The Next Kale You Say? It’s Definitely the Next Kirksville Startup
A little trivia: What do the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kirksville, Missouri, have in common? If you guessed amaranth, then curtsies and hat tips to your botanical knowledge.
Kirksville-based entrepreneur Max Mungyeko has found the botanical to be a veritable resource for his business.
Planting the Seeds of a Business Idea
A few words about amaranth first, before we head into how Max grew it and his startup in Kirksville.
A dietary staple in Africa, China, Thailand and South America, amaranth is a plant super rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber (and naturally gluten-free) that typically grows as a small weed here in the United States. Max Mungyeko found it difficult, if not impossible, to get the leaves here after immigrating to Kirksville by way of Illinois around five years ago. And so, like any true entrepreneur, he sought out to solve the problem.
A Business Idea to a Startup Business
Driving past Kirksville’s Small Business Development Center one afternoon, he stopped inside to discuss the idea with Anastasia Tiedemann, a business counselor. As a DRC native, Max already knew what strain of amaranth he needed and how to grow it, but he had no idea how to start a business. Together, Anastasia and Max worked on a business plan to help Max launch a startup that would grow and sell amaranth. SBDC enrolled him in National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps and that is where his business, Feconde LLC, took off.
The NSF I-Corps Sites program enables academic institutions to catalyze teams whose technology concepts are likely candidates for commercialization. It’s a crash course for researchers, students (all levels), alumni and non-academics to encourage technical entrepreneurship by testing research, projects and ideas for their commercial potential.
“I-Corps helped me very much. It was an exercise to help me find potential customers, it helped me to design the product, and after that I started.” says Max.
For each challenge that arose, the SBDC was right by his side to support him through the process.Once he left the I-Corps program, the center helped him obtain a small piece of donated land, one acre to be exact, where he could test growing the crop. While working on his Ph.D. dissertation, he began his certification for food processing and handling. From there, the center connected him with a local church and its commercial facility where he could clean, cut and package the amaranth leaves.
And he’s fully harvested that help and guidance. In his first season, Max sold his entire first crop to another company that vends specialty meats, vegetables and ethnic foods.
A Tip For Starting a New Business
When discussing his entrepreneurial journey, Max credits Anastasia and the help of the SBDC with figuring out how to complete each step required to start and run his business. From sitting with him to research USDA regulations to introducing him to a fellow researcher, Professor Kelly Nelson at the Greenley Research Center at Mizzou that helped him locate his buyer, determine pricing and works with him consistently, Max only has great things to say— and great advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
“I think that to succeed in new business, you need to have a counselor like Anastasia,” says Max. “Anytime I had a question or a problem, I could call or send a message, and we’d work together to try to find a solution for it. We found a solution for the barcode, for transportation, for food processing. Everything.”
What’s next for Feconde LLC?
Max is very passionate about how many vitamins, minerals and nutrients Americans miss out on when it comes to consuming food. On his first encounter with spinach in the States, he was shocked to find out Americans don’t consume the stem, which contains a lot of the plant’s nutrients. And so, he plans to add African spinach to his mission of culinary education and will be testing growing it this year. Eventually, he wants to make a real impact on connecting American and Congolese cultures as he sees so many opportunities for education, wealth building in his home country and cultural development.
Max gave one final word about what he feels all entrepreneurs should know.
“If you have an idea, you need to have a counselor. [Anyone] can have an idea: the right business counselor can connect you with the right resources and help you put your ideas to work. That advice, in my experience, is the key.”