Tiiga Founders Talk Baobab, Entrepreneurship and Leadership

Baobab trees sit in the sun on a clear day
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MP recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff Tezak and Harrouna Malgoubri, cofounders of Tiiga. Tiiga is a new electrolyte-rich beverage that relies heavily on the baobab fruit. Tezak and Malgoubri, former classmates, are on a mission to spread awareness about the baobab fruit’s health benefits and enrich the communities where this fruit is grown in the process.

We discussed the story behind Tiiga, entrepreneurship, leadership, and more. 

MP: How did you both meet?

JT: We met in Graduate School in 2016. We ended up taking a class together, worked together on most of the class assignments, and became good friends. 

HM: We met at the University of Nebraska. We were both in the History Department. He was earning his Master’s degree, and I was earning my Ph.D. We took a World History class together, and I quickly noticed this guy was both knowledgeable and open-minded. We got along very easily because we would talk after class.

When did you know you wanted to build a company together? 

JT: Fall of 2018, I had finished coaching baseball and was finishing grad school. We were spending a lot more time together and talking about things we could do when Harrouna was back in Africa. One day Harrouna brought a baobab drink to school for me to try. We talked about the fruit a bit, and that was when we got the spark. Harrouna spoke about how the fruit was used in many things back home, and I had never heard of the fruit, and neither had the rest of the US.

HM: I can’t tell, but the idea just came to us. I remember that we agreed not to keep the secrets of our drink to ourselves. We wanted to share it with all the other graduate students and any other American that needs “clean” energy to study, work, or exercise. 

What is Tiiga? 

JT: Tiiga is the combination of our backgrounds. I played college and professional baseball and was always around sports and made sure to put the best products in my body to enhance performance. Harrouna used baobab for natural energy, weight loss, and an added treat to his day. So, we decided to combine these ideas and features into our first product as Tiiga. 

HM: Tiiga is a natural hydration and wellness drink, the only one that has real fruit as its main ingredient. It blends the benefits of an African super fruit with the right tastes for the American consumer.   

How did you come up with the name ‘Tiiga’?

JT: Tiiga means “the tree” or “the tree of life” in Harrouna’s native language of Moore. We wanted to design a name that referenced the baobab tree without calling ourselves baobab. Tiiga represents how we can use what nature gives us. We aren’t in control of our environment as much as we think we are, and the baobab tree is a symbol of how nature provides for itself. 

HM: Tiiga is the word in my mother tongue for “the tree;” The baobab tree is the tree of life for many African communities South of the Sahara Desert. They rely on the tree for its leaves and fruit (for vitamin C and iron) and often use it as a water reservoir. 

What is the significance of the baobab fruit? 

JT: The baobab fruit grows during the wet season, but its fruits are ripe during the dry season. It’s an extension of the benefits of the tree of life. When everything around you is dried out and wilting away, this fruit provides nutrients to the life forms when they need it the most. Because its fruits are ripe during the dry season, it’s a unique fruit in that the pulp is not wet or juicy. It’s a dried powder. We don’t dehydrate the fruit, and because of this, it’s able to last much longer and provide those benefits. 

HM: The baobab fruit is a kind of lifesaver for African communities, primarily women. The fruit provides children with the vitamins they need for their growth; in Burkina Faso villages, kids roam the bush to collect the fruit. Pregnant women eat baobab-based foods for iron. Women, in general, have developed a robust distribution network from the collection, processing, and sale (raw or juice) of the fruit. Baobab contributes to our women’s financial autonomy.

What was your primary motivation to monetize the baobab fruit in the form of Tiiga? 

JT: The baobab fruit grows naturally throughout semi-arid regions of Africa. For those unfamiliar with most cash crops, there is a give and take when creating a surplus of goods. With sugar cane or corn, you need to change the landscape, strip it of its natural resources, and cultivate your crop. This completely alters the biodiversity of a region. The baobab tree grows naturally on communal land that an individual or corporation does not own. 

Communities harvest the fruit, and most of these communities are in the poorest regions of Africa, and most of the fruit is not consumed each year. Because of these factors, baobab is the perfect fruit to provide nutrients that much of the world lacks. In addition, planting more trees helps with the issues of desertification in Africa, and an increase in purchased baobab from collectives means that people can improve their quality of life. 

HM: Our primary motivation to monetize baobab in the form of Tiiga came after several trials of the original drink. First, we tried it with pineapple, non-dairy milk, lemon, and other things like that. Then, looking at our target market, we dropped the drink formula to think about how people could carry their baobab drink around easily. So, we thought, why not keep the original form? 

How is Tiiga different than other electrolyte sports drink powders?

JT: Our added electrolyte blend is similar to the Oral Rehydration Solution, created by the World Health Organization, which states a specific amount of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and sugar. Other than this, we are about as far from other electrolyte drinks as you can get. We use the baobab fruit as our main ingredient, with over half of our formula consisting of the fruit itself. We don’t dehydrate the fruit as it isnaturally dehydrated, and we don’t have to process it. If you look at any other electrolyte drink, your main ingredient is sugar, salt, or citric acid. 

Tiiga is fundamentally an RTD that we’ve kept in powder form so that we don’t have to do secondary pasteurization, heating the liquid to kill bacteria. Because of our unique combination of ingredients and the fruit as our main ingredient, not only do we taste more natural and less synthetic, but you can feel the difference of having natural nutrients versus processed ingredients. 

HM: Tiiga has a natural fruit as its main ingredient. Other drinks are on another planet. Baobab contains natural electrolytes so sportspeople can fuel naturally. That is very important for anyone who cares about their health.

Last year, you exceeded your Kickstarter goal for Tiiga, and now you’re selling on Amazon. Did you think that Tiiga would take off so quickly? 

JT: Kickstarter is an excellent launchpad in that it provides you with the opportunity to tell your story and mission without people having to try your product first. We got a ton of support from friends and family, and we were even more astonished by the number of people both around the US and the world that purchased the product. Also, selling on Amazon has been a great experience. It provides legitimacy to your product that, if you think about it, doesn’t make sense. It’s like you haven’t made a product until you’re selling it on Amazon. As for taking off, I think we’ve put a lot of effort into talking with as many people face to face, from doing events to tastings. We spend a lot of our time educating people on how we’re not just another electrolyte drink.

HM: I never doubted Tiiga would take off quickly because I know it is an excellent product for anyone who needs electrolytes. Plus, Jeff put so much energy into it while I was doing my Ph.D. that I am not surprised at all.  

Where would you like to see Tiiga in five years? 

JT: We hope to see Tiiga in all the leading grocery and big box stores. We want Tiiga to be synonymous with baobab and be the company that brings its benefits and the people that make that happen to the forefront of the United States.

HM: I want Tiiga to become a familiar name in the energy drink/electrolytes industry. I want it to stand out as the drink for health-conscious students, workers, and professional and amateur athletes.


Do you think your athletic background predisposed you to follow this entrepreneurial path with Tiiga?

I think it’s a combination of an athletic background and that I’m predisposed to challenging myself and failing. I don’t think failing is the correct term here, but in sport, as in business, I think you learn from your competition how not to do things and eventually bring success. Sports are also not dictated by a set time, and to be a business owner, you have to lose the notion that time in is money out and look at the bigger picture. 

When did you first want to follow an entrepreneurial path? 

I’m the type of person that thinks of something and then sees if it’s a feasible endeavor. It started for me when I was living in Australia in 2013. I was going to this farmer’s market every week and realized I wanted a bagel. Bagels aren’t standard in Australia, so I talked with a guy on a plane on a trip back to the United States, and he just said to me, ‘why don’t you start selling them yourself.’ I hadn’t thought about it, but once he brought it up that way, I figured it was worth a shot. 

So, I called the one company that made bagels in Brisbane, and they started to deliver them to the market I was going to. I asked the market coordinator if I could sell bagels at her market, and she said we could try and that others had tried and failed. I think this rings true when you create things yourself. You literally cannot believe or listen to other people and their opinions. If I had listened to her, I would have never started selling at that market.

That market became super successful, and I eventually sold it for a great price. I think that time made me realize that you don’t need to know everything right off the bat. You have a chance if you put effort into whatever you want to build. More importantly, you have so much more satisfaction and drive when you build something for yourself.

What is your typical day like? 

I wish I could answer this, but there isn’t one. I answer emails, make calls, set up meetings, do sampling, schedule events, order products. But honestly, I try to organize and prepare for the next week, month, six months even, but find that I end up having things come up daily that change everything.

What is your greatest fear as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage it? 

I think this depends on the person, the stage of their life, and the type of business they are building. I don’t care too much about money from a standard of living, so living frugally and putting everything into the company isn’t difficult. I also only recently got married, and I’d say this is the ideal time for me to start a business. I have the freedom to work without the responsibilities of a family with kids. 

I think this is exceptionally difficult for the people who start or build a business with small children. For me, the greatest fear is in the type of business we’re building and the fear of failure or running out of money before we can accumulate enough recurring customers. But, on the other hand, when you believe in something so much, see its value, and know that it would benefit people’s lives the way it does for you, you don’t want to get to the stage where you can no longer continue working on it. 

Do you believe there is a formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur? 

I think this is an excellent question because so many people sell this idea that they all know and have the answers. There might be a few of these people, and you can see them as the people that continue to create new and unique businesses. They’ve found the formula or the team to do it over and over. I think that’s the formula. 

You learn the first, second, or third go-around what you need to do, build the right team around you, and, most importantly, you know all the key players in whatever industry you are in to get your product or service the largest group of people. Also, this one mostly depends on the size and speed of the business you are trying to build, but capital matters. Most businesses don’t need much of this as most businesses are lifestyle businesses that you can do daily. They stem from the ability to work hard for a specific amount of time, build up a customer base, and then build out the systems and processes to continue to provide great products or services. 

What key activities would you recommend entrepreneurs invest their time in? 

You don’t know much as an entrepreneur, so I think the most challenging balance is being humble in taking suggestions and input but also continuing to follow your gut. Spend your time making money. Everything else is essential, but if you can’t sell what you do or make, then it’s time to move to the next idea. 

What motivates you as an entrepreneur? 

Freedom and the larger idea. In the case of Tiiga, the idea that we can change lives in Africa and America with a single fruit fascinates and motivates me daily. 

How do you define success? 

JT: Success is having an idea, creating something, and then bringing it to life. This is extremely satisfying. However, for us to continue doing what we enjoy, much of our success is linked to whether people purchase and continue to purchase our products. 

What is your favorite part about being an entrepreneur?

The unknown. None of us know what the future holds, and I think starting companies is the culmination of this understanding. It’s not playing it safe. We live once, so why not?


What is your professional background?

I came to Nebraska from Burkina Faso as a student in 2014. Before that, I was an English language teacher for the Ministry of Education and the US embassy in my country. I come from a family and a community where people make a living through petty trade and agriculture. I grew up selling doughnuts with my mom and sisters; we sold fruit and local foods. But I was focused on my education.

Do you think your professional background predisposed you to follow this entrepreneurial path with Tiiga?

The law in my country allows public school teachers to teach in private schools. So, I made extra money teaching in higher education institutions and language centers. I also worked for a company that imported and distributed pineapple juice locally. I have been looking for ways to make more and more money to take care of my family and impact the most children’s lives possible in my community. These factors prepared me to follow the entrepreneurial path with Jeff.

When did you first want to follow an entrepreneurial path?

I went to the United States for the first time in 2007 and was amazed at how people fought to become their own bosses, create a business, and fight for it to grow. So, when I came back home, I said to myself, “That’s what you need to do.” 

What is your typical day like?

I am back home now and have a busy schedule. My Ph.D. studies and my extended stay in the United States enhanced the way I work. I work more and smarter. I get up at 4.30 am for my morning prayer with my family. I usually work from home in the morning. While my wife is at work, I write and answer emails and WhatsApp messages, grade, and design tests, and read my friends’ papers pro bono. I teach in the afternoons and evenings when my wife is home. I feel good creating stuff all day long.

How do you generate new ideas as an entrepreneur?

With an entrepreneurial mind, you are always looking for answers and solutions to people’s everyday problems. You want to make their lives simpler while financially rewarding yourself so that you can fund future projects. Even when they do not see a problem, you want to offer better alternatives. That is how you generate new ideas.

What is your greatest fear as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage that fear?

My biggest fear is failing to have people share my passion and belief in a business idea. That is so frustrating! To avoid that, I do the maximum preparation to be as convincing as I am convinced. That includes long hours of research and discussion, self-critique, and rehearsal. 

How has your entrepreneurial path affected your family life?

I see life differently now. At home, I want every one of my children to find their passion and follow it. I am more tolerant of their failures if they result from risk-taking attitudes. Also, I spend more quality time with my wife and children because I see them as my best support team.

View this article in the September 2021 issue of MP.