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Soumaya taking the team for a hike to Jabal Mousa, Lebanon

Soumaya taking the team for a hike to Jabal Mousa, Lebanon

Episode 13

22 Jan 2024

36 min 🎧

22 min 📖

Soumaya on Her ‘Snacks on A Mission’ and Embracing Challenges in Lebanon

Soumaya is the founder of TAQA, a healthy snack brand based in Lebanon that champions sustainability. Together with the team, she’s found creative ways to deliver a message of good energy and love for the planet through the products, such as organising the Open-Water Swim Challenge from Cyprus to Lebanon to raise awareness on ocean plastic. The creativity also extends to sustainable operations tailored to the local system and issues, such as hosting Bulk Cookie Day to reduce packaging and commissioning a CO₂ emission report specific to their situation in Lebanon.

Building a food startup is never easy, not to mention the extra challenges arising from the political instability and economic crisis in Lebanon. Navigating the tumultuous waters for over 7 years, Soumaya has learnt how to manage crises with a systematic mindset, investing in the team and recognising the importance of self-care.

During her ups and downs, Soumaya has drawn inspiration from these four books: Let My People Go Surfing, What We Need to Do Now, Small Giants, Good to Great.

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.

Yongsi: First of all, what does TAQA mean?

Soumaya: TAQA means energy in Arabic.

Yongsi: Is that why you name it TAQA? It's kind of like an energy bar.

Soumaya: Initially when I had come back to Lebanon, I started to develop natural energy bars. This is when the process started. I was speaking to my grandmother and that was how we formed the word. I was trying to explain to her - what am I doing? How am I doing this? She said to me in Arabic, oh, so it's like a ‘لوح طاقة (Loh TAQA)’ meaning energy. I said, yes, actually, it's TAQA. That's how the name came to be.

I think that it also fits really nicely with the philosophy of the TAQA Snacks. It says that we really believe that your energy comes from wholesome eating and from the clean ingredients. So our energy is derived from what we eat and what we consume. We thought the name was quite fitting, so we stuck to it.

Yongsi: I love that there is a grandma involved in that. Did she contribute the recipes?

Soumaya: She was not a big part of the contribution, but a big part of the recipe contribution was based on old Lebanese recipes. If you've tasted the snacks, then you'll know, oh, they'll remind you of a Mediterranean flavour or a flavour from the Levant or the Levantine area, because we work a lot with roasted nuts and rose water and orange blossom water. All in the mindset of not recycling, but being inspired by what we used to consume when we were children.

Yongsi: I think we already touched a little bit on this, but can you also give a brief introduction about TAQA?

Soumaya: Yes, definitely. As you said it pretty much at the intro, TAQA Snacks is a brand that is based from Lebanon. It's a healthy snacking brand, but what we really try to work on is on sustainability.

What I would like to see with TAQA is that we are snacks on a mission. We're trying to deliver a message when consuming these products. My objective is that I want TAQA Snacks to deliver a message of sustainability and the importance of the environment every time. We found many different creative ways to do that around a snack.

Yongsi: What kind of creative ways?

Soumaya: For one, it's difficult to compete in the market of convenience and food without noting that we need to use packaging. Packaging mostly in the convenience segment is made out of plastic. I definitely have to be transparent that we're not a perfect brand when it comes to the environment, but we try our best to understand how we can improve our business practices.

For example, to create a complementary solution for our consumers in our local market, we create bulk cookie days. Bulk cookie days are where we open our bakery up and we sell our products in bulk. People come with their own tupperwares and they can buy anything from one kilo to 10 kilos of cookies or stuffed cookies or energy bars. We run those usually three times a year, usually around peak times of the year where snacking is highly consumed. Usually back to school, in the winter season and sometimes at the end of spring we have one. So it really depends.

Also, I think we were one of the first manufacturing companies in Lebanon, if not the Middle East, to do a full CO₂ carbon footprint study. From raw materials arriving at the Port of Beirut to the distribution and to every snack produced, we've linked a CO₂ coefficient that was based on our machinery, on the use of electricity, on the use of our diesel motors etc. At the end of the year we offset our CO₂. We had this CO₂ calculator done by environmental engineers, which is also specific to Lebanon because in Lebanon we use these types of energy. We don't source our energy just from the Lebanese government, but we have our own generators, etc. Then we put up an action plan.

Okay, it's not just enough to offset your CO₂. What else can you do? And we looked at many different ways, you know, how to reduce packaging, how to go from three layers to two layers. When I was speaking about the film, at what point do we get renewable energy? How fast can we do it? Do we want batteries? Do we not want batteries? Because that's also an issue.

We looked really at many different types of things, also like streamlining our operation based on environmental KPIs. One of our biggest objectives now is to innovate a new product line using local ingredients, because Lebanon is heavily dependent on imports when it comes to raw materials. It's not enough to use local ingredients and flavours from the Mediterranean, but how much can we actually source from Lebanon to decrease the transport from our raw materials on our line? It’s something we want to complement our product portfolio with.

We made very interesting products for the Christmas holidays. We innovated three new products with local natural sweeteners. So we worked with carob molasses from Lebanon, apple syrup from Lebanon and grape molasses from Lebanon. Some of them have always existed in our diet for millennia. Apple syrup, for example, is a new innovation that sprouted after the economic crisis in Lebanon.

What's also been really interesting is that a lot of Lebanese are also starting to understand that, oh, yes, we can actually manufacture in Lebanon. As a manufacturer, that actually does add value, because I don't create raw material. That has been very exciting for me to understand - OK, how much can I actually start sourcing from the Lebanese marketplace?

Yongsi: It's amazing that you're trying from all angles to make your brand more sustainable. Some of our audience might think that local ingredients, reducing packaging, carbon footprint accounting might sound familiar. But I believe it’s challenging to try to do these things in Lebanon.

Soumaya: Prior to starting TAQA, I come from a background of anthropology and sociology, so I think it's very important to understand that the business today of TAQA Snacks is built on different values. It was never built on a value of profit only. It was built on values like what it takes to create a good company. Good. What does the word good mean? A company that does good for the person, does good for the employees, does good for the community, does good for the environment that we're living in.

When the crisis started in Lebanon, I had an opportunity to actually focus much more on the messaging of TAQA Snacks, showing the values of this business. The initial few years was just proof of concept. I had to really prove myself, and improve the products, the systems and the operations to everybody. Not just consumers, but distributors to partners to buyers to investors, etc.

The last two years, I've had time, given the situation, to really slow down a bit and focus and bring that message across. I used different ways to do this. We organised a swim from Cyprus to Lebanon. This was an open water swim traverse where we were six swimmers and a sailboat. We organised the swim to really shed light on single-use plastics in the Mediterranean Sea. I think those events or these athletic achievements were really put into place to showcase our values.

Yongsi: That was such an epic swim, by the way. I've watched the video a couple of times and every time I just couldn't stop crying.

Soumaya: Oh, I'm so happy to hear that. It was a very emotional journey, especially because when we arrived, the revolution had started. We were disconnected in our swim. There was a lot there to process, especially having worn two hats during this athletic achievement. I was a swimmer and also the person that organised it. It took a lot out of me.

It also redefined a little bit of how I want to approach this business, like what is important? What is important to me? What makes me wake up in the morning? Because it's really hard. Running a business in Lebanon, you have to have really thick skin to do it. People will say, yes, it's infested with problems. But I think it's also just the DNA of a big part of our country. With the political instability around us, you sort of savour times of stability and get ready for times of instability. For me, I really want people to understand that I'm not just selling a product. I'm selling a vision with this product.

I never saw myself as a business owner of a biscuit or a snack company. When I was 10 or 15, that's not what I saw myself, like a CEO. But I definitely saw myself as someone that wanted to go back home. So I left Montreal to go back home and to leave an impact and do something. TAQA Snacks allows me to do that in a positive way.

Yongsi: You mentioned that to run a business in Lebanon, you need to have very thick skin. Can you share the most challenging moments during your TAQA journey?

Soumaya: There have been many tough places. Definitely the initial two, three years were very difficult for me. As I was saying, I was very new to the marketplace. I met a lot of resistance from different buyers and supermarkets. It really wasn't easy to crack those partnerships that today I need for commercial leverage. I was laying down the fundamentals and the foundation of what it is that I and how I envision things to be. That probably was the hardest time in my life.

I would also say that the onset of the crisis in 2019 and 2020. I had just started to cruise a little bit. The brand was in the market. I'd signed with a distributor. I was trying to look for different potential in the area. And then the crisis hit. That was difficult, because I had to sort of go back to survival mode. I didn't have access to our capital, because our capital was locked in the bank. I was trying to find alternative solutions to actually grow the business and generate sustainable revenue to keep the business alive.

It definitely took a lot out of me on a personal level, but I'm very grateful to have an excellent team. They were also very helpful in that critical time. Part of TAQA's philosophy is that you need to invest in your team to get to where you are. You need to invest in a team and all sorts of things, such as talent, opportunities, exploration, self-trust, self-confidence, and pushing them. I've learned good and bad. I've learned the hard way and the easy way.

Also, part of being in Lebanon plays into that equation. You can't just leave your emotions at the door and come to work. For example, suddenly you don't have gas. You just need to incorporate it, but you have to acknowledge it. I think what's important is that you acknowledge it.

Yongsi: Yeah, exactly. And speaking of your team, how many jobs have you created since you started TAQA?

Soumaya: For our team, it's been anything from 5 to 10 jobs. But I think that the universe of TAQA, like the people we worked with, maybe extends to 100 people who directly have contact with this product other than our customers.

Yongsi: That's fantastic. So before starting TAQA, you were in Canada. Do people in Lebanon judge you as a foreigner in terms of doing business?

Soumaya: That's a very good question. I wasn't born in Lebanon, but I was raised in Lebanon until I was 16. And then I came back and I was 24. I obviously didn't have the background of the Lebanese youth or young adults that had been living there at that point. I think what helped is that I came with a systematic mindset. I wanted to work in a company that is highly effective, and has a small streamlined operation that is able to handle issues. I think that has proven to be the right business model for the Lebanese landscape.

I make fast decisions, but I don't make quick decisions when it comes to the business strategy. I take my time. They say food is a very slow industry. We're not tech - we're tech influenced a little bit with e-commerce platforms, etc. But you still go to the consumers. You have to create demand. You have to create brand awareness, brand equity, demand, then the consumer has to go and buy it. So there's a push. We come from a very old industry, from when there were grocery shops and I work as slow as my industry. That's what I believe. I believe that I'm not here trying to find new gadgets or buttons. I'm working on creating meaning, like a meaningful purpose.

I really think that we did very well. Quickly people in Lebanon realise, okay, this, this company, whether she's a foreigner or not, she's serious.

We got internationally certified very early on, which really set us apart in all regards. We are ISO certified or FSSC certified. We work really hard on our ESG goals. We just do business differently. That's a big part of who we are and why we're still here to date. There were so many times in that last decade that we should have closed shops. I think it’s because we have a solid model in place.

Yongsi: You obviously run your business from your own heart, but have you ever been accused of being Western-centric when you talk about sustainability to your customers and to your partners?

Soumaya: I have heard it. When we did the CO₂ carbon footprint model, in the sense, people say why go into those details. Just plant a few trees. I said, well, it's not about planting a few trees. It's really about understanding your environmental impact.

Today, as a business owner or any person that runs a business, if you don't understand your environmental impact, that means you actually do not care for the new generation to come. This is my opinion that you do not care. You do not have a sense of empathy for what's happening environmentally around the world.

I can become very Greta-like when it comes to this conversation. It doesn't matter if your business model cannot do anything environmental. But if you're a business owner and you're not taking any action to complement it or to compensate for it or to change it a little bit, then today you're not for the planet and today you're not for the next generation. This is how I speak. This is how I think.

Yongsi: Caring for the society, for the next generation, it's not just rooted in the Western society. It's everywhere, supposedly.

Soumaya: Exactly. It's an extremely important point to raise that you need to understand your impact, your environmental impact, through your day-to-day behaviour and operations.

Yongsi: Tell us something fun throughout your entrepreneurship journey.

Any highlights? Any fun stories?

Soumaya: I had a lot of exploration. I had the opportunity to visit a lot of different countries in the Arab world. I went to Saudi Arabia when they had not gone through this modernization era. I had just come to the cusp of it. I was intrigued with how everything was changing so quickly.

Every day there's a new upside to running this business. Recently, we got approached by the Mubadala Open for women tennis. They want to partner up to feature our nutrition bars, which came out of the blue. They sought us out because we are a brand that actually cares about the environment. They wanted a brand like that. So maybe it's not today, maybe it's not tomorrow, but there are always upsides and fun experiences.

A lot of the fun we experience within the bakery with the team. I think those are the most fun parts. It's like you're home with the team and you do little parties or birthday parties. You sit around, have a coffee and actually realise, wow, we've done so much together. We've been through so much together and we're still here. There's a lot there.

Yongsi: It's definitely something to be proud of. Just to see how connected you are with your team. If we put you in your factory right now, do you still know how to make a bar? Do you know how to operate the machines and stuff?

Soumaya: Yes! The machines have changed over time. But one thing about TAQA is that we work really hard to make sure that every employee in production knows how to handle our equipment and our machinery. So we have a nice rotating system that's down in place. But the production has moved beyond the artisanal, the artisan aspect of it.

Yongsi: Now let's wind back before you started TAQA. Can you share what your experience was?

Soumaya: I used to work in internal sales for a company that imported and exported dried fruits and nuts and I must have been 22. And then I worked for a Japanese lady called Marilu Gunji. She probably was my biggest inspiration. I worked with her in her coffee shop. When you've been taught by someone that's Japanese, you sort of understand how to operate anything.

Yongsi: Okay, so your previous experience is actually also food related. What would you have done if you didn't create TAQA?

Soumaya: That's a really good question. I don't really know. I've never really thought about it. I think sometimes you dream about it as a business owner. Like if I didn't do TAQA, what would I do today? Maybe I still do many different businesses. I probably would have been in the service industry or food industry or something between the two. So something like service, agricultural food, but still in that domain, because it's the domain that's always spoken to me.

Yongsi: So it's something that connects people and nature.

Soumaya: Yes, most definitely.

Yongsi: That's nice. And so what's your current day-to-day like after almost 10 years in business?

Soumaya: It definitely changes. There are days when it's much more about operations strategy. I'm always trying to improve the system.

Last year, for example, we implemented a new ERP system (enterprise resource planning) that is allowing me today to work remotely from the operation. That took a lot of time. So for seven months, I was busy with the implementation of a new accounting module and the whole manufacturing module and all of that. Then you cruise a little bit. We did a product launch in September, October, November with this new limited edition. That took a whole new energy again.

It really depends on input. If it's like today, if it's business as usual, I wake up in the morning, I have my meetings, I make calls, I follow up on many different things. If we're having an export order, if someone needs sampling, if we have a marketing campaign that's running, I do the basic business owner stuff. And when I input a new variable, this is when more is required of me.

Yongsi: Do you think there is a work-life balance for you nowadays? I suppose it's hard. When you just started, you must be busier.

Soumaya: For the first couple of years, I didn't even know what those words were. As the business matured, I understood that also taking care of me was a very important thing that I needed to focus on.

Now I'm trying to work on having a healthy relationship with the business, being away from it and being close to it. When I'm away from it, I feel that when I'm back close to it, I need to overcompensate, which is not true. Working online is equal to working physically there. I still have to work on that a little bit, especially having been so close to this environment for so long. And I think that this physical distance will also allow me to actually grow the business in a different way or also be able to grow my business ambitions in a different way. Who knows, maybe in the next two years, it's going to be a new business in a different part of the world.

Yongsi: Looking forward to it! What do you do outside of work?

Soumaya: It depends. It takes all forms and shapes. I cycle. I swim. I play tennis when I'm in Lebanon. I love the beach-and-friends lifestyle. I'm trying now to get into water sports a little bit more. It's never something very specific with me. It just changes.

Yongsi: I can tell that you're an outdoor person.

Soumaya: I love the outdoors.

Yongsi: So back to the open water swim challenge, would you have done it again?

Soumaya: Oh, I definitely will do it again. But I think I'll do it when I'm older. Maybe I'll do it when I'm like 40 or 50. Maybe every 10, 20 years. I'd like that.

I’m also a big believer of tradition. I think what we specialise in TAQA is that we definitely have traditions. On Women's Day, we send out bouquets of flowers to all the women that work with TAQA, which means everybody from the receptionist at the distributor to a CEO. It doesn't matter who it is. It just has to do with women that have had a hand in the development of TAQA snacks. I've been doing this for seven years now.

Yongsi: It's something physical, something tangible. I mean, nowadays, everything is digitalised.

Soumaya: Even for my distributors and so on, I write them a note. It's physical, like you're saying a tradition to a physical, tangible custom that integrates the meaning of the business.

A big part of me is that I have a big problem with consumerism. I think people consume way too much. People buy way too much. I may also be part of the problem. I'm not saying that I'm an exception. No, definitely not. But don't buy stuff that doesn't have a meaning.

Yongsi: Right, because a lot of the time we're just tricked by marketing, right?

Soumaya: I don't know if I'm trying to do the same with my traditions.

Yongsi: But being against consumerism, it's not about zero consumption.

That's not possible. It's about making a conscious choice, right?

Soumaya: Yeah, I like that it's still personal. I like that I know the sales representative that handles one of the biggest accounts in Lebanon on the phone. I like that I know him. I like that I can ask about his children. I like that I can ask about whether they're doing art school or not. For me, it means something.

Yongsi: Totally. I want to reach that level too. Maybe one day, because I don't think it's that easy to do that in a completely online operation. But I'll try. Before we wrap up, do you have any recommendations on books about sustainability?

Soumaya: The book Let My People Go Surfing. A friend called Gino at the time gave it to me as I was feeling lost with what I was doing. I read it and it spoke to me.Between the lines, in the lines, at the end of the book, in the beginning - it was speaking to me the whole time, so I definitely advise people to to read that book.

One very good book that I've recently read for the environment is What We Need to Do Now, which is just very helpful for businesses that are looking for ways, from a global to a very specific action, as well as how you incorporate that model into your own operations.

There's a book called Small Giants. I read it a while back. It was given to me by Ziad Abi Chaker, one of our zero waste gurus in Lebanon. He highly advocated for this book. It takes profiles of different businesses that have done it differently. That also helps cradle me and my business. Sometimes you feel quite alone in Lebanon. But in the last five years, there have been many others. 

A big name to retain is Maya Karkour. She's done a lot of good for green entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Fondation Diane’s founder Diane Fadel has also been a big person in that. There's a new initiative called SWIM, run by Nabil and Lisa. They've also done amazing work such as mixing athleticism and sportsmanship with cleaning up the beaches in Lebanon and creating awareness and civic responsibility.

And then there's Good to Great. It's about what makes businesses good and what makes businesses great. I don't have the best memory, but I will definitely remember the chapter on the bus. It's used a lot nowadays. It's like you can't run a business if you don't have the right people on the bus.

Yongsi: I actually met Ziad myself when I was in Lebanon. He was one of the first people that I spoke with before I finalised my move into sustainability. It was very inspiring to hear about his glass project and the recycling initiative.

Soumaya: It was GGRIL. TAQA Snacks is a zero waste company. It's Ziad Abi Chaker that helped us put this in place. So we work with different partners in the Lebanese market to get our business to our best capability to where it is today.

Yongsi: Amazing! Well, thanks Sumaya for sharing your entrepreneur journey and good luck with your future.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the mentioned organisations. Greensider Foundation does not accept sponsorship for the production of this content. The above interview transcript has been edited.