Of 128 submissions, Cuzena was a finalist in the Kraft Heinz Innovation Challenge. Shadia Al Hili is a passionate foodie bringing unknown dishes to the mainstream, mainly Middle Eastern cuisine. Cuzena is known for its fine, uncomplicated food and ancient Arabic recipes.
Nicole Astra: Welcome to Talking Plant Protein. I'm Nicole Astra, and my guest today is the founder and chief fava slayer of Cuzena. Please welcome Shadia Al Hili to the program. I'm so pleased to have you on this show. My first introduction to you was at Future Food Tech, the Kraft Heinz beans innovation challenge, and your presentation was so intriguing. I'm so pleased to be talking to you live. Tell me about the origin story of Cuzena.
Shadia Al Hili: Well, Cuzena was built around a recipe, which is a product called ful madamous, which basically is fava beans. So it's a staple product to the Middle East, and it's the Middle Eastern version of beans on toast. So similar to [inaudible 00:00:52] with their great British beans. This is like the Middle Eastern version, if you like.
Nicole Astra: And starting is very difficult in this business, as we know. How have you secured funding so far?
Shadia Al Hili: Yeah, that's taken a minute, to be honest. I think the difficulty with us was not only securing funding. That came much later, I suppose. I recognize and hence the light bulb moment that ful madamous, the fava bean product, basically, wasn't on the British market. So it was the first step was trying to speak to the mainstream and making that into the arena as simply as you would understand hummus, if you like. So if you said the word, and still now, we're still on that journey. If we say fava bean dip, great, people get it. But if you say ful madamous, it's like, "What is that?" So even trying to get any form of investment for products that people don't understand was really difficult.
Shadia Al Hili: I was very lucky in the early parts of my journey. When we first launched, on our launch, we launched in 2018 with a really soft launch into the food world. We used a really big stage, because we really believed in this product that's been eaten for years in staple countries, the Middle East. And there was a fava bean farmer that happened to be walking round that, I suppose, had his own annoyance, if you like, at the way fava beans were used largely at that time for cattle feed and certainly didn't have the spotlight that we now see on plant proteins. And I think this was a third time generation farmer, a bit peeved that his beloved fava beans were not utilized in the way that was intended. We've eaten fava beans in Britain since the Iron Ages in largely the Middle East. So on product alone, he just enjoyed the product, the taste, and we started talking. I was looking at investment, very quickly realizing no matter how great a product is or how much you believe in it, which I absolutely do, that in order for scale, investment is really important to get your story or get your product out there.
Shadia Al Hili: So I suppose we had synergies in that. Where he wanted to go with the fava bean matched my product, and he became currently is the only investor and the first investor in Cuzena and that-
Nicole Astra: That's wonderful.
Shadia Al Hili: Yeah. So I don't know if the stars were aligned or that was luck, but it really, I suppose that helped the story in some way. You sat with buyers, and I've just got passion around food. I'm just a general foodie, I suppose. So if you have a general foodie and along with this beautiful backstory of a fava bean farmer, that really wants to give the forgotten British fava bean a platform. We just worked.
Nicole Astra: And let's talk about the fava bean. In the States, for me it's more of a snack, and it's a great replacement because it's such a powerhouse of nutrients and protein. And probably more importantly is what it is not. So tell us about the characteristics of the fava bean.
Shadia Al Hili: Sorry. In terms of what it's not? [crosstalk 00:04:42].
Nicole Astra: Allergen free. Yeah. That's okay. Allergen free, so we're getting all of those wonderful nutrients and it's an excellent protein supplement, but it's for everyone.
Shadia Al Hili: Yeah. It's for everyone. So it's allergen free. It's just really versatile, I suppose. So regardless of what ... And it differs. So if you eat it with the skin, it's a longer process to cook, but it's got added nutrients within the skin. If you eat it without the skin, it's really versatile, and it's good mood food. And I suppose one of the main things in this journey, and I came in and to this arena, if you like, largely just with a recipe and enjoying food. And it was only going through the nutrients and the added value that this fava bean could give in a really simple format, and understanding it has minerals, one being levodopa, which probably excites me the most. Levodopa is a mineral amino acid that is largely found in the medication of Parkinson's, dementia, autoimmune.
Shadia Al Hili: So I'm like, okay, okay, and contacting Parkinson's and dementia societies and looking at different parts of the world where that is lower, if you like, and trying to understand, okay, it's on the front of medical science, but they're not things we can scream about. So I suppose that very line of, "You are what you eat," and thinking, okay, if levodopa is in the fava bean and it's also used in medication, if you consume more of this, this can help those who suffer with things like autoimmune, dementia. Or if it's in your family and you know that you can help someone. And actually, it's in my family. Perhaps if I eat some more of food of value, nutrients, it would help me. And I'm probably going off scope here, but it's [crosstalk 00:06:42].
Nicole Astra: It's the power of plants.Yeah.
Shadia Al Hili: It's the power of plants, and and I think that's why we really aligned with the power of the beans with the Heinz challenge. That for us was huge. And I suppose in honesty, even when we heard of it and we watched the webinar and watching people link in, we're like ... I mean, I remember being in the office thinking, "Nope, Nope. Too big. No, no, we can't. No, no, we just, no." It's just too big. We're not there. We're this really small brand. And it was only until literally that webinar and Eric started speaking about the power of beans. And for me, it was almost like I'm speaking to you. Everything disappeared. Everything he was saying, I'm like, tick, tick, tick. That's a tick. And we were like we fit in all those consumer needs.
Shadia Al Hili: Our biggest thing was probably what you said earlier is the understanding. We knew that we needed a platform, much hope for a platform still of making this really powerful, simple, humble product versatile and accessible and just easy to enjoy simply because of what it gives the human body, and that allows the mission to carry on, I suppose, and keep-
Nicole Astra: Well, and let's go back to Future Food Tech for just a moment, because kudos to you guys. Over 120 submissions. Only a few rose to be semi-finalists, and you got to share this story on such a global platform. So I'm hoping that that traction continues for you guys. And my final question for you, Shadia, is what's next? I think you've got some exciting news to share.
Shadia Al Hili: Yeah, what's next. It was. It was a great platform, and we're continuing conversations from that with lots of different companies. So we are really excited and appreciate that.
Shadia Al Hili: What's next. Well, we've just launched a range of hummus to go with little pretzels. So we've just launched with a large distribution company called Bidfood. So that's a new sector for us with the food-to-go range and just making hummus exciting. So that's that. We're also working on a range of sauces, which is kind of Middle Eastern sauces prepared in minutes that can really give you the authenticity when you are time poor. And whether that's largely, however you want to eat it, veggies and whatnot. So, yeah, we are excited of making us as accessible as possible.
Nicole Astra: Thank you again for your time. This is the first time we have highlighted fava beans on Talking Plant Protein, and I'm so pleased it was with Cuzena. We wish you the best.
Shadia Al Hili: Ah, thank you so much. Thank you.