Launching a rural artisanal food enterprise
Baladini was founded in 2014 through a series of food exchanges in the homes of farmers in Sakkara, Egypt. What began as a small-scale project producing handmade pasta has since expanded to a women-led farm-to-fork kitchen focusing on the processing of healthy grains sourced from local farmers.
Founded in Cooking Exchanges
Baladini was founded through a series of cooking exchanges over several months between women from the Sakkara countryside, Cairo, and foreign tourists. Held in homes in Sakkara, women would share food knowledge and experiment around cooking and baking pastas, pizzas, breads, cheeses, and other traditional foods. This helped to highlight and uncover food traditions. Much time was spent relaxing and conversing about family, community, and life – and these collaborative cooking exchanges formed the relationships and trust that set the foundation for Baladini.
The start-up team
Through the cooking exchanges, a small group eventually began to show interest in participating in a longer-term project focused on food production and sales. These women demonstrated motivation and commitment, particularly in the burden of risk they took on, committing themselves to participation in a startup business that was neither clear or certain in its direction. They shouldered criticism by husbands, family, and community members for working outside their homes and dedicating to a project without a certain future. One core leader, in particular, demonstrated a strong and relentless entrepreneurial drive. Starting with a small team that was strong and committed allowed more flexibility for experimentation, making mistakes, and learning – before a business model was solid enough to bring on new women.
The supporting team
As the experiments began to look more like a functioning business, Nawaya – the sponsoring organization – brought together a small team of to support Baladini's start-up. This team included one full-time kitchen mentor and one full-time business coach, a part-time education consultant, and several volunteers.
The mentor was nearly always present with the women in the kitchen: cooking, cleaning, and working directly with the women. She listened to the women's needs and concerns and shared opinions and decisions from the Nawaya team. The business coach worked on developing strategies for marketing, production efficiency, accounting, and business strategy – and worked closely with the Baladini members to share ideas, make collective decisions, and coach on business skills. Other members of the Nawaya team provided strategic guidance, and all actively participated in product design, events, marketing, and building relationships.
A production space
A kitchen space was secured for food production nearby the women's homes. The space was cleaned, properly outfitted, and insulated. Basic starting production equipment was purchased, such as stainless steel tables, sinks, an oven and stove, cutting and mixing tools, and shelves and storage. With the Baladini team, the space was organized and set up.
In the beginning, Nawaya and the Baladini team frequently spoke informally about shared values, such as fairness, health, education, and tradition. To formalize this, Nawaya brought in an external facilitator to host a "storytelling workshop" that helped define an agreed-upon set of team values. The result was a rich set of values rooted in the women's perspectives and needs. These included values such as: clean, healthy, fair, educational, raising one's spirit and self worth, and "food with a light woman's touch".
Artisanal food, in particular, formed a cornerstone of the founding values. Artisanal, or "handmade", is by nature small. It means knowing your ingredients, conditions, and seasons, and making your recipes with care. Slow and natural is the method, taste and quality are top priority. This approach allows business models to adapt to local conditions and needs, to source locally through fair agreements with small-scale farmers, and to celebrate and integrate beauty into their products.
Starting it Up: From A to Z
Innovation around heritage
The founding concept of the Baladini kitchen was centered around the revitalization of traditional foods and transformation of them into market-ready products. The team sought to find ancient Egyptian foods that were disappearing from formal markets and turn them into creative products reflecting the rich biodiversity of the area and competencies of women passed on from generation to generation.
This began with research of the socio-biological characteristics of local recipes and traditional products. The Baladini team was then guided through a series of creative cooking exchanges with outside volunteers. Volunteers were chosen based on their passion for cooking, creativity, and knowledge of high-end markets. Through these exchanges, the teams explored new shapes, new flavors, and recipe variations.
The result was a unique line of food products different from anything available on the market. Baladini's handmade pasta was adapted from an Italian recipe using locally grown and indigenous "balady" wheat and eggs. Pizza's, meanwhile, were chosen due to rural women's skills in making and flipping flat breads at home – and were crafted using exclusively local and traditional ingredients, such as date syrup, rural Egyptian cheeses, and indigenous chicken. And the Baladini betaw – a traditional corn bread with fenugreek that has been made for millennia in Upper Egypt – was transformed into a cracker with a variety of unique flavors and spices.
Educational activities formed the foundation for setting up the Baladini production kitchen. This began through a series of collaborative assessments between the Baladini team and mentors on women's skills. A full curriculum for food production was adapated to the women's needs, and trainers were sought out.
Trainings were held weekly for 7 months. Once a month, a monthly review series was held for self-review and assessment of the knowledge the gained. Prior to each training, a Nawaya consultant worked with each trainer to adapt their training to Baladini's contexts and perspectives.
More specialized skills that were not required across the whole team – such as scheduling, accounting, operational efficiency, marketing, and product development – were taught through one-to-one coaching over periods of weeks or months.
Inclusive working conditions
In the beginning, compensation rates and work hours were decided through a facilitated dialogue between the business coach and the Baladini team. Inclusive hiring procedures were also put into place. New entrants were interviewed by multiple women from the Baladini team. They were then introduced to the entire kitchen staff, and given time to showcase their knowledge and build relationships by working directly with them in the kitchen.
As Baladini grew in size and number, the core team began to recruit for new women from the village. At this point, the team didn't seek specific skills, but instead focused on recruiting those with interest and motivation to join a small-scale food production enterprise. The principle was that anyone could find a place within the Baladini learning environment.
The Baladini program was designed to guarantee a certain level of work for participating women, in exchange for their commitment to attending weekly workshops and trainings. This helped ensure financial needs of women and their families were at least partially met.
Working while they were engaging in workshops had the main purpose of giving women the opportunity to directly apply their learnings. Peers would help and remind one another of lessons learnt, and the mentor would help guide decisions. This work was partially subsidized by grant funding, and partially by business revenues.
Creating spaces that embraced both positive and negative emotions was important to Baladini's growth. Emotions were accepted, embraced, and dealt with directly in the kitchen. The mentor would also offer emotional support to help build self-confidence, pride, and a sense of ownership. Baladini worked to introduce space for compliment-sharing, where individuals praise each other for their strengths, talents, and contributions.
The Baladini enterprise sought to mark a passage of traditional food from homemade to artisanal production. To do so, much effort was put into determining how products could be produced more "efficiently", while still maintaining that unique "handmade" feeling. For new products, outside mentors worked closely with the Baladini team to co-develop new processes related to production flow, placement and efficiency of employees, shape and size of the products, and packaging. This would begin by the mentors and team members closely monitoring and tracking production efficiency. Ideas for improvement – including using food production technologies – would then be discussed between the mentor and woman responsible for production. These were then shared with the entire production team for feedback. The production team would then try various adjustments to the process, and the production lead would monitor progress in their notebooks based on the use of timers. The mentor and production lead would meet every 2 weeks to discuss improvements and suggest continual changes. After a period of 2-3 months, products improved in their efficiency by 30-40%, significantly reducing costs and increasing profit margins.
As business opportunities began to be more serious, the business consultant suggested specialization by focusing on one prominent local farm product and producing an entire line of high quality foods with that as the core. Due to the popularity of the pasta, pizza, and betaw products, the team chose grains as the primary specialization. This allows for quality, standardization, and efficiency to improve dramatically. The specialization allowed focused energy on the development of new flavors, varieties, and compliments for the original products (which previously had not been diversified). Time was invested in improving efficiency, packaging, and branding, as well as researching and purchasing proper equipment. The result was product quality and standardization improved dramatically.
Testing in safe markets
In their early stages, many products were not yet standardized enough for formal markets. The Nawaya team thus sought to first establish relationships with trusting enterprises and open-air markets where women producers and store vendors could directly interact with customer bases. This helped to create safe spaces where rural enterprises could pilot products and obtain feedback, while minimizing risk of market failure. Members of the Nawaya team and volunteers would often act as "intermediaries" with direct customer interactions, helping in particular to bridge barriers by reducing customer prejudices towards rural communities while protecting the dignity and pride of women from Baladini.
Baladini's primary market entry point was through high-income, specialty markets. The program sought to tap into a rapidly growing base of urban consumers in Cairo seeking fresh, healthy, good tasting food products. They sold products through farmer’s markets, local stores, online shops, and special events, and delivered caterings to individuals, development agencies, and embassies. In particular, they focused on finding or creating spaces where customers, clients, and stores adhered to principles of fairness, values, and respect. A marketing consultant helped to isolate opportunities for expansion and pitch products to customers.
The Baladini brand was co-created with outside consultants and volunteers. A brand and slogran were designed to illustrate and emphasize the core values of the enterprise. Labels on each product tell a specific story about the product's creation, history, and nutritional value. Marketing materials, a promotional video, the website, and even the team's uniforms were all designed based on the core collective values of the team. The Baladini name itself – combining "balady" (meaning "local" and "traditional" in Arabic), and "ini" ("many small things" in Italian) – was invented to illustrate concepts of heritage, artisanal, and diversity.
Once products were selected, the Baladini team was walked through a comprehensive process for standardization. This began by testing each recipe several times for consistent quality, then logging all ingredient measurements and step-by-step processes for reproduction. Packaged products were also tested for conversation, and ingredients were researched for local sources, quality, and nutritional value. Products were costed and priced, various packaging options were explored, and labels created with the name, ingredients, story, and suggestions for use.
A structure for financial management was set up between a business coach and two Baladini team members. They established systems for quotations, receiving orders, invoicing, and accounting. A weekly schedule for tracking incoming and outgoing cash was set up, always with both Baladini team members to help ensure accuracy. To insure transparency and help establish trust, financial data was collected and logged into an online shared document, which was available open-access to anyone on the team. At the end of every month, this team would prepare a small financial report to share with the entire organization.
To help manage cash flow – which can be difficult in a small production enterprise – Baladini worked with vendors to create regular schedules for ordering, payment, and delivery. They requested payments be made no later than 30 days after delivery, and preferably sooner. This helped to guarantee cash payments did not arrive too long after production, and reduced cash flow challenges.
Decision-making & information flow
To help teams make informed decisions, spaces for sharing information and making decisions inclusively were established. Structures were designed to share information more transparently. Organizational data was logged into online documents that were openly accessible to anyone on the team. Customer feedback was also collected and collated into short reports for the team.
A weekly meeting structure was introduced, where all team members could bring up any issue that was important to them and guaranteed it would be addressed. Major decisions were reserved for those meetings. These processes helped to ensure decisions considered all perspectives and every team member understood the rationale behind the final decision. The in-kitchen mentor helped to both coach women to follow these practices, as well as share information and collect feedback from women who were not able to attend meetings.
The team also worked to share information through simple mechanisms such as group messaging apps (e.g. WhatsApp). Various groups – such as "production", "business", and "markets" – were for sharing relevant information. When decisions needed to be made outside of meetings, a requirement was put in place that any potential decision would be shared on a WhatsApp group to get advice and feedback. Voice messages were often used, to help ensure illiterate women could participate in the conversations.
Challenges & Learnings
Starting with risk-takers
Baladini began with a core team of 5 women. These women took on a particular burden of risk, committing themselves to participation in a startup business that was neither clear or certain in its direction. They shouldered criticism by husbands, family, and community members for working outside their homes and dedicating to a project without a certain future. One core leader, in particular, demonstrated a strong and relentless entrepreneurial drive. Starting with a small team that was strong and committed allowed more flexibility for experimentation, making mistakes, and learning – before a business model was solid enough to bring on new women.
Prior to these exchanges, the organization "Nawaya" had invested much work with the local farming community through relationship building, hearing local needs and concerns, and delivering farmer training programs. The relationships built with the male farmers through these activities formed the foundation for community acceptance for a women's project (particularly from husbands, brothers, and uncles of the participating women). This helped the Baladini project to be viewed with less suspicion, and paved the way for women to be permitted to seek employment in the Baladini kitchen.
An enormous barrier in the rural communities in which Baladini was founded regards entrenched divides across regions, classes, families, religion, and gender. Divides were on display from the beginning of the project: urban versus rural, rich versus poor, families from different regions.
Nawaya's investment in building relationships helped to form a sense of "team" that surpassed many of these barriers. In the community, this meant sharing food, cooking, and family celebrations. In the kitchen, work was always performed collaboratively. Everything – food production, cleanup, attending markets, accounting – was done together; no individual person was "above" any work. This helped engender a sense of team camaraderie, and humbled all members to feel equal and respected.
Interactions & pride
Exposure encompassed a large piece of the program. Many opportunities were created for the Baladini women to interact directly with diverse clients in new markets. They traveled to festivals and events in places they had never been. Nawaya would always appoint a facilitator to help with communication between Baladini and their customers. As the business grew, the women had more opportunities to interact directly with customers – from markets, to caterings, to festivals – where they would continually receive compliments on taste, quality, and uniqueness. These direct one-to-one validations from customers of diverse backgrounds has been a key driver for feelings of pride, self-worth, and dedication to the Baladini enterprise.
The Baladini program began by promoting an "incubation" concept where rural women would "exit" the program to become "individual entrepreneurs" in the food sector. But Nawaya began to see the limitations of this approach. Rural communities, due to limited networks, knowledge, and resources, were severely limited when operating independently.
Instead, the model shifted towards supporting cohorts of women. This helped to establish kitchens that were competitive due to the strength of their collective energy, creativity, talents, and resources. This allowed room for shaping diverse talents and roles within the team – and empowering women with new responsibilities, skills-learnings opportunities. By supporting feelings of cohesiveness and collective strength, this has also helped teams to support and protect one another when facing difficult business or social challenges.
In the first year, production quality was nearly constantly required to be "monitored" by the Nawaya team. Frequent upsets and setbacks caused delays, customer complaints, and financial losses. Nawaya sought to reorganize roles within the kitchen for core women to become responsible for overseeing quality control of specific production lines. With these newfound responsibilities, the core women took on a new level of accountability which led to nearly always high quality levels with next to no oversight. Within a few short months, production was entirely independent and at higher levels of quality than prior.
Communication & decisions
Exercising inclusivity in decision-making was a constant struggle with both the Baladini and Nawaya teams. Including the Baladini rural team in information sharing and decision making was sometimes resisted due to it seeming as time consuming. Especially during times of financial crisis, there has been temptation to concentrate decisions in the Nawaya team. Multiple times, these divides have created tensions that cause individuals feel "cut-out" of decision-making and dialogue, as if their voices are not heard or respected. Often when the Baladini team felt left out, they would chose to subvert decisions and take their own actions in protest. When business decisions were made this way and didn't succeed, fingers were often pointed at the Nawaya team for "mismanagement". These types of actions would often lead to gossips, rumors, and general mistrust.
The full-time mentor was crucial to ensuring inclusivity. This person made a special effort to ensure that all decisions from any individual were passed through the Baladini team. Many were openly discussed during kitchen production. For more specific business decisions, not a major decision made where at least one of the core women were consulted. All decisions were always shared afterwards. These activities set two main precedents: first, that the needs, opinions, and interests of the women were important and to be respected; and second, that the Nawaya team was not "above" the women in decision-making but instead at the same level.
Having a member of the Nawaya team helping to develop structures for more streamlined communications also eased this process. In the beginning, many conversations were made one-on-one over the phone – allowing for tricky power plays between various team members. By institutionalizing clear decision-making structures, with meetings and group messaging apps for information-sharing.
Experts in their field
A frequent temptation with the Baladini team was to "try everything" that could potentially increase business opportunities. In the initial year, the team piloted a large array of products: pastas, breads, cheeses, butter, date syrups and snacks, nut bars, and Egyptian and Italian catering menus. While most products were well-received by a small customer base, each had its own set of challenges in efficiency, conservation, strorage, transportation, and branding. Quality and standardization varied dramatically for each product. Attempting to offer many different product lines led to little to no growth, and often simply one-off opportunities. When the team chose to focus their product lines around a single specialization, market opportunities grew. This also helped to develop a kitchen with fortified knowledge along specific product lines – rendering them experts in their field and allowing them to stand out in uniqueness and quality.
Strategy & growth
Getting the team to think towards "long-term investment" rather than "quick wins" was notoriously difficult. Most work focused on day-to-day operations – fulfilling orders and troubleshooting – and there was often little effort to create long-term strategic directions. The Nawaya team helped to create several long-term business plans, but these proved to be complicated, un-useful, and not reflective of reality.
The team thus started a new meeting format that allowed for the design and creation of strategies. Overall strategic directions were discussed, calculated, and agreed upon for 6-month periods. Every month, the team would meet and report on progress for their financial goals. Reports were then shared with all members of Baladini and Nawaya. This helped establish a regular schedule for thinking forward, while also understanding the current picture. By focusing on lean data collection and reporting, it also helped foster a resilient approach fitting the nature of a small rural enterprise.
Diversification of markets
Finally, the Baladini model is aimed at providing diversified revenue sources that can buffer enterprises from shocks or changes within one line of revenue. To date, much focus has been on high-income (A-class) niche customers – a food market that, despite economic downtowns, has continued to grow by 11% over the past 5 years. This niche market is particularly protected from pricing pressures and mainstream marketing – offering a safe and stable source of income for rural communities. Within this market, the Baladini team has worked to build diverse product lines, including both packaged and catered products. In addition, Baladini works to find employment opportunities in complementary sectors, such as education, where the women can become educators and sharers of their knowledge.
In the longer term, Nawaya aims to enter low-income markets through creative sliding-scale pricing schemes, providing an alternative base of income from local rural communities, increasing employment opportunities, and increasing local trade of healthy food. But this has proven difficult to launch, marked by challenges in finding the markets, in developing proper pricing, and in convincing the women producers to enter this market.
Power in resource control
While much effort has been made to put financial decision-making into the hands of the Baladini women, certain resource "power" is still concentrated in the Nawaya team. In particular, this includes clients and business opportunities. Due to class divisions, limited networks, and communication barriers, Baladini's ability to find and capture clients in high-end markets is limited. While some of the more "trusted" and "safe" clients deal directly with the Baladini team, newer clients often require mediation. Often when the Nawaya team is not active in connecting to new clients, the Baladini business suffers. The Nawaya team may need to recognize that marketing may never be a feasible activity for rural producers based in remote regions, and develop a long-term mechanism for supporting marketing efforts in a financially sustainable way.
Over time the Nawaya team has also worked to coach women to feel more comfortable with ceding power and control. Many were resistant, unwilling to hand over control of certain roles to new women as the organization grew. A sense of competition still remains, and despite inclusive decision-making structures, much decision-making power remains concentrated in the hands of a few women. This has led to many women reducing their commitment to attending meetings and joining in decision making.
Baladini's financial burden still falls primarily on a few individuals. There is a limited willingness by team members – both from Baladini and the supporting Nawaya team – to share in shouldering debt or liability. As a result, when the business suffers, certain rural women receive an undue financial burden.
Overheads & profitability
Baladini has struggled to generate profitability. Most of the time, it is barely able to meet costs. In part, this is due to consistent small orders and sales of products – not enough to break even. Certain overhead costs, such as transportation (especially when sending small orders) cut significantly into profits. Products have also regressed on their efficiency, causing costs to reduce possibilities of profit.
While Baladini's initial product lines are unique and innovative, little has been done to add new innovative products. Embedding business cultures of investment in product development and continual creativity has proven difficult. This puts the business at a significant risk – if new entrants attempt to copy their products and take over their market, they can lose quickly. It also reduces opportunities to sell new and multiple products to continuing customer bases.
Quality & standardization
The team has faced multiple quality issues, including in cleanliness of the kitchen, effectiveness of packaging, standardization of recipes, and customer relations. For some of these problems, outside consultants have been brought in to help find solutions. Others – such as kitchen cleanliness – reflect a lack of responsibility from the side of the producers. For product standardization, it has also been difficult to find motivation within the team to invest the amount of time and energy needed to develop, test, perfect, pilot, refine, and teach new recipes.
Many challenges still exist regarding use of technologies. While smartphones have become more widespread within the team, use of those phones are still limited to applications such as messaging tools. Use of online documents, storage, and spreadsheets that could increase efficiency have not been adopted.
Production technology is also lacking. While access to affordable technologies for traditional foods could reduce food production and general business costs, many technologies for small-scale food producers do not exist in Egypt. Moreover, imported technologies can be cost-prohibitive. The team needs to explore new ways to develop local technologies that can help in the production cycle.
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