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Tamalli: reinventing informal food systems in urban Sub-Saharan Africa to deliver the world’s most delicious solution to malnutrition

Tamalli delivers everything street vendors need to serve safer & better food, starting with dishes based on ancient Mayan nutrition tech.

Photo of Tyler Goodwin
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Tamalli is the subcontinent's first formal food supply company focused on solving systemic challenges in the informal food system that prevent urban families from achieving dietary quality on a limited budget. We are building a distribution platform to support street vendors as the biggest leverage point in solving urban malnutrition, by supplying them with delicious prepared foods and the tools needed to serve them hygienically. Vendors invest in a Supply Kit with branded service equipment, and purchase a daily delivery of fresh dishes at wholesale prices. The initial product line we are building the supply chain around in Kenya is a range of Afro-Latin fusion dishes that tackle the country's urgent problem with aflatoxin exposure, which is causally linked to stunted growth in children. Dietary reliance on maize is the main culprit in this exposure, and persists despite the existence of a simple and proven solution that has been used in Central American kitchens for thousands of years. Nixtamalization is an ancient Mayan maize steeping process that optimizes maize's nutrition profile, including up to a 95% reduction in aflatoxin. These process benefits are why WHO has named it as the only consumer solution to aflatoxin-related stunting with "sufficient evidence to implement." As a cooking technique, nixtamalization is most naturally deployed through fresh food -- which makes it an ideal technology for anchoring a diet-based solution to child stunting. We believe the primary reason it has not previously been introduced on the subcontinent is the significant cultural exchange required to introduce it the same way great culinary ideas have always crossed borders -- by passionate chefs putting better food on the table. Our model seeks to make this exchange at scale by putting premium and affordable nixtamal-based dishes on every corner, and doing so provides a platform-level opportunity to solve other challenges in the informal food supply such as poor hygiene.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our primary beneficiaries are urban families in major cities across the subcontinent, where the informal food system has failed to keep pace with the needs of neighborhoods booming with rural migrants. We have a particular focus on ensuring our solution impacts women of reproductive age, children 0-5 years of age, and the family's prime income earner. The solution will initially be deployed in Nairobi, Kenya where beneficiaries face a range of both regional and local challenges in accessing a quality diet that make it a strong design context. Our model is also built to ensure strong earning potential for participating vendors by tightly controlling costs, and to maximize profit retained by communities by decentralizing production facilities to the neighborhood level. Smallholder farmers will secure stronger access to market through our significant purchasing power, and corporate profits will be invested into solving big challenges at the nexus of food and sustainable agriculture.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

This approach is unique because the nutrition aid industry in Sub-Saharan Africa traditionally takes the view that nutrition interventions are undesirable and unsustainable, and therefore must be minimized (e.g. through fortifying staples or distributing nutrient powders through government health workers). We take the opposite view by starting with a technology that is undesirable to the aid community because it must be consumed regularly to be effective, and looking at how it's key strengths provide an opportunity to build key infrastructure and a bridge toward a future of abundance. Because nixtamalization actually makes maize more delicious, we have a unique opportunity to use it as a catalyst to provoke the informal food system to better serve people of all income levels. This evolution doesn't need to be limited to nixtamalized maize or any single technique. Our overall vision is to build a movement of people taking greater control over creating the future they want to eat.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Tamalli (www.tamalli.co) was incubated as an internal project of IF Ventures, a Nairobi-based venture studio that helps global corporations build disruptive solutions to their biggest existential threats in frontier markets. Tamalli was identified as an opportunity to overcome the limitations of reaching BoP consumers with high quality packaged foods, and avoid the destructive future of increased distribution of low quality processed foods.

Expertise in sector

  • 5-7 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered company.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Our core inspiration was seeing a huge opportunity for doing nutrition different, and feeling our team is in unique position to execute. One co-founder previously launched a failed nutrition concept in Kenya with several partners (Unilever, GAIN, & IDEOorg), and is eager to overcome the barriers to success experienced. The other co-founder is a Mexican biologist who studies the dietary evolution of early hominids, and has unique perspective on nixtamal's role in Mexico's cultural development.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

We bridge planet and prosperity by building distribution for one of the world's most proven and resource-efficient nutrition technologies. Nixtamalization is tragically underutilized in a time when climate change and price volatility increasingly threaten food security for low-income communities, in a region that will be home to 1-in-5 of the world's women of reproductive age by 2030. Distributing it at scale will position us as a major influencer in the global effort to create sustainable food systems. Despite informal food being the subcontinent's largest consumer market at over USD $120 billion annually, few companies are using this buying power to help Africans create a modern and sustainable informal food system that delivers prosperity for all. By placing sustainable food systems for all at the core of our mission, we can be a powerful force for good in the struggle African nations face to enhance food security and diet quality without surrendering their fate to big agriculture.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

Broadly, we follow a human-centered design process that makes a new inclusive venture the central catalyst in building a thriving multi-sector ecosystem around our vision for change. In Idea Phase, we primarily engaged hundreds of informal food value-chain actors in 3 target neighborhoods of Nairobi, broadly representative of neighborhood-level informal food systems across the subcontinent. This field research included consumer ethnography, value chain mapping, and expert interviews. Getting a pulse on how people relate to food and how the current food system works for them was at the heart of our solution design process. Now that we have a working hypothesis for a business model that can scale, we will validate it through iterative piloting in these communities, which means temporarily limiting ecosystem engagement. Once the concept is further validated, we can engage other multi-sector actors in the myriad of roles they can play in helping to build a thriving ecosystem.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

The community is hungry for more options for achieving quality diets with limited resources, and has a huge contingent of unemployed people willing to hustle in executing a known opportunity -- but low exposure to the knowledge required to lead a bold vision for this project. In other words, the community is eager for change and will naturally develop an army of grassroots supporters as we develop the business model into a set of roles appropriate for a range of community actors to get involved.

Geographic Focus

We are initially focused on urban Kenya, but intend to replicate across urban Sub-Saharan Africa.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

We are now implementing a value proposition pilot in Nairobi (rapid 3 vendor demand test), and will use GHR funding to implement a full business model pilot -- which will be conducted over 15 months (3 months setup and up to 12 months implementation with quarterly iteration cycles). The business pilot aims to blueprint a model for location-level breakeven for our Unit of Replication (UoR), which is a neighborhood-level Milling Kitchen serving up to 100 vendors with up to 20,000 dishes per day.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No
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Attachments (3)

Tamalli Solution Model.png

A diagram of the vendor experience model we are currently validating in Nairobi with live customers.

Tamalli Bridging Strategy.png

A diagram of how Tamalli can bridge planet and prosperity by bridging consumer nutrition with sustainable food systems.

Tamalli Products.png

An overview of the products Tamalli will initially sell, and use as the basis of building our vendor supply platform.

2 comments

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Photo of Angi Yoder Maina
Team

Hi Tyler,

So my kids and I would most likely be your regular clients... we LOVE Mexican street food. But we are not really street food clients and I doubt you would be serving it where I even really have access to it.

But my husband and his clan -- who you would be your actual targets... I just do not see them leaving their githeri or even their ugali... regardless of the nutritional value. How are you planning to get working class Kenyans to change their food culture?

Good luck... and I hope to see the vendor out soon!

Angi.

Photo of Tyler Goodwin
Team

Hi Angi Yoder Maina ! What neighborhood are you in? Our test kitchen is in Westlands, and we’ll be testing demand on mobile food delivery apps as a strategy to fund the pilot. With regard to your question, it’s a big and complex one. Have shared a few quick thoughts below, and would love to have a deeper conversation about our market logic in relation to culture if you’re interested!

The simplest answer is one only the market can give: do people love our foods enough to add them into their diet? In this sense, I find it amusing we hear this question more often than I imagine the folks at KFC do! On one level, we are simply starting the first world-class food concept affordable to people with very low purchasing power. But, to answer on behalf of those we’ve interacted with: we haven’t yet observed any concern that eating our food would mean eating less of something else. Broadly, our working assumption is that this is because most people are seeking greater dietary diversity — and therefore do not view options to add this diversity as a negative tradeoff.

To clarify, our vision for initial recipes isn't about selling Mexican food per se, but making a critical nutrition technique appealing to a market where people primarily want safer ingredients and a more diverse range of affordable food available in their neighborhood (e.g. an affordable Middle-Eastern brand of spaghetti noodles now commonly sold next to tomatoes at mama mbogas in East Nairobi also meets this market need). Field research informed our decision to develop fusion dishes, rather than the two primary alternatives of purely Mexican dishes or Kenyan dishes (substituting nixtamalized maize).

Conceptually, we’re confident this is broad enough starting territory to iterate toward recipes that people love enough to integrate regularly. Fusion is also the best business model for mass market appeal; working only with local ingredients keeps costs feasible and brings something familiar to the taste. We’ve partially validated this through field research and limited taste trials where people in target neighborhoods responded to two different fusion recipes enthusiastically at target prices (N= 1000+ research informants and 80 paid customers). The next step is to validate the rate at which we can expect nutritionally significant repeat purchase behavior when these foods are available on a regular basis.

Culturally, I’m not sure we share the premise of your question in positioning ourselves as the ‘changers’ of culture, which implies a zero-sum game of sacrifice rather than an evolution toward abundance. We do not view ourselves as the keepers of other cultures, but as instigators of positive modernization. In this sense, our role is to add new options to people’s dietary choices and put forward ideas about the future of food that can co-exist with other choices and values.

Overcoming the monotony of heavy consumption of foods like ugali and githeri is something many people are already going to great lengths to do, despite market limitations such as finding unique ingredients and spices near them. For example, in one of our home visits, a woman apologized to us that she wasn’t able to find cauliflower in her local market for the evening's "Kenyan stew", but enthusiastically noted she would be adding masala spice for extra flavor. These are two “non-traditional” ingredients she was choosing to integrate into her cooking, and she took pride in creating something not strictly traditional.

The success of our nutrition impact model doesn’t depend on people changing their food culture or choosing nutritious food over delicious food, but on people changing their dietary pattern in the normative way people around the world do every day (adding appealing new flavors to their diet). Our focus is on building informal food systems that fulfill people's desires for good food in a holistic sense rather than only what’s good for them. For example, we’re marketing the aflatoxin-free food as ‘safe’ rather than ‘nutritious’ because we believe it’s both more appealing and an easier binary choice.

More directly to the issue of cuisine and culture, we do hope to influence people to move beyond some of the more negative aspects of current food culture in the region. Chief among these are the way cuisine has developed primarily around harsh economic constraints and according to colonial intervention in what crops have historically been planted. But, we believe Kenyan food culture (however you define this) and fusion cuisine that integrates other global ideas can co-exist in the same way other national cuisines survive and evolve through contact with international influences. Part of calling something fusion is the willingness to play with cultural boundaries. In this respect, we hope the food we’re putting forward causes people to question their own notions of food, what’s important to them about what they eat, and the future of food they want.