of the plant-based lifestyle movement. In parallel, Tchakka Origins and other natural ingredient producers in Ethiopia can raise awareness around the benefits and use of these ingredients, creating better access opportunities domestically.

Being in nature is the single most transformative realisation that we are a small part of a vast universe

When it comes to the sourcing of your ingredients, you are dedicated to creating opportunities through equitable partnerships and relationships with farming communities in Ethiopia. Why is this essential to your business model?

I spent most of my previous work in the field travelling and witnessing the imbalanced rural dynamics that create barriers for smallholder farmers who are the backbone of societies. With limited bargaining power, they have been removed from the market places where larger transactions are negotiated, and with multiple traders and middlemen determining the value of tediously-laboured products. In such circumstances, it’s important that smallholder farmers are able to secure better guarantees or offtake contracts that create consistent and better-than-average market pricing. This is a key part of why the Tchakka Origins team is building up a network of smallholder partner farmers — to provide consistent and better market offtake, on the one hand, and to enable integration into the value chain, on the other, which ultimately provides traceable, quality products.

You’re particularly focused on the creation of opportunities for women farmers. How are you achieving this?

Whether micro-level or larger scale, businesses should better engage with and reflect the capabilities of women.

As a black and Ethiopian woman, I’ve seen the limited opportunities that women are able to access, particularly in rural parts of Ethiopia. I wanted to make sure that, to the full extent possible, our partner farmers, suppliers and other service providers are women-owned or led. Whether micro-level or larger scale, businesses should better engage with and reflect the capabilities of women. Tchakka Origins partners with majority women farmer groups, and hopes that in scaling the work with our partner farmers, we will be able to create exponential and real change at a household level.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who want to grow sustainable businesses?

Entrepreneurs of this generation have a responsibility to create businesses that are sustainable. This requires having a team of seasoned advisors to understand the nuances of what a sustainable business requires, in particular around the early investment period and when thinking through the scale-up phase. My biggest advice is lean in on experts and friends who can provide guidance at different stages of building a sustainable business.

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