Once you hit rock bottom there is no fear, says entrepreneur Ayalnesh
About four years ago Ayalnesh Dubale was a single mother struggling to make ends meet.
With no chance of promotion she made the tough decision to quit working for others and start Mudai Ethiopis, a company that sells spices and "a large range of all-natural items" from her native Ethiopia.
Today, despite the many challenges that Covid-19 has brought, she is growing her business one customer at a time.
"It was tough. It was hard being a single mom on the island and trying to find a job," said Ms Dubale, who had to make it on her own following her divorce from her Bermudian husband. "It was really hard for me. But I used to work in restaurants; I used to work in retail and my experience when I worked in retail, that’s when my mind was opened up."
She called on her mother in Ethiopia, Asnakech Kasaye, to supply her with authentic spices, some of which were months in the making.
"Back home food is part of the culture. Everybody cooks. Definitely if you are a woman you should learn how to cook and the spices make a difference. It's like an art.
"In Ethiopia that’s how the country, how the civilisation was built, by selling spices. So it's in our blood. Just creating berbere can take two months or so but you have people supporting you, working with you. It's almost like you're the master chef and then you have the sous chefs around you creating spices."
As a child she recalls how her mother would set a day aside, just to make spices.
"You have to create everything for one year because then you can cook easily – all the spices, all the seasonings are there."
On moving to Bermuda she was surprised to find everything "in small cans" and to see food labelled as "organic".
"It was shocking coming from a place where everything is organic," she said.
Having always been "creative" Ms Dubale had long hoped for a project that connected her with her "dream job" – a mix of photography, film and storytelling.
At work she frequently heard customers complain about stores "not having enough good product or healthy products for the right price" and wanted to provide them with an alternative.
"It helped me a lot to realise there was a massive market demand for new types of products that were more natural and transparent with a better responsibility both economically and environmentally," she said.
Mudai Ethiopis offers customers access to "high quality, natural products" and the chance to learn more about Ethiopian culture.
"[Our desire is] to enhance the story of the makers behind the scenes. Our goal is to increase consumer awareness regarding the benefits of natural products and the harmful effects of non-necessary chemicals in the planet we live in," Ms Dubale said.
The spices are especially helpful for anyone struggling to put a healthy, home-cooked meal on the table, she added.
"Living here you cannot cook the way we cook back home. Here, it's a very hectic lifestyle; everybody's busy. I was busy, I was working hard and I needed to find a way to cook healthy foods but I [couldn’t] afford organic food. It was hard for me.
"When I started my own business I [decided to] start with what I have in my own kitchen – the spices and food I have from my mum."
She chose Bermuda as the starting point for her company in spite of the many strikes she had against her here.
"It was not easy having a child and being a woman, being also from another country, being from Africa. It’s a lot of boxes people can put you in and it's hard to break through.
"It was hard to make a living with a new product [especially when] people had a lack of knowledge about the ingredients and the products. So I have had to educate people about what it is I'm doing – what the spices are and how to use them in a very simple way with their everyday cooking."
As part of that education Ms Dubale began offering her services as a chef, preparing vegan and meat dishes "inspired by Ethiopian cuisine".
"People started to say it was really good and so many people started to learn through really, word of mouth. But I have to [rent] a kitchen and so it's hard to [cook for] a smaller group because all your income goes to arranging the kitchen.
"But so far the outcome is amazing. People love the food. It's very tasty, very clean. Every time I cook, people appreciate the food."
While she was confident in her decision to leave a guaranteed income, she is grateful for the support she received from her fiancé, David Chantreau.
"Once you have hit the rock bottom there's nothing to fear; you know how to be low," said Ms Dubale who was unemployed for a while after her divorce more than a decade ago.
"I was questioning myself – how low I can go? It wasn’t how high I can go but how low. When you don’t have anything it's hard to convince people to believe in you."
She continued: "My fiancé has been a very good support. That’s very important – sometimes one door is enough for you to go through or to break through. He really believed in my dreams. He knows how hard I work, how hard I have tried."
Six months after she started Mudai Ethiopis, the pandemic hit. Ms Dubale wasn’t at all fearful of the impact on her business.
"When you live not having a lot you don’t get panicked," she said. "You need to learn how you can handle it."
The challenge so far has been to get all the items she needs from Ethiopia to isolated Bermuda, in a timely and cost-efficient way.
"All my products are sourced straight from Ethiopia by my family and friends and there are no direct flight connections so products either need to go through the UK or the US before reaching Bermuda, which can add some administrative burden and cost extra money.
"[Because] there is no packaging facility on the island, I am importing all my packaging material from abroad and I have to pack everything by myself at my home – this can get very time consuming too," Ms Dubale said.
She is now looking at the US as a potential market for her teas, clothes and spices to fulfil her dream of "seeing my food and my story in every kitchen, in every person's mouth".
"So far Bermuda has been a great place to test the market and the feedback has been very encouraging, both from direct consumers as well as retail stores taking my products," Ms Dubale said.
"The next step for us is to start selling our products overseas, we are currently working on deploying our brand in the US and we’re going to partner with third party companies to help us with the logistic and the packaging. Ideally on the long run I would like to have my own facility in Ethiopia so I can export final products from there while supporting the economy and the community. Most of us we do have the vision, we know how far we can go but we are afraid of the challenge of the journey. I know that I handle the challenge of the journey."
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