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Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.

 

Renee Dunn

Renee Dunn is the CEO & Founder of Amazi Foods headquartered in Bethesda, MD. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn and learn more at amazifoods.com.


 

TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?

I’m Renee Dunn, the CEO and founder of woman-owned Amazi Foods. We are a mindful food company. We work directly with small businesses and farmers groups in Uganda to make these delicious snacks that I like to think are bringing some much-needed excitement into the dried fruit category. We essentially partner directly with farmers and small businesses there to make our products from start to finish. The idea is to create a much more connected supply chain that also redistributes wealth and is more sustainable than the current ways we source from these communities.

 

HOW DID YOU GET HERE?

I’m very privileged to have grown up with parents who traveled a lot for work and had family internationally. I was always very lucky to spend time in other cultures from a very young age. I went to Uganda for the first time with my dad when I was in middle school. In college, I did my thesis research in Uganda, and when I was there I noticed two big things. One was just how incredibly delicious the local organic fruit was. The flavors were unlike anything we had in the States. I’ve always been very much into wellness when it comes to food, so I was immediately thinking of all these amazing ways that we could take fruits that are going unnoticed and turn them into incredibly delicious products for the U.S. market. 

Renee Dunn

Renee Dunn is the CEO & Founder of Amazi Foods headquartered in Bethesda, MD. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn and learn more at amazifoods.com.


 

The second thing I noticed was why this wasn’t already happening. It was a realization that even though the local economy is incredibly entrepreneurial, it exists in a silo without market access outside of the Ugandan local market. That’s in large part because of how our international food systems and supply chains work. Even if we’re focusing on Fairtrade or ethical sourcing, the farm level is totally disconnected from the finished product. As a result that creates a lot of local unemployment, local food waste, and not a lot of local innovation or industry growth. They’re limited to that resource level, which means even if it was Fairtrade, the farmers are getting more money than they would otherwise but the majority of the value of the finished good is still happening in other economies. I wanted to figure out how to bring more value back to the communities from which we source and actually have them make these marketable products from start to finish, and then learn how to create and sell something of a higher value that will, in turn, build a little bit more opportunity locally. That was the initial thought. I took a little while to get there, one foot in front of the other. I went back to Uganda after a couple of years, built some relationships with local dried fruit manufacturers initially, worked to get feedback on the products, and it evolved from there.

 

WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?

Our core values at Amazi are connection, opportunity, transparency, and quality. Those first three are the problems that I hope Amazi will solve. As we talk more and more about existing power dynamics and existing systems I think that we’ve done that with international supply chains. The resource countries are often those that are also the developing countries – the “resource-rich” – but they’re never a part of the innovation. 

The fact that jackfruit that grew in someone’s backyard going totally unnoticed can sell for $6 on the shelf, why is nobody giving that a chance? To me, it’s really important to start thinking about this from a sustainability standpoint. I think that unless the communities from which we’re sourcing have a hold or a greater stake in the process then we’re just continuing to create these gaps which ultimately are unsustainable. Unless there is more of an equal kind of distribution and inclusivity in our supply chains, one day we’re going to realize we’ve created this big drift between the countries that are growing and the countries that are industrializing. So the question is, how can we have just a more equitable system?

 

WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?

One main thing we measure is how many jobs we are creating, and whether or not those jobs being paid more than local wages. In the past year, we created more than 30 jobs, mostly for youth in central Uganda, and they were all paid 2-3x local market wage. That was just our first year in national distribution. We’ve put together projections that if our current facility is producing at capacity regularly, we should be able to create 150 jobs. That’s just one facility. It’s incredible to think of what we could do beyond that. 

Another big impact is our farmer relationships – how many farmers we’re sourcing from, what percentage of them are women, and what their wages are compared to what they get on the market. Last year we sourced from 300 or so farmers, all of them were paid 33% to up to 68% above market price. Fifty-five percent of those farmers are women. My goal is to have at least 60% of our farmers’ network be women. I think we sourced more than 16,000 kilos of fruit. For me, that’s just signifying that this thesis is doing what it should, that we’re not just creating a factory for no reason but are actually generating lucrative and exciting jobs for people. 

We also do interviews with both farmers and the factory team. The production managers are Ugandan, the facility is majority Ugandan-owned and it’s fully Ugandan-operated. Their responses are positive which aligns with the idea that this is something very exciting for them.

 

WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?

One main thing we measure is how many jobs we are creating, and whether or not those jobs being paid more than local wages. In the past year, we created more than 30 jobs, mostly for youth in central Uganda, and they were all paid 2-3x local market wage. That was just our first year in national distribution. We’ve put together projections that if our current facility is producing at capacity regularly, we should be able to create 150 jobs. That’s just one facility. It’s incredible to think of what we could do beyond that. 

Another big impact is our farmer relationships – how many farmers we’re sourcing from, what percentage of them are women, and what their wages are compared to what they get on the market. Last year we sourced from 300 or so farmers, all of them were paid 33% to up to 68% above market price. Fifty-five percent of those farmers are women. My goal is to have at least 60% of our farmers’ network be women. I think we sourced more than 16,000 kilos of fruit. For me, that’s just signifying that this thesis is doing what it should, that we’re not just creating a factory for no reason but are actually generating lucrative and exciting jobs for people. 

We also do interviews with both farmers and the factory team. The production managers are Ugandan, the facility is majority Ugandan-owned and it’s fully Ugandan-operated. Their responses are positive which aligns with the idea that this is something very exciting for them.

 

WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?

My hope is that one day there are trained product development teams that have all the skills folks here in the U.S. would have – for them to be able to really formulate and scale their ideas with whatever they’re inspired by. I see this intrapreneurship spillover of opportunities beyond what the Amazi brand is building. I certainly see myself growing in multi-brand into other categories. I think we have a lot of potential for further upcycled products. I think there’s a lot of opportunities to create change there and be a brand that people know, one that’s someone’s go-to when they go on a hike or plane ride. 

Beyond that, I really hope that this becomes a model for a supply chain where the local stakeholders actually participate. This is much more than a snack brand. It’s a potential for a sustainable economic model that we can copy and paste into other economies and would be exciting to other countries. People say things like “I never thought that we could be creating these things with what grows in our backyard,” or “I never thought that I could have a secure level of income,” or “I am so excited to try these products.” I hope, too, that one day they can create similar products or help us innovate because this provides direct opportunities for intrapreneurship.

 

WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?

One thing that’s really a challenge for us now as a small brand is driving that discovery. It’s something that I am still really getting a grasp on. How are we resonating with customers? Do customers care about our stories as much as I think they do? It’s a marketing challenge, per se. Especially during COVID, it’s gotten even harder. It’s really hard to build a connection right now and feels like a pretty immediate challenge. 

Another thing is capital strategy, not the lack of access, but more so who are we putting on our cap table? And who are the right people to help us get to our goal? As a first-time entrepreneur, I’m learning about fundraising all at once. So it’s an extra element of understanding the long-term goal.

 

WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?

I want to challenge people to think about sustainability in a more holistic way. I think that sustainability isn’t something that someone makes a claim about one time. It’s also not something that is just limited to environmental sustainability. How are we thinking about economic sustainability, and social causes, and how things play out in the long run? I don’t expect an everyday shopper to think about that when they’re grabbing a snack, but it’s something that I wish people were more curious about. 

Another thing I want people to know is a little more fun. Our jackfruit chews are super addictive. They’re just three simple ingredients and they taste like grown-up roll-ups. I wish more people understood how delicious they were, plus they’re super good for you. If you don’t care about the mission at all, so be it, but the jackfruit chews are damn tasty. 

 

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?

I don’t know if it’s a quote, per se, but the lesson I have to teach myself over and over and over again is some variation of “Keep your blinders on,” and “This is your path.” For me, it’s so easy, especially as a solopreneur, to see what another brand is doing and stress that we haven’t done something. That’s been the hardest thing for me, to come back to what I want to be working on right now, and what our next step is. You can ask people for advice until you’re blue in the face and you’ll get 20 different responses, and then you’re left in an even worse position than when you started. I know who my advisors are, I know who my mentors are, and I always want to get insight. But I have to often remind myself that at the end of the day, I need to focus on what do I think?

 

HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?

Obviously, I’d love for you all to Snack On Purpose. That’s our slogan. You can find us in Sprouts and The Fresh Market, and online at amazifoods.com. I think beyond spending money and trying the product, people underestimate things like writing a review or engaging on social media. Any level of support that others can give is very helpful to us.

 


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