2020 December-January Analysis Featured

Georgian snack start-up Enkeni’s journey to make a healthier chip – from apples

An innovative drying method, scientific curiosity and the search for a healthier but equally delectable chip has led three young Georgian entrepreneurs to the discovery of a crispy, innovative snack.

For many of us, there is a small hop of joy when we discover a nice-looking Georgian product on the shelves of a local supermarket, amid that wall of items that come from far afield. Enkeni is one such product—attractively packaged apple chips, from Gori orchards, in red, green, and yellow varieties.

Three young entrepreneurs are behind the product: Nona Noniashvili, Tamari Sheitnishvili, and Shalva Mdzinarashvili. They began their “start-up journey,” as Noniashvili puts it, at the Agricultural University of Georgia (known to many as the Free University), where they were studying food science and business. In one lecture, they learned about drying fruits, and “we were so fascinated by it that we started experimenting with the process ourselves.”

Persistence was key: it took them several months of testing to achieve apple chips that, as Noniashvili puts it, “had greater flavor, were crunchier, and more enjoyable to eat.” Once that was in place, the three entrepreneurs decided to start building F.I.T., “a healthy snacks company.” Two of the founders, Noniashvili and Mdzinarashvili, had specialized in food technology, while Sheitnishvili studied business administration.

At the heart of Enkeni is an innovative drying method, says Mdzinarashvili, which seeks only to remove the water from the apples while leaving all the vitamins and nutrients in the chips. The crispiness comes from making the chips very dry. Almost all the water content—about 85% of a typical apple—is removed and the chips only retain a 3-5% moisture level. There are no additives of any kind. The team undertook extensive market research, tasting fruit and vegetable chips from companies around the world. They found that, compared to their own chips, these international products typically relied more on hard baking rather than tender drying, that they had thicker slices and were visually darker. They focused on developing Enkeni as an alternative: thinner, with an attractive visual appearance and a unique texture and taste, combining appeal, fun and health.

The case of F.I.T.’s Enkeni illustrates that business support can help young entrepreneurs to develop their ideas. These start-up programs, Sheitnishvili says, “gave us enormous practical experience and the opportunity to create a strong team.” The Estonian Smart_up_Georgia 2015 program helped the team to construct a drier prototype, after they placed at the top from among more than 100 participants. Having follow-on support helped: in 2016, the team won the “TS Fund” competition, constructed a more efficient dryer and purchased a packing machine. With these building blocks in place, the team proceeded to win support from “Startup Georgia.” The prize money allowed F.I.T. to build a small factory in the village of Ditsi, in the Gori region, to purchase further machinery and equipment, to take its first packaged product (Idared apple chips) to the market, and to develop its distribution network.

In this story there is a warning to other start-ups, too—much more than a good idea is needed to develop a viable business.

Noniashvili says that three lessons stand out for her that may be useful to other founders. The bedrock is “love/commitment to the start-up,” to see you through the inevitable reversals. To develop quickly and efficiently, time management and specialization is crucial. You cannot do everything; the things you do, you have to do well. Tasks need to be completed. And you have to keep improving, with passion and competence, as a necessary driver. It helped the team, Noniashvili adds, that all three founders are personally involved in every strategic and operational issue, though with specific roles.

The three founders put a special emphasis on being close to their customers. They take part in events, exhibitions, workshops and festivals. The founders themselves hold tastings in leading sales outlets or fitness clubs: “During the tasting process, we establish face-to-face contact with potential customers and share our start-up story. In this way we’re raising brand awareness, empathy and gaining useful feedback,” says Noniashvili. Sales are part of product development.

With a well-rounded and attractive product, advertised by word-of-mouth and with nearly 10,000 likes on Facebook (as well as some celebrity endorsements), Enkeni is now sold in Tbilisi’s leading outlets, including Agrohub, Europroduct, Fresco, Goodwill, Nikora, and several Spar markets. In Rooms Hotel the chips are available through the in-room mini bar.

Farmers in the Gori region win, too. They can supply F.I.T., which in turn can process fruit when there is peak supply from apple orchards. When selecting apples, the F.I.T. team first performs a visual test, and then selects samples for further lab analysis in accredited partner laboratories. Only top-quality apples are suitable when creating top-quality chips.

F.I.T. wants to develop more products and reach more markets. The founders argue that “healthy, trendy and innovative snacks for a modern society” are part of a growing trend, in Georgia and across the world. People want to live healthier lives. The trend is a response to a real problem, as external numbers show. Obesity among children in Georgia in children and adolescents aged between 9-15 has risen from 1.9% to 8.5% from 2000 to 2016, a whopping fourfold increase, according to the Global Nutrition Report. Another study published in 2019 in the BMC Public Health Journal indicates that the adult obesity rate in Georgia stands in excess of 33%, with an increase of 8.5% from 2010 to 2015. The latter study concluded that “interventions aimed at improving physical activity and healthy dietary intake” are needed.

Enkeni responds to this weighty problem by offering a sweet, light, and tasty product. Alternatives to highly processed snacks with industrial ingredients seem to be in demand, according to one industry insider, who estimates that sales of healthy foods in Georgia may be as high as 500,000 GEL per month. Noniashvili concurs. “Awareness of healthy eating and snacking is gradually growing, and more and more people are shifting from ordinary snacks to eating Enkeni,” Noniashvili says. There is demand for more variety, too, which is why the team in the future wants to develop dried vegetables, tangerines, pumpkins, melons and other fruit.

Ideally, Noniashvili says, they would like to achieve good coverage of the Georgian market and eventually export to the U.S., the EU, and parts of Asia. Having seen what else is available in the market, F.I.T. believes it has a competitive product, and are currently talking to some potential clients abroad.

For growth, F.I.T. is hoping to take advantage of various business-grant projects to expand their production. To the extent possible, the three entrepreneurs seek to bootstrap with a mix of their own resources and support programs. “We want to start negotiating with investors when the company is well established and big enough,” according to Noniashvili. Having committed so much time and effort over previous years, they see this as the least-risky path to growth.

What can others do to help promising food start-ups grow in Georgia? Supermarket chains could help by providing easier access to their shelves, with lower fees, and by providing opportunities to hold marketing activities, such as free tastings. This would help more customers get to know this innovative local product. Others could help by giving products from start-ups as a small gift, as a healthy alternative to chocolate or the obligatory bottle of wine. Next to selling via major outlets, the F.I.T. team is also committed to direct service. For orders above 100 GEL, one of the team members will deliver the product directly to one’s house in Tbilisi, at least for the time being.

You can follow Enkeni on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/enkeni00/

Dr. Hans Gutbrod teaches at Ilia State University. Guga Chomakhidze contributed background research to this article.

Know of other promising start-ups delivering exciting innovative products? Let the Investor.ge team know. We’d love to feature growth stories from Georgia.

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