Building a food business from scratch is one thing. Building a business on a food that Americans haven’t heard of is quite another. Nadine Habayeb and Priyal Bhartia, co-founders of Bohana, are doing just that. Their popped water lily seed snack was unknown when they launched earlier this year, but they’re making short work of building a brand AND a category. The popped water lily seed, which is a puffed snack akin to a popcorn (but WAY more nutrient-dense), is salty, delicious and flavorful. We chatted with Nadine about the challenges of building a product and a category, and their recent introduction into the PepsiCo incubator. Get familiar, because Bohana is soon to be everywhere!
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FB: What does the name Bohana mean?

NH: The name of the seed itself, the actual ingredient, is Makhana. It’s a Hindi word. So Bohana is our play on the word Makhana. It’s the bohemian, botanical version that we wanted to pick.

FB: And had either of you started a company before this?

NH: No. We’re rookies!

FB: Can you talk about your strengths as a founder versus Priyal’s and how those meld together?

NH: We balance each other really well. She comes from an operations/supply chain background in agriculture in India so she’s very familiar with the operations side. I came from a branding/marketing background and putting those together worked really well. We really defined our roles from the beginning and that was important – we could cleanly trust each other with our roles. We feed off each other and challenge each other all the time.

FB: In your BrandBuilder podcast interview, you talked about the challenge of building a supply chain from scratch. Were there any other challenges you didn’t anticipate when you started?

NH: Another big challenge we didn’t anticipate was the difficulty in introducing a new product. We knew there would be some consumer education, but we didn’t anticipate how much that would be. That’s still a challenge, and always will be, because we’re super niche. But hopefully as we grow, and the category grows, that will become easier.

FB: What are the common misconceptions or questions that you hear from buyers and consumers?

NH: The first reaction is: lily pads host seeds? Which is normal! When I was introduced, I was like, oh my gosh – the lily pads that I know here are small and float on ponds. But makhana come from massive lily pads. They aren’t the same lily pads that you and I know – they’re a much bigger version in the same family.

FB: How do you get the seeds?

NH: The industry is not commercialized or commoditized at all. There’s a makhana market, and there are wholesalers and middlemen that buy and resale the product. We bypass the market and make relationships with farmers on the ground. We work with and source directly from them, to ensure they’re making fair wages and that the quality is controlled. That isn’t always feasible for people to do; we just happen to have great connections from Priyal’s background in India.

FB: Congrats on the Pepsi Incubator! How did you know Bohana was ready?

NH: We don’t know if we’re ready! We just applied with all of our fingers crossed and were really honest about what we’re doing and the progress we’ve made and that we’re a really small team with a lot of potential. We see Pepsi as a long-term partner with a lot of synergies. So we communicated all those things and they saw the potential! It’s really great to finally see some recognition for this ingredient.

FB: What are you most excited about in being in an accelerator?

NH: So much. Mostly the expertise of these veterans – they can look at a problem we’re facing and know immediately how to fix it, when would take us months to figure out. Also, already we’ve been forced to think so much bigger. We’ve been micro-focused, so it’s been hard to step out and look at the bigger picture. They’ve pushed us to ask, what’s next? What are our bigger goals?

FB: Do you have any thoughts about being a woman in CPG? Do you think it’s a level playing field?

NH:  Every environment I’ve worked in in the past has been female-dominated so I never personally understood what the boys’ club was until I started in this industry. I can’t pinpoint the reason, but there aren’t enough female role models, I think. There are some really kick-ass female founders, but there are far fewer than there should be.

FB: Can you talk about some of the entrepreneurs that you admire?

NH: Natasha Case from Coolhaus. She has a strong voice, and she has built a brand with so much personality. She’s really brave and is supportive of other women in the community. Another is Livio Bisterzo of Hippeas. We love what he’s done. He basically identified a group of people he wanted to build a brand for, and then built a brand for them. It’s amazing.

FB: Do you have any books you love?

NH: Sanjiv Patel of Lord Nut told me to read “Sell Your Specialty Food” and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s somewhat outdated in its approach to brokers and distributors, but I used it for the basics, which was so helpful.

FB: Do either of you have a mentor?

NH: We have advisors, but neither of us have personal mentors. We talk about it all the time – we need a mentor, and we want a female mentor. It’s really hard to build that relationship, and I still don’t know how to do it. It has to develop organically.

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