African beans could help grow a small Nebraska plant

Fouad Mhadji Issa hopes Nebraska vanilla is the next big thing. Like beef. Or sweet corn.

Koponi Vanilla, his Grand Island business, sells gourmet beans, paste and extract. Fouad is working hard to make Koponi a premium product sought after by chefs and home bakers nationwide.

Yet the enterprise almost died before it started, starved for lack of capital.

Armed with a business plan and vanilla samples, Fouad sat down with bankers and traditional lenders to pitch his dream and get a loan. Everyone said no.

He had no possessions. She had no guarantees. She had no credit.

Then Fouad founded the Center for Rural Affairs.

The center gave Fouad the loan he needed to purchase tanks, pumps and equipment to scale his manufacturing process beyond samples.

“I don’t know where I would be right now because there’s no way I could work alone and make money. You were able to say, ‘We trust you, we believe in you,'” Fouad said of the centre. “I can produce, sell, reinvest and move forward”.

Center staff worked with Fouad to make sure he was ready for a loan and had the financial savvy to succeed. Now he’s making loan payments, growing his sales, raising capital in his own business, and building credit to become Main Street bankable.

“Fouad is a perfect example of the client we want to help: those with limited resources and a good work ethic,” said Kim Preston, director of loan services at the Center for Rural Affairs.

The education landed Fouad in Cornhusker status. Fouad attended Western Nebraska Community College in Sydney for aviation in 2009. In his senior semester, his father fell ill and Fouad dropped out of school to return to the Comoros, a country in southeastern Africa.

Fouad later found work in Nairobi and Paris, but wanted a better life. He decided to seek opportunities through entrepreneurship.

Fouad learned that the United States is the world’s largest importer of vanilla. The country imported $324 million worth of vanilla in 2021. And it knew the right place to source high-quality vanilla beans: Comoros, a small island north of Madagascar in Africa, where it grew.

With the seeds of a business idea, Fouad moved back to Nebraska in March 2021 to kickstart his dream.

“The most important thing to me where I live is the people I live with,” she said. “I wanted to be somewhere I felt comfortable at any time of day, year. And, Nebraska, that’s where I feel comfortable.”

Fouad’s first stops were the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp. He met a local business owner who offered him a rental building and a basement to sleep in. He worked with chamber staff to create a business plan and the Nebraska Innovation Campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to develop and refine the vanilla extract recipe.

He also held two jobs, one at a meatpacking plant and the other at Zabuni Specialty Coffee on the Grand Island, where he took a crash course in roasting, production, order taking, and shipping. Fouad has since left Zabuni Specialty Coffee to focus on his business and dreams of the day he can leave meatpacking.

He makes Koponi vanilla extract through a slow process that he says preserves complex flavors better than traditional methods. Each batch is extracted and matured for more than 2,000 hours, approximately three months, without preservatives. Most large commercial manufacturers add caramel, carbon dioxide and heat to create extracts in two to three days.

“But what happens when you use heat? You kill a lot of molecules for binding,” Fouad said. “So that means you don’t get really good vanilla. You kill 30% of it, which just gets less and less flavorful.”

Fouad produces 100 gallons of the extract at a time and distributes its products in six retail stores in North Platte, Hastings and Grand Island, as well as area farmers’ markets. Also supplies to a brewery and sells online.

Demand has outstripped supply. Fouad expects to scale up to 300-gallon batches soon.

“I’d like to do it as soon as possible,” she said. “I’m working to make sure I have an income, but at the same time I’m wasting production time and sales. I wish I could wake up in the morning and focus all on vanilla.”

The Center for Rural Affairs is available to Fouad as he grows his business. Fouad has limited opening hours, but orders can be placed on by visiting the Koponi Vanilla Online Store.

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