From a kid raised on balanced eating habits to a weight-struggling teenager, to a woman whose mission is to spread healthy snacks all over the world, Soumaya Merhi is taking it on one supermarket at a time. She founded Taqa, a company that produces Lebanese healthy snacks free from white wheat, milk products, GMOs, palm oil, corn, and soy flour.
The struggle of finding healthy snacks
Soumaya grew up in a family that was very keen on healthy eating, a little kid in a home without candy or soft drinks. When she moved to the USA at the age of 16, she faced a culture shock. “Supermarkets gave me access to all kinds of unhealthy foods, with no or little alternatives. I gained around 20 kilos the first year I was there. Before that, I used to be fit, and I used to work out. That period was very hard for me because I didn’t recognize my body anymore,” she explains. She quickly found a routine that allowed her to start eating healthy again with a more active lifestyle. That’s when she first realized the importance of food in a person’s overall well-being.
Just after finishing her studies in the US, Soumaya moved to Germany where she volunteered to care for children with chronic illnesses. There, she witnessed first-hand the way a healthy diet was incorporated into the treatment of these children. This experience, combined with her own, allowed her to appreciate the importance of healthy eating and pushed her to expand her knowledge of food culture.
In Canada, Soumaya majored in sociology and anthropology, specializing in social economics. She also earned a degree in business administration.
“During my studies, I mostly researched food cultures and traditions. I realized that we weren’t deciding what we were eating, but what big corporations decided to serve their own interests. I realized that the most essential people in the world, the ones who produce our food – the farmers, were at the bottom of the chain. And it’s us, consumers, who pay the price by staying uninformed,” she says.
After graduation, Soumaya started working in the healthy food industry in Montreal, in the production and distribution of organic dried fruits and nuts. She was later trained by a Japanese chef, who remains a huge inspiration for her until today.
The beginnings: selling oat bread at Souk al Tayeb
In 2013, Soumaya moved back to Lebanon and joined her father in BreadBasket, a company he had built in Tripoli that produces wheat-free oat bread. She worked hands-on in developing the brand and expanding the business. She started selling the bread in Souk el Tayeb, a farmers’ market in Beirut. “The problem is that bread is a product that has a short shelf-life. To be able to develop a brand, you need a larger panoply of products,” she explains.
Inspired by her own love of sports and her inability to find healthy snacks on the go, she started baking her own energy bars, cookies, and biscuits and selling them at Souk al Tayeb too. That was how the brand began expanding. However, after 3 years of selling in markets and fairs, she was exhausted, physically and emotionally. In 2015, she had a breakdown: “I was working with all my guts for something that was not mine. I wanted to do more than sell cakes and bread in a market.”
Following advice from a friend, she started working on a business plan for her own vision: making healthy Lebanese snacks available to everyone.
From BreadBasket to Taqa Healthy Snacks
In May 2016, an angel investor put down $100,000 towards Soumaya’s company, allowing her to upgrade the factory of BreadBasket in Tripoli, leading to an increase in the volume of production and product lines. She rebranded the company and named it Taqa, the Arabic word for energy. Taqa is a product range consisting of 16 lines of oat cookies, oat maamouls (Arabic cookies stuffed with nuts or dates), dried fruits and nut bars, bread, and crackers, all free from white wheat, milk products, GMOs, palm oil, corn, and soy flour.
In January 2017, Viridus Fund of Diane Foundation and IM Capital each invested $200,000 in Taqa, and an angel investor brought in an additional $100,000. This allowed Soumaya to recruit a team, rebrand, develop an e-commerce platform, implement a food management system, get ISO certified, and exhibit in London.
“Soumaya is a passionate entrepreneur who understands her business,” says Dr. Nicolas Rouhana, General Manager at IM Capital. “She understands the healthy food industry, she has mastered her recipes. At IM Capital, we support the agri-food industry because it is one of the pillars of the Lebanese economy. That’s why we decided to invest in her business. Taqa has a high potential for job creation, as well as for local, regional and even international expansion.”
Through IM Capital, Soumaya joined Confideo, a mentorship program that allows her to meet four business mentors every month. “It’s one of the most effective tools I received from all this,” says Merhi. “It has helped me with both my business and personal growth.”
“You need to hustle to get your products into a supermarket”
Come her 30th birthday, Soumaya only had one wish: convincing wholesale distributors to carry her products. It took her almost a year to get there, facing rejection from distributors who just refused to take Lebanese brands. “I was Miss Rejection. You have to be a hustler to get into a supermarket,” she says.
Finally, by the end of 2017, after months of hustling, Soumaya signed its first distribution deal, making Taqa products available to the greater public.
Today, Taqa can be found in 300 points-of-sale in Lebanon and the company employs 8 people. Soumaya has also just signed a deal with a distributor in Dubai, and she hopes to distribute her products in the United Kingdom by next year.
My dream is to get Taqa products in supermarkets all over the world! Today, when I see my products on the shelves in supermarkets, I remember all the times a distributor said no to me in the past, and I get super emotional.”