Aleem Ahmed MPA 2015 connects Ethiopian farmers with international markets. 

By Calee Lucht
July 6, 2016

When people think about innovation, Silicon Valley comes to mind. But for Aleem Ahmed MPA 2015 and co-founder of Love Grain, a company that produces gluten-free products made from the super grain teff, he thinks Ethiopia.

Ahmed began working for the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency’s Teff Value Chain Program in 2012, and it was there that he learned about innovations that could help farmers increase their harvests dramatically. He worked closely with farmers to get an intimate understanding of their goals, only to realize they were universal: to educate their children, provide food for their families, and cultivate their land.

“These seemingly simple goals resonate with all of us, but are often difficult to achieve,” said Ahmed.

He began thinking about ways to connect these farmers directly to markets rather than relying on intermediary traders, which cost them time and money. The idea for Love Grain sprouted up shortly thereafter.

Intent to learn skills that would empower him to leverage farmers’ productivity, Ahmed returned to the United States to enroll in the Master in Public Administration (MPA) Program at Harvard Kennedy School.

“I came to HKS to surround myself with talented, motivated, and mission-oriented leaders,” he said. “The MPA Program allowed us to develop and test hypotheses about which sectors, geographies, and missions we want to advance when we leave HKS.”

For Ahmed, Love Grain became that mission.

Soon after matriculating, he met his classmate—and future Love Grain co-founder—Caroline Mauldin MPA 2015.

“We started thinking about how to build a business that would use market forces to help Ethiopia's six million teff farmers,” said Ahmed. “We knew there was demand for good food in the U.S., and untapped capacity among Ethiopian farmers to produce that food. So we set out to bring the two together.”  

Enrolled concurrently in the MIT Sloan School of Management’s MBA Program as well, Ahmed drew skills from both schools to develop a business plan to launch Love Grain.

“Sloan was a great opportunity to gain the skills I needed to build organizations, and HKS helped me understand the global issues to address when working with those organizations,” he said.

With Love Grain’s mission to connect Ethiopian farmers with international markets through a line of healthy teff-based products, Ahmed knew these skills would be crucial.

Ricardo Hausmann’s class Why Are So Many Countries Poor, Volatile, and Unequal? helped Ahmed understand how to contribute to meaningful growth in low-income countries, and he cited Kessely Hong’s Negotiations Analysis class as fundamental to learning how to create and share value among diverse stakeholders.

He drew heavily on these skills when creating Love Grain’s model, which benefits farmers by purchasing teff directly from them, not from traders.

“According to our research, this will immediately improve farmers’ income by 25 percent,” said Ahmed. They also plan to provide farmers with improved seed and fertilizer on credit, which removes the upfront barrier of investing in quality products.

“We believe this work will have two beneficiaries: teff farmers in Ethiopia who we partner with throughout the planting and harvesting process, and families in the U.S. for whom teff is a nutritious option among gluten-free grains,” he explained. “By keeping a large portion of Love Grain's value chain in Ethiopia, we are contributing to the long-term growth of the country's agricultural sector.”

Now, a year after graduating from HKS, Ahmed is excited to be growing their product line and continuing to partner with Ethiopian farmers.

And if students asked for his advice, what would he tell them?  

“Enjoy the journey,” Ahmed said. “Each phase of life isn’t separate, but part of a longer arc of personal and professional growth.”

That, he said, and eat more teff.