Getting to the root of business success

Maheder Admasu has grown her sauce and spice business into a thriving firm. | Photos courtesy MEDA EMERTA staff

Onion sauce adds extra spice to Ethiopian entrepreneur’s life

Juggling graduate studies, a small business, and caring for her three children didn’t leave Maheder Admasu much time for cooking. Those challenges provided the inspiration for what has become a thriving enterprise, providing jobs for 38 employees. If she gets her way, employment at Maheder Food Processing will increase 10-fold or more.

Admasu’s journey to entrepreneurship began during her master’s degree studies in project management. As she neared graduation in 2011, she started a small business while working as an intern with the European Union. The multitasking of doing all these things at once required the Addis Ababa resident to be creative. Her idea was to develop a business to prepare basic sauces and spice mixes for Ethiopian dishes that could considerably reduce the cooking burden for women.   

At about the same time, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Trade announced a business plan competition with prizes for the applicants with the best business ideas. Admasu submitted a business plan to the competition. To her surprise, she was announced as a winner. Winning meant she had access to trade fairs and bazaars and was given a working space and financial support via the Addis Ababa city administration. She also started a food TV show to promote the products she was developing.

“I started a small onion and spice (processing and packaging) business with a business loan,” she said. My husband at that time was not supportive of this idea. He was expecting that I should do some corporate-level job, be well dressed, and have a nice office. But I was adamant to build my own identity. “That was the start of Maheder Foods: small but ambitious. But it took me 10 years to have a strong footprint in this industry.” She now describes her husband as being “my number one supporter.”

Admasu developed food show programs to promote her products on YouTube. “I am now producing not only onion sauce but also paprika powder, Shiro (an Ethiopian stew), onion powder, and am expanding to new things.”  “In connection with MEDA, I do contract farming with MEDA onion growers in Dera and Fogera districts (Amhara Region) with 27 producers, six of whom are women.’’

Maheder Admasu with employees Fikirte Eshetu and Tesfanseh Desalegn

Her dream of buying a large onion sauce cooking machine to produce bulk onion sauce encountered several roadblocks. “I searched for different options, but due to COVID and a political crisis, it looked like a shattered dream. But then I met some MEDA people at a trade fair and explained to them my business and invited them to my factory. MEDA then provided me with a grant to buy an automatic onion sauce cooker that can cook 350 liters of sauce a day.”

Admasu describes the new machine as her fourth child. “I am so happy to have this modern technology added to my factory,” she said. She attended several trade fairs to promote her products, including an agriculture trade fair in Berlin. Through those efforts, she found new interest in her products and a new challenge. Potential orders depended on a food safety certification that she didn’t have. Admasu did that work. She received a robust, internationally accepted food safety certification within the food and beverage manufacturing sector. She still needs additional support for lab testing.

“My simple motto is smile, keep silent, and work for success.”

— Maheder Admasu

Maheder Food Processing is currently selling only to the domestic Ethiopian market. Admasu plans to gradually enter neighboring countries and reach a wider international market. “I have already started talking to Ethiopian Airlines and some other big corporates to sell my products,” she said. “In addition, I deliver 2,000 meals daily for returnees to Ethiopia. “Also, I have opened three branches to display and sell my products. As of today, my total investment is over $200,000, and my annual turnover is about $77,000. I expect this to grow over time.”

Maheder Admasu

So far, Maheder’s business has created jobs for 38 employees, 34 of them women. Thirty of these jobs are credited to the support from MEDA, including the grant support provided by MEDA’s EMERTA project.   EMERTA stands for Ethiopians Motivating Enterprises to Rise in Trade and Agri-business. The project is based in the Amhara region. It aims to benefit 16,000 women and men and over 275 small businesses. For more on EMERTA, visit meda.org/projects/emerta.

“I don’t have any competitors in this market, I am the only entrepreneur doing this in Ethiopia,” Admasu said. “But I am not afraid of competition. As an entrepreneur, I want to show a path for others, and that will be my success. “My simple motto is ‘smile, keep silent, and work for success.’ My next dream is to build my own factory by recruiting 300-500 employees and delivering quality foods in Africa. This is just the beginning.”

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