It started as a hobby, but has grown into so much more. This is the story of Minnie’s, a local company offering sun-dried, locally farmed organic fruits and vegetables to Egyptian consumers.
For Menar Meebed, known to her family as Minnie, the inspiration for the business came from her grandson. Dismayed by the artificial and unhealthy ingredients in mass-produced supermarket junk food, she began offering him homemade dried apple slices. She soon realized other children, and adults, could benefit from healthier alternative snacks.
With experience in desert agriculture, Meebed had already been a hobby farmer since her retirement in the early 2000s. “Farming was always a passion of mine and I decided that I was not just going to sit and do nothing when I turned 60,” she said.
Meebed transformed a neglected rural family plot in Giza into a small farm, planting moloukhiya, mangoes and guavas. “It was not commercial at all; I was just planting for my family, my children and grandchildren and for friends,” she said.
In 2010, Meebad decided to expand her crop scheme into a small business. With that goal in mind, she headed to India for a training course in the village of Karala, near Delhi, to study advanced food-drying techniques.
“It is not just any food-drying technique that I wanted to learn; I was only interested in sun-drying techniques because I knew that those are the best to keep the food as natural as possible,” Meebed said. “It was a three-week course taught by a German engineer; he brought a new sun-drying technology to the villagers, who had their own traditional know-how on drying food; it was a brilliant course,” she added.
Meebed was so impressed by the German's sun-drying machine that she bought one for herself.
Once back in Egypt, Meebed decided that her business would be all-natural, all Egyptian and almost all done by village women.
“This meant I wouldn't use any imported fruits or vegetables, and that the work would be confined to the morning, as the women are too busy to work in the evening,” she said.
Within months of formally launching Minnie's in 2012, the company's products were finding their way to consumers, first through farmers’ markets in Zamalek and then online. “It was a success because my zero-sugar products appealed to the consumers who attended this farmers’ market,” she said.
Meebed's products are more expensive than industrially-produced sweetened fruits, but attract a niche market of health-conscious Egyptian consumers.
While wary of partnering with larger businesses that could allow her business to expand fast, she is “very keen” to offer her fruit slices to children as “healthy and nutritious snacks” at schools.
With a workforce of no more than 12 people, mostly women, Meebed says that over the past decade, she has been able to expand her product range to include vegetable cubes used for soup, and all-natural vermicelli made from locally sourced maize and carrot flours.
The company is also now planning to launch bird food and dog food, at Minnie's usual high standards.
“Products that are sugar-free and with minimal gluten have been in higher demand as more people have become aware of health issues like gluten intolerance and pre-diabetes risks,” Meebed explained.
To promote healthy eating and the 'Slow Food' movement – focused on preserving local food culture – Meebed has been using the Minnie's website to publish traditional Egyptian recipes based on dried vegetables, which she notes have been part of the Egyptian culinary lexicon for ages.
Today, Meebed wants to make Minnie's products available to a wider market, beyond the affluent Egyptians who can currently afford them. “I genuinely believe that there must be a wider reach, but I am also determined to stay committed to the essence of my project, which is all-natural, all-local, all-sun-dried and all-women-made,” she said.