Fresh from training to run their East African Sisters food business, Fahan Ahmed who arrived to Australia from Somalia in 1998 and Safiya Duksya, who arrived from Ethiopia in 2005, have just begun selling their first products.
Basbaas cagaar is a traditional Somali green chilli sauce with an Ethiopian twist. It has a spicy hit of garlic and coriander. Basbaas guduud is a Somali red chilli sauce. The pair make their basbaas in small batches in Melbourne to ensure they're fresh.
They've recently secured stockists like grocery store Macca Halal in the inner northwest suburb of Flemington and sustainable food initiative, the Melbourne Food Hub. They've also been taking orders from their social media pages.
Basbaas is the Somali word for chilli. Somalia is located in the Horn of Africa and is situated between Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. The central ingredients in basbaas: cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and pepper, have been staples of this region for centuries.
Ahmed says, "Somalians eat a lot of basbaas with chicken, rice and sometimes injera. In the green basbaas, there's onions, garlic, turmeric, tomato and coriander and dates."
Duksya adds that you can eat basbaas with anything. "It's quite mild, not that hot," she says. "It would be a good Christmas gift."
Duksya says she and Ahmed have known each other for 15 years. "We met through living in a high rise in Flemington. We had already been cooking, doing catering work for the [Moonee Valley City] council [in the city's north west]."
East African Sisters took shape when Moonee Valley City Council and Sustain: The Australian Food Network began collaborating in January 2020. The council and network created a training program called Food Business Boost, which offered 13 women across four businesses the skills to start their own business. It provided guidance on getting an ABN, food safety requirements, branding, menus, sourcing ingredients and marketing. It complements another program at Moonee Valley City Council which aims to challenge barriers to employment and enterprise.
Georgia Karavis, the project coordinator for Sustain: The Australian Food Network, has supported the women to apply their newfound training to their businesses. "We realised what a big undertaking it was," she adds. "The program was tailored to each person for this project.
"The first thing that struck me about Fahan [Ahmed] and Safiya [Duksya] is that they're such lovely souls. Their friendship was so apparent. They have amazing skill and I'd heard a lot about the food that they cook already from the council."
However, Karavis says they weren't confident about running a business. "So seeing them go from being experts at making chilli sauce to being really competent businesswomen has been such a joy to watch."
Ahmed's daughter has been helping with social media marketing, too. "So it's been an intergenerational approach, which is really special."
"Seeing them go from being experts at making chilli sauce to being really competent businesswomen has been such a joy."
Duksya explains she and Ahmed joined the initiative after learning about it at a women's centre. "We'd been thinking a long time about starting a business, but we didn't know which way," says Duksya. "That's how Sustain and the food program with Lauren [Kerr, from the Food Boost program] and Georgia, helped us. We didn't know how much work we'd have to do, or the way to do it. We didn't know how to tick all the boxes for our basbaas."
The pair will make the basbaas in a commercial kitchen in the Clocktower Centre in Moonee Ponds. "We have taken all the orders and we start production in December," says Duksya. "It's just the beginning. For now, it's just the two of us. In the future, we'd like to add to the team as the business grows."
Both Duksya and Ahmed live with their husbands and children, all of whom are hugely supportive of their business.
"The kids love it," says Duksya. "Before, they didn't believe we would have a business but now they can see, and they believe it now. We would love to see our kids get involved.”
Ahmed adds, "My daughter helps us with all our paperwork. She's 20, she's in uni studying dentistry. Our husbands help out too, they take care of the kids and pick them up from school while we're working. They're very happy."
Whether it's a gift or a new favourite in your kitchen adventures, basbaas is undeniably dhadhan fiican leh — tasty.