Empowering farmers and improving nutrition
Published: February 28, 2014
MIT Sloan students launch gluten-free foods startup with roots in Africa
Aleem Ahmed and Caroline Mauldin, both MBA ’15, are staking their future on teff, a tiny East African grain. The MIT Sloan classmates launched Love Grain in January 2013 with two goals: to produce gluten-free products from teff and to improve the lives of farmers in Ethiopia.
“We’re really excited about bringing new, healthier foods to market in the U.S., and at same time we’re really passionate about the social mission of the company, which is to help farmers double their output and triple their profits,” Ahmed said. “It’s a powerful way to help farmers live a better life.”
Teff is a high-protein, high-fiber grain, a staple in Ethiopia that Love Grain is incorporating into a line of gluten-free products. People with celiac disease or those who are sensitive to gluten—a complex protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—need gluten-free options in their diet, and the gluten-free category has grown dramatically in the United States in recent years. Love Grain’s first commercial run—1,400 units of a pancake and waffle mix that sells for $8.95 a package—went on the market just before Christmas, selling online at lovegrain.co and at Violette Gluten Free Bakery in Cambridge, Mass. The company is already profitable.
Caroline Mauldin, MBA, ’15, presents Love Grain at the SWIM startup pitch competition
“We like to think of ourselves as a new kind of food company that connects farmers to families through Love Grain products,” said Mauldin, who is gluten-free herself and Love Grain’s top test customer. “We want to capture value here in the U.S. and send it to Ethiopia, ultimately helping everyone who touches our supply chain.”
The idea for the company emerged from Ahmed’s experience in East Africa, where he initially worked on a water safety project in Kenya. “I wanted to have a grassroots, on-the-ground experience, to see what life would have been like if I’d grown up there,” said Ahmed, whose mother is from nearby Tanzania. “Working in rural Kenya, I realized that agriculture was a really critical part of everyone’s life.”
Ahmed next went to work for the Ethiopian Agriculture Transformation Agency where he learned that 7 million teff farmers lack a market for their grain. It wasn’t until he came to MIT Sloan that he had an idea for how to help solve their problem.
“I hadn’t lived in the States for a few years, and I realized that the gluten-free market had really grown while I was gone,” said Ahmed, who along with Mauldin is enrolled in MIT Sloan’s dual-degree program with the Harvard Kennedy School. “That’s when the light-bulb went off, and I saw that this could be an opportunity.”
Ahmed and Mauldin began working with fellow classmate Kaia Lai, MBA ’14, and with a lot of help from MIT Sloan—including business plan assistance from classmates, advice from MIT Media lab lecturer Joost Bonsen, MIT’s Public Service Center, and the team at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship—Love Grain was born.
The company has since gained some funding from MIT sources, notably taking home a top $10,000 prize in the 2013 MIT IDEAS Global Challenge. Love Grain also won the MIT Africa Innovate Business Plan Competition run by the MIT Sloan Africa Business Club last spring, and in February 2014, Mauldin was a co-winner of MIT Sloan Women in Management’s first-ever startup pitch competition.
“I did not expect to start a company when I came to MIT,” said Mauldin, a former speechwriter for the U.S. State Department. “Sloan really appealed to me because of the mission on the wall—to improve the world through business. [At Love Grain], our hearts are in building a company that improves the lives of farmers in Ethiopia.”
Love Grain is still working to establish a market for teff, but the founders’ longer-term ambition is to build a processing facility in Ethiopia to contribute to the country’s economic development. “Once you create a supply chain you can do all these cool things—provide fertilizer, farming technology, crop insurance,” Ahmed said. “More market-based linkages to the world would really help Ethiopians.”