N.C. food companies eye international markets

by | Jan 22, 2014

Kehinde Olajide of Hemisphere Beverages discusses his product, ZOBO, with Japanese importer Yuko Okuboa during a recent inbound trade mission hosted by NCDA&CS.

To an outsider, inbound trade missions may look a lot like speed dating. Eight food companies set up tables around a room with their food products and samples. Four potential buyers then rotate throughout the group, spending about 30 minutes with each company. If there’s a connection, the buyer will contact the food company for another meeting, which could lead to exports of the company’s product.

Last week, the department held an inbound trade mission for international buyers from Canada, China, Germany and Japan. Those buyers met with more than 30 North Carolina specialty food companies in Raleigh and Concord interested in expanding into international markets. About half of the participating companies export to some degree already. Others, such as Kehinde Olajide of Durham-based Hemisphere Beverages, are hoping to break into the international market for the first time.

Olajide’s product, ZOBO, is a tea made from the calyces of hibiscus plants. The drink is named after a popular African drink, zoborodo. Hemisphere Beverages packages it as a traditional tea, but also as a powdered drink mix to make it more convenient.

The idea for ZOBO came after Olajide shared zoborodo and African foods with his classmates at UNC-Chapel Hill as part of a presentation. He was working on a business plan for a website dedicated to African cuisine and decided to bring in samples to taste.

“They didn’t take the food, but the drink, everyone liked it,” said Olajide. “That night I told my wife about what had happened, filed the trademark, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

In about five years, Olajide has expanded sales of ZOBO domestically. You can find it in Sam’s Club stores across North Carolina, as well as several Carlie C’s IGA stores. His next step is to create a market for it outside the United States, and he has already participated in trade missions to China, Canada, South Korea and Hong Kong. But finding international buyers on your own can be difficult.

At one time Olajide worked on his own to find a distributor in China. A deal was reached that would have placed ZOBO in thousands of movie theaters there. Unfortunately, the deal fell through. Since then, Olajide has worked with the department to find international buyers. He said that trade missions organized through the department have been helpful because all the buyers are verified through the Southern United States Trade Association.

While there are no guaranteed purchases with inbound trade missions, they offer companies a chance to receive feedback from a verified buyer without having to travel around the world. Tips on pricing, package design and marketing are invaluable, especially for small and medium-sized companies without exporting experience.

“This is a great opportunity,” said Peter Thornton, NCDA&CS assistant director for international marketing. “If theses companies did it alone it would cost thousands. This event costs them $20 and a tank of gas.”

Olajide felt optimistic after his meetings. He said that both the German and Japanese buyers were interested in ZOBO. He hopes that interest will lead to more meetings and, eventually, seeing ZOBO on international shelves.