The Senegalese Entrepreneur Selling African Recipes to Americans

Magatte Wade is one of the most notable female entrepreneurs to emerge from Africa. Born in Senegal and educated in France, she is the original founder of Adina World Beat Beverages , a San Francisco beverage company that manufactures coffee, tea and fruit juices based on indigenous traditional beverage recipes from across the world, using organic ingredients sourced from small-scale farmers across Africa and Asia.

Wade started the company in 2004 and within five years had raised $30 million in venture capital. That was great news but had drawbacks. Other parties became increasingly influential regarding the styling, positioning, and content of the brand. Wade did not like the direction, so she stepped down as Adina's CEO in 2009, but held onto a stake.

Wade then went on to start Tiossan , a company that produces luxury organic skin-care products based on traditional Senegalese skin care recipes, in New York . The name is a play on "Thiosane" a Wolof (Senegalese) word which means "origins." I spoke with Wade recently to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey, her current business venture and lessons she learned along the way.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced in doing business?

The negative perception that most Americans have about Africa. Either they believe that it is a disaster and thus I can't possibly build a business based on producing goods in Africa, or they believe that it is a disaster and want me to build a "pity-based" brand where Americans buy the products because they feel sorry for Africans. The notion that Africans can be capable, hard-working, successful professionals creating world-class products and services is largely alien to the American mindset. The media and, sadly, the NGOs, are largely responsible for this perception of Africa. But because I believe in "Criticize By Creating", I created Tiossan as a fun and value-creation oriented way to positively change the perception that the world has of Africa.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned in doing business?

The importance of alignment. It is crucial that partners, investors, employees, and other stakeholders be deeply aligned with the purpose of the company. This may be less crucial for a company that is based strictly on lowest cost, but for a purpose driven company to succeed, philosophical alignment is essential.

In 2011, the World Economic Forum named you as one of their Young Global Leaders . How did that make you feel?

The recognition was very gratifying. That said I've been too busy building my company to participate in most of their activities.

What is your philosophy in business and in life?

To stay true to myself, speak up my mind and stand my ground firm, even if it means great sacrifices. There are countless opportunities to take shortcuts, but I would destroy my mission in life if I took those shortcuts.

In a nutshell, what is the most important piece of advice you'll give to young, entrepreneurial inclined individuals out there- particularly the ladies?

Focus on building your skills and relationships while you are young, then as you develop a concept begin looking for highly aligned partners, investors, and supporters. Realize that it is ultimately more about you, your positioning, and your persistence than it is about access to capital. And ultimately it is about selling (I prefer the terms "sharing something I care profoundly about and trust with other people") - if you can't sell yourself, your vision and your products, then you need to partner with someone who can. No sales, no revenue, no company, no jobs created, no greater good provided to the world. And especially for the ladies, never compromise your integrity, self-respect and dignity in your life in general, but especially on your entrepreneurial journey Tell me about yourself and how you got where you are?

I was born in Senegal, and spent the first few years of my life in a traditional African family compound. My parents left to find work in Europe shortly after I was born, so I was raised with my grandmother and spent my days leading packs of boys on fun and adventure filled little hunting and fishing expeditions. When I was eight my parents decided that I needed to get an education (somehow I never managed to make it to school back home) so they brought me to Germany, where I faced snow and the German language for the first time. After a couple of years we moved to France, where I later went to high school in Chartres followed by a Business School, the Ecole Supérieure de Gestion et de Commerce . My business school had an exchange program with a university in Indiana, during which I built the connections to later come back and settle in Columbus , Indiana after I graduated from business school. I spent one year working for a family-owned automotive company, then fell in love and moved to San Francisco where I married a French entrepreneur whom I had known slightly in business school. While there I was working in the executive recruitment industry (head-hunting), identified finance professionals for companies like Google and WebEx when they were tiny start-ups. I was very inspired by the world of start-ups and, combined with helping my husband build his own company, helped me catch the entrepreneurial fever.

You started out your first company, Adina to attractively package traditional African tea and juices and sell to the western world. You were able to build a viable commercial enterprise. Tell me the story behind Adina World Beat Beverages. What triggered you to start up the company? What does Adina even mean?

"Adina" means "life" in Wolof, my native language. I started Adina after returning to Senegal and finding that Bissap, the hospitality beverage of my country, was being replaced by Coke and Fanta. I was sick with anger that my country's cultural traditions were being destroyed, and realized that only when my country's traditions were respected in the West would the Senegalese respect their own traditions. I came back to the U.S. and built a company around this concept.

How did retailers and customers initially respond to your beverages? Was there any reluctance from westerners to try out African juices?

The cultural creative demographic (essentially those people who shop at Whole Foods) are very eager to explore the indigenous traditions of other cultures. Thus the fact that Adina was originally inspired by African traditions was a huge plus. We had to tweak the recipe and branding a bit, but I found many retailers and customers to be very enthusiastic.

You started Adina in 2004, and by 2010 I read somewhere that your annual revenues had exceeded $3.5 million. What are the figures now?

I left the company in 2009 after building up revenues to that level by means of four years of nonstop flying across the country promoting the products, opening up new sales channels, and supporting my sales staff with servicing existing accounts. Since leaving Adina I've been 200% focused on building my new company so while I'm still a shareholder, I don't know what has happened to the company since my departure.

Riding on the crest of your success with Adina World Beat beverages, you decided to set up another company, Tiossan . Tell me about Tiossan and the story behind the company.

Tiossan is a return to a deeper version of my original dream. I wanted to bring more of my indigenous Senegalese culture to the U.S. market, both to share the gifts of our culture with the West and so that Senegalese would become more aware of the value of their own culture. I chose to start with skin care because I am personally a skin care junkie and because I had the highest respect for the healing secrets of our traditional healers and herbalists. After apprenticing with a renowned tradipractitioner, I brought the recipes to one of the best California green chemists to stabilize them for long shelf life on the U.S. market, and then scented the products with custom fragrances designed by a French artisanal perfumer and manufactured in Grasse, cradle of perfumery in France.

Tiossan has been described in some media as a high-end skincare products manufacturer. Define high-end. Must I be rich before I can afford Tiossano products for my girlfriend?

Our products are entirely affordable for people who really care about their skin. We use only the best natural and organic ingredients and avoid all damaging chemicals in our products. Women know that soft, healthy, beautiful skin is one of their most important assets, and it is not an area where they should skimp and risk damaging their skin with products that may create dryness, peeling, or long-term damage due to harmful chemicals. You want your girlfriend to have deliciously soft and healthy skin, don't you?

I'm just curious- where did the funding for Adina and Tiossano come from? Have you ever had to sell equity to external investors to raise capital for your business?

With Adina we started with friends and family, then went through several rounds of venture capital, ultimately raising more than $30 million. But outside capital also dilutes the owner's stake. As a consequence, I chose to keep Tiossan very tightly controlled, which means that I've mostly self-funded Tiossan along with a few carefully selected outside investors who are deeply committed to the Tiossan vision.

In total, how many employees do you have?

I'm not up to date with Adina, but our biggest impact in Africa was through the creation of an organic hibiscus industry in Senegal. The hibiscus industry was slowly dying in Senegal when we started, then with the help of ASNAPP and the First Lady of Senegal, we taught women to grow world-class certified organic hibiscus. Today the organic hibiscus growers of Senegal sell their product around the world and thousands of women have jobs they would otherwise have lost.

With Tiossan I'm just getting started and at present everyone who works with the company is a contractor working on setting up the systems.

What are your expansion plans? Tiossan products are sold at major retailers in the United States, but I haven't seen any of your products here in Africa. Don't you think it'll make a lot of economic sense to sell your products in Africa?

Because margins are higher in the U.S. and large-scale distribution is easier, I intend to build Tiossan here first. In addition, the U.S. is the best place in the world to build a brand. Once a brand becomes successful here, it is possible to sell it around the world. I intend to distribute in Africa, but first I must build a stronger base here in the U.S..

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