In the African country of Ghana, one word that you will often hear when you meet someone is “akwaaba,” which means welcome. With cheerful smiles greeting you everywhere you go, Ghana has been called one of the friendliest countries in Africa—understandable since the Ghanaians are known to be extremely friendly, hardworking and hospitable.
Ensuring their visitors feel at home while visiting their country, Ghanaians are delighted to share everything about their culture, including their food and drink. One of their most famous beverages is called bissap—a West African spiced hibiscus beverage that has become a staple throughout West Africa.
Growing Up with Bissap
Akua Kyerematen Nettey, entrepreneur and founder of Berry Bissap, welcomes and invites all to learn about the delicious beverage made from dried hibiscus flower that grows in the homeland of her ancestors in Ghana.
Born in Oklahoma, Nettey grew up drinking bissap. The Ghanaian founder says, “My parents came from Ghana to Oklahoma. So, I pretty much grew up drinking bissap all of my life. In Ghana, we call it a different name. We call it sobolo and it is actually a spiced drink that originated in the West African empire of Senegambia, which is modern-day Senegal and Gambia. But it is known as a West African drink because mainly West African countries enjoy it, and a few Central African countries as well.”
Nettey continues, “Since I have been drinking bissap for such a long time, in the back of my head I have always thought, “This is so good.’ I wonder why the American public or Western consumers don’t know about it? Why isn’t it in grocery stores?”
Always an entrepreneur, it wasn’t until 2014 that she considered making a business out of the beverage. “Number one, it was in 2014 when I thought that this could be something that could be a wonderful addition to the U.S. market—a great introduction to West African food and drink. And number two, basically, there is a severe lack of African representation on grocery shelves. Probably even ten years ago, you couldn’t really find a food or beverage product that represents the continent, besides maybe North African food, like a Moroccan dish or even maybe an Egyptian dish. Africa was horribly misrepresented.”
Shopping for a Solution
While a trip to the supermarket might seem an arduous chore to some, it was and still is something that this foodie always enjoys. “I love food,” Nettey says, “I have always loved food and drinks, and I have always loved going to the supermarket and just exploring different foods and cooking all the time. I watched my mom cook forever. So, watching her making bissap, I realized that it was a simple process. It doesn’t require much instructions or it’s not difficult to make, but it’s a very unique flavor profile that I think the American consumer will like.”
The health conscience founder needed to discover a way to reduce the amount of sugar in the naturally sweet drink. She says, “I know that there is a serious problem with sugar. So even though the traditional sobolo [bissap] is made with lots of sugar, it is also made very spicy, tart and tangy. I thought, why can’t I make it better for you?
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“Of course, not being able to completely eliminate sugar, but to drastically lower it and still keep and honor its traditional recipe by incorporating indigenous spices like hibiscus that is grown in West Africa and adding a little twist to it, like fruit and giving it unique and different types of flavor and making it fun and interesting.”
Kicking up the Flavor
Using the spiced hibiscus or bissap recipe passed down from her mother, the Oklahoma native went to work in her “lab.” Nettey says, “I was testing in the kitchen at home back in Oklahoma, making it and the one that I started first but didn’t sell first was pineapple because that is how my mom would make it. She would freeze pineapple chunks and throw them in there and give it an extra sweet, lovely flavor,” she remembers.
“I just decided that I would just infuse the pineapple and it was delicious,” Nettey laughs. She continues, “I thought I could figure out a way to make it with less sugar but still flavorful, refreshing, and not overpoweringly tart yet with a kick of spice but not too much spice. In many parts of West Africa, when making the hibiscus, they add dried chili peppers to it to add that extra kick. It’s really hot, really sweet, very spicy and chilled. I thought that could be a little overwhelming for one’s pallet, whereas I could drink it for days, but I wanted to create something that could compliment all flavor profiles.”
The Benefits of the Hibiscus Flower
One of the many reasons that some people prefer to drink tea over much-beloved coffee is because it is healthier. As a matter of fact, there are many benefits to drinking tea, and after doing her research, Nettey discovered what the power of drinking hibiscus tea could do.
The Berry Bissap founder shares, “I did my research and learned of the benefits of the hibiscus flower. There are so many wonderful health benefits to hibiscus.” She goes on to explain, “It is very rich in antioxidants. They say it is high in polyphenols, which they say are good for the skin, as well as very rich in vitamins A and C.
“There is also research that says it is a great aid for lowering blood pressure and can curb sweet cravings. They say that it has three or four times more antioxidants than your berries and grapefruit. But again, hibiscus does have far more of the amount. Those are some things that really stuck out to me. And of course, these are great health benefits, great health properties that one can consume just by enjoying bissap.”
While investigating a more nutritious alternative to the original West African drink, she decided to try her version at the farmer’s market in Oklahoma. “Still looking for a way to make it better for people, we didn’t use artificial ingredients. I tried it out at a farmer’s market in Oklahoma City and it did pretty well.”
Netty laughs, “I was surprised because Oklahoma City is a very small and a very limited market for any product to be launched there. It’s really hard to launch a product there, but you can expand there. So, the fact that it was well-received, I knew that this was something that I could definitely jump on.”
The Beginning of Berry Bissap
Determined to introduce her tasty bissap drink to the U.S. market, Berry Bissap launched in January 2019 in the Hudson Valley region of New York. By mid to late 2020, the company had expanded to New York City.
“So, we are in Hudson Valley stores in January 2019, and the spring and summer of 2020, were mainly doing farmer’s markets because that was the main focus,” Nettey recalls. “Then,” she continues, “We were approached by several stores such as Union Market in Brooklyn, mainly their locations are in Brooklyn, although they have one location in the Lower East Side, and they reached out to us. And then we got into Whole Foods as a local supplier. We are currently in Whole Foods in the New York City and Brooklyn locations as well as other locations. Then mid-2021, we launched on the West Coast in the Erewhon Markets in Los Angeles.”
She continues, “In late 2021, we got into stores in the DMV and Pennsylvania and New Jersey stores called MOMs Organic Market. We are also in Target on the West Coast—California and Arizona, to be exact. It has been an interesting journey, but we have so much to go.”
Adding on, the young businesswoman shares, “Our mission is to introduce this century-old West African beverage to the U.S. It’s important that we highlight the region, not the country, because bissap is a beverage that is enjoyed in all parts of West Africa. Also, the spices that are grown there are grown in different parts. One thing that I always have to remind myself and I have always wanted to share was that we are West African nations because of colonization. So, before we were countries, we were empires. It is always important to acknowledge that there were borders drawn to divide us because of colonization.”
The Hardships of a Small Beverage Company
Despite being a small and growing company, Nettey expresses how Berry Bissap has had its share of hardships. “We have been very fortunate to be a retailer, get in stores and get some press, but running a beverage company is very, very difficult,” she says. “Because margins are not that much and it requires you to sell in high velocities, and it is difficult when you are a small unknown brand.”
Nettey describes how she felt when she first started. “It took a while for me to understand that because I just didn’t know the industry that I was getting myself into. I knew it was my calling for me to launch Berry Bissap and to share bissap to the world; it is definitely a calling. When you are called to do something, you go for it and then you learn as you go.
“But sometimes I always wonder how are these beverage companies able to advertise and scale and stay on the shelves and sell more velocities and exceed the velocities and that’s capital. Capital is what propels you to get there; we are still bootstrapping. The growth that we are getting is exciting, but we have to raise capital. We don’t have a choice.”
Passionate about the business, she says, “We know that it is going to be even harder right now, but we need capital in order to make certain decisions that we have to make and to grow and scale is the number one important thing, and number two, to carving and crafting our message, our brand identity. We pretty much have a good brand identity but crafting our brand voice to really critically speak to our consumers. It is important to speak to your consumer first and not be everything to everyone. And intentionally be unapologetic about our West African culture where we come from while including everyone.”
Let’s Celebrate the West African Hibiscus
The debate as to where the bissap hibiscus flower was grown is also something that Nettey wants to clarify. “Some people like to go back and forth as to where bissap comes from, but it is important to understand that it comes from all of us. Not only the continent but particularly the region because this is a beverage that is specific to West Africa. It is a region with amazing food and beverages that should be known as mainstream. It is about time that any type of African cuisine gets recognition in the United States and the West,” Nettey says.
Nettey emphasizes how important the hibiscus is to her culture. She says, “The hibiscus flower is important to us in so many ways. Not just because it is a beverage that we enjoy that has been around for centuries before kings and emperors were even enjoying it. But it is because it is where the hibiscus flower comes from—where it was born. It is also important that we direct the attention to hibiscus as an African flower. It is also a tropical flower, but it is an African flower.
“And Africa is tropical. Africa is not a country, it is a continent with thousands of ethnic groups, thousands of languages and cultures and each region is very different. West African—though we are similar, we speak different languages. Ghana alone has between 50-100 dialects. They say hibiscus comes from the sorrel in Jamaica or the Jamaica plant in Mexico. No, it belongs to West Africa,” she says emphatically.
“And let’s talk about how it got to those other countries; The Transatlantic Slave trade. Hibiscus is a flower for all people to enjoy, but I am highlighting something spice specific that is essential to not just African culture, South Central Caribbean or Latin culture, but Black culture. It is because it is a celebratory drink in all parts of the Americas.”
She ends our interview by saying, “In doing my research and connecting the dots, I said to myself, wow, hibiscus is so essential to Black culture. It is the flower that connects Black people, especially to the Americas, to their homeland—to their motherland which is West Africa.”