Illuminating Amazi Foods: A Conversation with Founder Renee Dunn

I spoke with Renee Dunn, founder of Amazi Foods, a company focused on bringing transparency to its supply chain and building relationships with suppliers. Amazi describes itself as a mindful food company whose mission is to help you Snack on Purpose and build connected supply chains through the sales of healthy, made-in-Uganda products. So many brands today make claims to strive toward transparency and sustainability, but here is a business that is truly focused on knowing where its raw materials come from and educating consumers on the impact of their purchases.

I wanted to highlight how Renee figured out how to not only get her product made in Uganda but how to navigate the complex logistics to get it shipped, packaged and sold in the United States. I chatted with Renee recently to get a better idea of why she started Amazi and where she sees the company headed.

Where did this idea for Amazi come from?

While in school at Wesleyan University, I studied in Uganda and did my thesis research on the formal entrepreneurship sector there. I couldn’t stop thinking about how a country with so many resources and entrepreneurial activity could simultaneously be ranked among the lowest in productivity by the Global Entrepreneurship Index. At the time, there was talk around micro enterprises and ethical sourcing to support farmers, but I wasn’t seeing much systematic change. I wanted to figure out how to break the cycle and move the economy away from solely serving as resource providers to offering more value-added services. Though agricultural exports make up about 80% of Uganda’s total exports, raw ingredients are not processed and packaged in Uganda, which means very little profit stays within the country. I thought, perhaps naively at the time, that if we could take the time to train people how to produce marketable products, recipe development and quality consistency, we could involve them in the process, increase employment and grow the local marketplace.

So how did you make it happen? Did you take this project on full time right from the start?

After college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had dabbled in entrepreneurship while in school by starting an organization that trained students to teach certified fitness classes on campus, so I had some experience in figuring things out myself. A couple years after graduation I was managing a yoga studio in DC and realized that it wasn’t going anywhere for me. I still had ideas about the problems I had observed in Uganda and in April of 2016, I decided to take a leap of faith and head back there. I knew at the time I wanted to try and make a food product and I knew it would be challenging, but didn’t realize how challenging it would be. I decided to start with plantain chips because they had been my favorite snack while living there, but I had no idea where to begin. Do I look for factory space? Do I find people who already are making plantain chips? I just started asked questions.

Do you mind sharing how you were able to fund this? Was there a set amount of money you were willing to contribute before giving up?

I have to say that I have been very fortunate and privileged as I have extremely supportive parents who I knew I could lean back on if this never took off. I did have one crowdfunding campaign and the rest was a mix of savings plus loans I borrowed from my parents. I didn’t really give myself a deadline or a financial goal because I felt like I had to remain so committed to this mission without thinking about the alternative. Having a Plan B at such an early stage can be hindering mindset.

Okay, so let’s get into how you first got this product made.

When I first arrived in Uganda I contacted the American Chamber of Commerce and learned about an upcoming conference focused on AgriProcessing. The sessions explored adding value to natural resources in order to provide growth avenues for entrepreneurs, unemployed youth and farmers alike - which was exactly where I was hoping to focus. I told the conference organizers a bit about my idea and they invited me to come and have a booth. I think there might have been a small miscommunication about the stage of my business, but I managed to have a logo made and a banner printed. My booth advertised that the company’s aim was to import made in Uganda products to the U.S. Through this event I found one company making dried fruit at the local level and went to see its factory. The owner already had many processes in place for certification and quality control, as well as relationships with local organic farmers. This is when the idea for Amazi actually started to take place.

Since getting this business started, what have been the most challenging aspects?

The hardest part has been how to manage everyone’s expectations. Even though we are building relationships with our farmers, at the end of the day I am running a business and often it’s hard to keep everyone happy. The farmers don’t entirely understand why I can’t buy their entire crop, but I try to include them in the conversation the best that I can.

I am learning it’s not as romantic as simply paying higher wages, there also needs to be transparency around margins and explaining constraints in our cash flow. As a small business owner, I have to play the agility game while also never compromising.

Through connecting with other small business I have learned that everyone encounters challenges with their supply chains. Right now one of the challenges is that we can’t set up the product to be packaged in Uganda as the cost of importing packaging is prohibitive. Surprisingly, there is a tariff of something like 150% on imports of packaging materials on top of the fact that Uganda doesn’t have the right local machinery.

Through my own experiences I have learned a thing or two about how complicated it can be to import food products. How did you figure out that part?

Early on I was connected to an import consultant who helped me navigate international logistics. He made the initial connections and gave me a list of people to reach out to that would help with the import process. I knew it wasn’t worth me trying to do this on my own. We currently use a customs broker to get our product to the airport and clear the goods upon arrival. There are so many things we have to consider, such as food test forms and the certificate of analysis, but I strongly believe that trusting other people to help and hiring experts when it makes sense has been essential to our success.

What do you find attracts the customer to your brand?

I believe there has to be a differentiating factor to get the customer to pay a higher price. Our mission is to provide more opportunities for innovation in Uganda and we hope our customers buy our products because they taste good but also because they can trust that we are giving back to the community. There is so much marketing around fair trade and sustainability that it has become hard to know which brands are really engaging with the local community so we do our best to be transparent and show our customers how their purchase is making an impact.

Whats next for Amazi?

I want to focus on building out more factories in Uganda. As of now, we hand package in the U.S. but I’d like to see this shift to completely local over time. Our goal is to package our products in Uganda, which would get us one step closer to our mission of adding value locally in the supply chain and through job creation. I also want to eventually source from other countries as well.

I already know we are not trying to be in Costco or Walmart but I believe we can be successful as medium sized business. It’s not about getting in as many doors as possible but rather finding a balance in order to stick with the values of the company.

Down the line I do hope to expand our product line and offer new and unique flavors/textures, but we also make sure to convey our story and offer people connection to a larger mission

Thank you Renee.

Please head to Amazi Foods to check out more about their story and where to buy this incredible product!

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