Yonas Alemu is the founder of Lovegrass Ethiopia, a health food company in Ethiopia that makes a variety of products from teff and other Ethiopian grains.
Teff, an ancient grain native to Ethiopia, is considered a superfood; high in fiber, gluten-free, and packed with vitamins, minerals, and protein. Alemu decided to venture into this space after coming across teff in some health food stores in London, according to How We Made It In Africa.
Alemu said he was perplexed after discovering the teff on shelves came not from his country of birth, Ethiopia, but from the U.S. where it is commercially cultivated. At the time, he was working as a banker in London. He was soon motivated to move back to Ethiopia to start selling food products in the global market, paying particular attention to teff.
Alemu had moved to Europe from Ethiopia years ago after he won a university scholarship. He spent 17 years in London working in investment banks like Credit Suisse and J.P. Morgan. In 2016, he quit his job at Credit Suisse and relocated to Ethiopia to launch Lovegrass.
Just when he started his factory, Ethiopia was plunged into a political crisis, forcing him to go back to London where his wife and children were residing. He was also confronted with the decision of abandoning the project or outsourcing it. He opted to outsource production by contracting manufacturers in Europe although the raw materials still came from Ethiopia.
He subsequently moved back to Ethiopia after the political environment stabilized. According to him, it is cheaper to manufacture in Ethiopia than in the UK, in terms of power and labor. However, he was quick to add that making a profit was not his sole motive but to contribute to his country’s industrialization.
Alemu said he sources his raw materials directly from farmers. Not only that, he has a long-term supply agreement with them. He now makes the majority of the products in Ethiopia but the pasta is still processed in the UK.
The investment banker turned agro-processor indicated last year that Lovegrass employs 50 people and it is awaiting its BRC food safety certification. In the near future, he plans to move all its processing to Ethiopia, according to How We Made It In Africa
Alemu exports mainly to markets in the UK, then to Ireland, Sweden, Germany, and France. According to him, sales are split roughly 50-50 between third-party retailers and its own website.
Since launching Lovegrass, the company has won several awards for its excellence in the UK and France. As a result, his products have found their way into giant retail outlets, including Ocado, Selfridges, Whole Foods, and Planet Organic.
“The day we first exported [teff] pasta to Italy was probably one of my happiest,” he said.