If you've been around Austin for long, it's likely that you've been offered a refreshing glass of Hibiscus Mint Iced Tea (a staple for Kerbey Lane Cafe guests). What you probably don't know is the rich history behind Nile Valley Herbs, the company who produces this Austin-famous beverage.
Partner Spotlight: Nile Valley Herbs
It all started because of the water. It was in the early 1990s, and the village in the Nubian region of Sudan where Awad Abdelgadir grew up was in real trouble: their water supply was tainted. People were getting sick and some children were even going blind. At the time, Awad was living in Austin, Texas, where he had moved to in 1988 to earn his Masters’ degree in education from the University of Texas. Even though he was far from home, he wanted to help. While he was able to raise some money by teaching Arabic first at the university, and later at St. Edwards University also located in Austin, he still wasn’t making enough to help fix all the problems with the water back in his hometown. “I knew I needed another way to generate funds,” says Awad.
As he thought about how he might help the members of his family and community back in the village of Kolomiseed in Az-Zawrat, which is located near Egypt in the Nile River Valley, Awad thought about the things he most associated with growing up there. One of his favorite treats was tea made from the hibiscus plant, which has ancient roots in Sudan where it has been grown for centuries. In fact, hibiscus tea leaves have even been found deep within the tombs of the Great Pyramids.
But getting good hibiscus tea here in the U.S. had proven to be difficult for Awad at that time. As it happened, he tried to find some of it at his local Whole Foods market only to find that the only hibiscus tea for sale was from China. Horrified, Awad found his way to the store’s manager to let her know he wasn’t happy with the available selection. “So she said, ‘If you know of something better, let us know,’” says Awad. “And I said, ‘I will get you something better.’”
True to his word, Awad tapped his connections back in Africa and placed a bulk order for 50 pounds of loose hibiscus tea leaves. He then took two pounds back to the Whole Foods store and presented it as a gift to the store’s manager. “I told her I wouldn’t charge her for the tea so she could try selling it and see what happened,” he says. Then, three days later, the store manager called back: all of the tea had been sold. She wanted more. “I said sure, but now she would have to pay for it,” says Awad, whose first order was for another two pounds of tea.
And so the foundation was laid for Awad’s fledgling business, which he called Nile Valley Herbs. At first he sold bulk tea before eventually packing individual tea bag in cellophane with the help of some of his students, who he hired to help. Today, Awad sells his tea in a mix of numerous restaurants and grocery stores in and around the Austin area and some of his former students even sell it at local farmer’s markets. He also sells his tea, which is either traditional hibiscus or a hibiscus blended with mint, through his website: nilevalleyherbs.com.
But the real turning point for his business, and the people of Kolomiseed as it turned out, was landing Kerbey Lane Cafe as one of his first regular customers.
One day, as he dropped off an order at one of the cafe’s multiple locations, he struck up a conversation with the store’s manager. He explained the problems with the water supply back in his village and wondered if it might be OK to put out a donation jar next to the cash register as a way to ask customers to give any extra change they could spare to help the people of Kolomiseed. The manager thought it was a great idea. In fact, Awad soon had a donation jar set up at every Kerbey Lane location. Each week, he’d swing by and pick up the money that the cafe customers generously donated, which usually added up to a few hundred dollars at a time. Then, one week, Awad got a call from one store manager who said that he might consider getting a bigger jar – like a five-gallon jug since he was getting so many donations for his cause. So he did (though Kerbey Lane Cafe no longer allows donation jars in their stores, they do have an active Corporate Responsibility program, donation requests can be made by visiting kerbeylanecafe.com/donations).
On one visit to a cafe to pick up that week’s donations, Awad learned that a passerby on the street had dashed in and stolen the donation jar. Fortunately, one of the customers in the cafe chased the man down and brought the jar back to the restaurant just as Awad was arriving to pick it up. It was then that one of the customers asked Awad what he was raising the money for. So Awad shared his story about the water supply. The customer then asked how much money he had collected that week. After a quick tally, Awad told him it was about $150. “What is the total amount you are trying to raise?” the customer asked. When Awad told him that it would cost $42,000 to construct a new water system for his village, the customer pulled out his phone and, after punching in a few figures into his calculator app, explained: “Why, Awad, it will take you 20 years to raise that much!”
When Awad replied that he had no choice, the customer made him a better offer. “He told me he belonged to the South Austin Rotary Club and he invited me to come to their next meeting and talk about the project,” says Awad. After he went and spoke, the rotary club agreed to match any funds that Awad raised. And, about two years later, after Awad had raised about $12,000, the club not only matched that amount, they got their parent organization, Rotary International, to match it yet again – which all added up to the Awad the $42,000 needed. Those funds were then used to dig a well, construct a water tower and tank, and a distribution system that now pipes water to all the homes in the community. “My village has now been drinking clean water for about 15 years thanks to the generosity of Kerbey Lane Cafe and the Rotary Club,” says Awad.
But Awad didn’t stop there. In the years since, he has used most of the proceeds from his business to help build a school and a health clinic back in Kolomiseed. He has also created a non-profit organization called Mother Maryam Foundation, in honor of his mother, Hajja Maryam Saeed, to help do a wide variety of projects in the village such as raising money to buy medicine and school supplies, installing solar panels, and building a flood control dike. A priority this year is to raise enough money to buy the village a supply of mosquito nets as a way to help curb the number of malarial deaths back in Kolomiseed. At about $6 apiece, each net can have an enormous impact. “Malaria is the No. 1 killer of children,” he says.
Awad, who still lives in Austin with his wife and just recently retired from teaching, says that he makes the pilgrimage back to Kolomiseed every year for a multi-week visit both as a way to bring new supplies and to reconnect with his members and the community. He has also started a scholarship fund to help the young people of his village go to school and to imagine a bright future of themselves. “Our goal is to give the kids there some hope,” says Awad.