The Yes People is a new bimonthly series profiling founders who said “Yes,” when others said “No.” These founders now run successful businesses, The Yes People examines how they knew to persevere and negate negativity.
Bottles of Berry Bissap, a deep magenta hibiscus drink with roots in West Africa, now sell at some Whole Foods and Erewhon, among other specialty markets. Before these mainstream supermarkets carried Berry Bissap, founder Akua Kyerematen Nettey sold her homemade bissap at a farmer’s market in Oklahoma City, where her parents settled after immigrating from Ghana. Since that farmer’s market in 2015, Nettey’s relocated to the Hudson Valley and Berry Bissap has flourished, it launched in 2019. Today, Nettey and her four employees are trying to keep up with the demand, which she calls a “good” problem to have. She’s running up against a familiar wall for women in business: lack of capital. With $50,000 in loans so far, she’s looking for investors to help her scale the company.
Products marketed as having roots in West Africa might have been too mysterious for mainstream US consumers in the past, but according to Nettey, it’s now what gets her in the door. Nettey says people of all ethnicities are buying Berry Bissap, especially “bougie,” as she puts it, working women of color who she classifies as go-getters. “I’ve noticed they’re a bit sassy,” she adds. The bottles are wrapped in colorful labels featuring a graphic hibiscus flower motif.
But when Nettey was first conceptualizing a possible business selling bissap, a beverage she grew up drinking, Nettey says her friends were lukewarm, if not chilly, about the idea. It can be soul crushing for a budding entrepreneur at the nascent stage to be unsupported by friends.
However, negativity didn’t squelch Nettey’s drive. What made her say “yes” to Berry Bissap despite friends’ discouragement? Nettey spoke with The Times of Entrepreneurship about the decision to launch Berry Bissap without the support of friends.
Nina Roberts: First, tell me a little about Berry Bissap.
Akua Kyerematen Nettey: Bissap is a hibiscus beverage that I grew up drinking, it’s traditionally spicy, tart and very sweet. My mom used to make it, sometimes she’d cut up frozen pineapples and throw them in there. It was just delicious and I loved it. I’ve enjoyed all my life and always wondered, “This is good. How come it’s not in stores?”
Growing up, we did not go to Ghana very often because it was just too expensive to fly back and forth. But my parents would go one by one, my mom would always bring back hibiscus and the spices to make bissap.
I’ve reformed the recipe a bit for Berry Bissap, I lowered the sugar, but kept the indigenous spices, so it’s not sacrificing any of the flavors.
NR: How did bissap go from an idea, to a business?
AKN: I was just toying around ideas while in college and I realized, “This can really sell.” At the time, I was in Oklahoma, I had a really tight-knit group of friends. I was excited and talking to them about the idea of a bissap drink. I made some for them and they were like, “Oh, I don’t like it.” Or, “This doesn’t taste good.”
NR: Were they American? Did any of them have any kind of immediate connection to Ghana or other West African countries?
AKN: My friends of Ghanaian and of West African descent, they loved it, but they weren’t supportive. My other friends, most of them Latinas—almost all of my friends were people of color, those are the people I gelled with, I had a few white friends—none of them liked it! One of them said, “Oh, this tastes like agua Jamaica, this stuff we used to drink in Mexico, it’s the flower drink, ugh, it’s disgusting.”
Another friend said how beverages is a very difficult, expensive sector, it’s capital-intensive, which requires investors—requires this, requires that. Just a lot of negativity.
First, I was pissed off! I became very discouraged in the beginning. I thought my friends would ride with me, they’d be like, “We’re all supportive!” And I got zero support, they were not interested.
NR: Was it just because they didn’t like the taste of bissap? Or didn’t like the idea of you taking a risk and launching a business?
AKN: They thought I would run my parents’ restaurants. My parents own two popular restaurant franchises. I ran and managed them while going to college.
NR: So they put you in a box, you’re the restaurant person.
AKN: Exactly. Like, why do you want to venture into something else? When I told my parents what my friends were saying, they said, “Don’t let anybody tell you what you can and cannot do.”
NR: I love that!
AKN: My family was very, very supportive; my parents instilled the entrepreneurial fire in me. My dad thought bissap was great business idea. I was very blessed to have so much support from my parents because there are a lot of people who don’t have that.
Also, my husband, boyfriend at the time, thought Berry Bissap was an excellent product. He said, “I know it’s going to be very difficult, but you can really do this.”
NR: That’s the kind of guy you want on your side.
AKN: The first store to take me on here in the Hudson Valley after I moved was a local grocery store called Adams Fairacre Farms [https://adamsfarms.com]. I was doing demos, people loved it, I got it into nine stores that year.
I wanted to take it to the next level so I took an online CPG (consumer packaged goods) course with Allison Ball and that’s when I learned about educating people about West African representation.
NR: Did she advise you to embrace the story where it comes from? Don’t try and “Americanize” it?
AKN: Absolutely. She’s really helped us.
When I started approaching bigger stores, I felt discouraged because most said bissap wasn’t going to work for them. I believe it was the packaging, maybe it had something to do with the connection to West Africa, or just a fear of the unknown.
I rebranded with Macaroni Creative, they created the packaging we have now. They basically turned our brand around, for the better. I want the consumer to see Berry Bissap as a bright, vibrant brand and unapologetically West African. We relaunched with our new branding April of 2020 and [laughs] 2020, that was one crazy ass year, for everybody.
We got it on the shelves and it started catching eyes. And then, summer 2020 happens and we all know what went down with Black Lives Matter. All of a sudden, if you were a black-owned business, people wanted to hear about it. We were featured in Cherry Bombe and other places like the Food Network.
AKN: Business really took off in 2020, we got a call from Whole Foods and then Erewhon, everything just started snowballing. I was so grateful, I was like, thank you Lord.
When I started posting about it a little bit, my friends in Oklahoma, [laughs] well, my so-called friends, were like, “What?” “Oh my gosh, you’re in Whole Foods?” “Wow. This is crazy.” “You were on the Food Network?”
NR: Now they’re interested.
AKN: I’ve learned a very hard lesson. I believe that when you are achieving your dreams, sometimes you can’t tell people everything. When you sense that negative attitude, you’ve got to cut them out. You have to be very mindful what you share with people. And always take people for who they are, not what they could be. But I think now I’ve come to realize that nobody can stop me.
NR What about today’s challenges?
AKN: I’ve been very discouraged when it comes to loans and funding. We are trying to keep up with the demand, there are two major retailers who want to take us on. I’m thinking, how can I fund this? Two startup capital firms that invest in CPGs are interested in us, but they said were too small. We’ve been bootstrapping, we had to get a personal loan to continue.
NR: I’m surprised there aren’t more interested investors, considering the consumer demand.
AKN: People say, “You’re a black, woman-owned brand, investors are looking for these.” Well… where are they? This morning I had to say to myself, “it’s going to come.” There’s going to be someone who believes in our vision, who will fund our vision. I know we will grow and succeed.
Most people get stuck with discouragement. But I know if I can get over that discouragement hump, things happen.
Resources For Food Ventures:
For education: Allison Ball’s course, here
For a rebrand: Macaroni Creative
This interview was condensed for length and clarity.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.