‘I really want to make a variety of vegan foods’

Dorji Dema is one of the thriving women entrepreneurs in the country and the founder of Zhiwa food, which deals with plant-based vegan meat. The 27-year-old and a mother of two, who graduated from the Gedu College of Business Studies with B.Com Finance, talks to Business Bhutan reporter Tshering Pelden about starting Zhiwa food.

Q. What made you decide to start Zhiwa food?

A. There were many reasons for starting Zhiwa food, but the main reason was climate change. Everyone believes that climate change is caused by air pollution and other factors, but when experts conducted research, they discovered that one of the major factors influencing climate change is livestock farming. Humans consume red meat, but we can replace it with plant-based meat.

Another motivation for me to launch Zhiwa food was to protect innocent animals and improve people’s health. After eating red meat, 45% of people become ill and suffer from cholesterol. So why not make something that tastes like red meat, but doesn’t require slaughtering of animals and has more health benefits? Of course, there was also the self-sustaining aspect, as well as the opportunity to employ others and, in our modest manner, reduce the meat import rate.

Q. How did the idea come to start Zhiwa food?

A. It happened in February 2018 while I was in college and in my final year. DITT representatives came to our campus and asked us to pitch business ideas, with the winning concept being to receive a cash prize of Nu 5,000. Actually, I had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur, but we had some sort of credit facility at the college from where I had borrowed money. So I decided to pay off the debt with the money I earned from pitching the business ideas. Our college submitted 50 concepts, and we were among the top 20. Following that, we had to compete against seven other colleges in Bhutan. However, the vegan food concept was not mine; it was my friend Milan Rai’s. I was on his team at the time, so we collaborated. Our team representing vegan food came in third place. However, after that, we all graduated, but the vegan food notion stayed with me because of the numerous advantages. It is both animal and environmental friendly. As a result, I did not even apply for the RCSC exam, which upset my family. However, I went anyway.

Q. Where does the Zhiwa food operate from?

A. We worked from the start-up center in Changzamtog for the first two years to create prototypes and market validation, and now we are operating from Zulikha.

Q. How is plant-based meat produced?

A. The plant-based meat is produced directly from plants. Instead of relying on an animal to convert plants into meat, we can make meat more efficiently by skipping the animal and turning plant ingredients directly into meat. Like animal-based meat, plant-based meat is composed of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. I use ingredients such as soya bean, beet root, and herbs. For spices, I use garlic and ginger which are all bought from places such as Dagana, Wangdue, Paro and Mongar.  

Q. What was the startup cost of Zhiwa food?

A. In the beginning, I invested around Nu 2.8mn and borrowed money from the Loden Foundation. Nu 1mn was spent on the prototype and research only as I had no idea how to generate the product because it was so new and all of my team members had joined the civil service. I was the only one who truly wanted to pursue it. I even traveled to Delhi for training. I currently have roughly 13 machines that cost me around Nu 400,000 and I have three employees assisting me.

Q. How is the business thriving and the sales in the market?

A. It was quite difficult in the beginning because everything was new to everyone. People inquired as to whether it was a vegetable or meat. Initially, they were perplexed and hesitant to purchase our product. However, after much advertising and education, many vegetarians and others became interested. People initially mistook it for vegetarian juma (sausage), but after hearing about its benefits and the types of ingredients used, many people purchased our product. So far, we’ve received constant orders and we have even been catering to the UN and other organizations. There are no such fixed orders as such, but we get a minimum of five-six orders daily, but it mainly depends on the marketing. My main clients are mostly people who are vegetarian and those who want to turn vegetarian.

Q. Could you tell us how Zhiwa food has been doing since its inception?

A. I launched the business in 2018 and did not make any money until 2019 because I was mostly focused on product development. But starting in 2020, I began to make some money. I made a 10% profit on the investment, and the best thing is that I was able to repay the Nu 0.5mn loan to the Loden Foundation (which I consider as one of my achievements).

Q. Do you have any plans to expand the business?

A. We don’t have any outlets because we are a tiny business. However, we do have plans to expand the business and possibly open an outlet in different districts in the future. I really want to make a variety of vegan foods, especially during the tourist season. This is because vegan tourists don’t have many options here. So I have plans to produce vegan dairy products in the future, but it’ll take a long time. There are many constraints, such as budget and time. As a mother of two, it’s difficult to find time. So while it may be difficult, expanding our firm is now in the works.