Foodie Feature: Hawa Hassan, CEO of Basbaas

Araweelo Abroad linked up with Hawa Hassan, a badass model turned successful entrepreneur. Hawa is the CEO of Basbaas, a line of Somali condiments. Basbaas is bringing Somali flavor to some of the best grocers in the country including Dean & Deluca and Whole Foods. Not only has Hawa been featured in Forbes, Epicurious, and Eater but Basbaas was also a Martha Stewart American Made 2015 nominee. We caught up with this busy CEO to talk about being an entrepreneur, the relationship between food and social justice, and how to best eat Basbaas.

IA: You moved to New York to pursue modeling. How did you end up with a Somali hot sauce line?

Hawa: I love modeling, but I’ve always known it wouldn’t last forever. Meanwhile, there are many other things important to me: My own heritage, my passion for women’s issues, a need to tell great stories. Over time, I was able to weave these diverse strands together into a single narrative, and that’s my business. Basbaas is the embodiment of all my interests and goals.

IA: The Basbaas flavors that you offer are pretty unique. What did the journey to perfecting the recipes look like?

Hawa: I wish I could say there was a single eureka moment. Like any good business idea, it took preparation, experimentation and dedication. I got friends and family involved, hosted tasting parties, kept adjusting the temperature and the seasoning, and basically played with it till it got to the right place. Then I needed to ensure that the lab could scale it to large quantities without compromise. I believe what we have now isn’t just what I personally love but also appeals to the new generation of adventurous foodies.

IA: How do you like to use your product?

Hawa: Freestyle! Basbaas is unique because you can use it in so many different ways—sautéed, as a dip, as a flavor enhancer, etc. For example, I dab it on eggs for breakfast and sauté veggies with it at dinner.

IA: What difficulties did you face in starting up Basbaas?

Hawa: Launching a business is difficult and scary, and that’s exactly how it should be. For me the toughest issue was probably achieving the balance between quality and quantity—finding the right temperature with the right mass of ingredients. It was definitely a challenge, but we did it.

IA: What has the response been to the product from both Somalis and non-Somalis?

Hawa: Our core consumer is a new kind of foodie: open to different tastes and flavors from around the world, as long as they’re organic and authentic.  In particular, there’s an entire generation of young people who use food as a passport to other cultures. That’s why the response has been so positive. Of course, the young Somalis I meet love it even more—they’re excited to see Somali cuisine in homes around the country.

IA: What does a typical day look like for you? Are you responsible for making your product every day?

Hawa: As any entrepreneur will tell you, there are no typical days. And since it’s only me for now, even with strict planning, I’m constantly running in different directions at once. Now that the recipe has been finalized and readied—it’s locally sourced and bottled, of course—I spend much of my time with sales and marketing. That means being out there every day, visiting every target outlet from small farmers’ markets to grocery store chains. I don’t believe in hard sell, but I also know every meeting is a sales opportunity, and I’m the one who needs to evangelize Basbaas.
IA: Do you have any plans to expand Basbaas?

Hawa: Absolutely. There are definitely more flavors coming, and they’ll be available in more outlets. Stay tuned.

IA: What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?

Hawa: I'd say that if you’re waiting for the perfect time, you’ll be waiting forever. If you’re chasing a dream, like I am, then go for it. Understand that what you’re launching is a business, not a fantasy, and so you need to stay grounded. Figure out early who in your circle is in it with you for the long haul, be prepared for tough times, and above all keep moving forward.

IA: What role do food and social justice play in your life?

Hawa: Every immigrant’s life is both universal and unique, and I’m no exception. I know how lucky I am—I came of age during a brutal war and grew up partly in a refugee camp, yet I’ve walked fashion runways and now run a boutique food business in Brooklyn. It’s vital to me to connect my business with my heritage, and to use it as a force for change. I’m already involved with several causes near and dear to my heart—including Elman Peace and Zana Africa—and in the near future I will be even more active in these initiatives.

IA: What's next for you?

Hawa: Two things in particular that are organically connected. First, keep growing the business—more stores, more flavors and yet more stores. Second, as part of my involvement in some charity projects in Somalia, I’ll be spending time there.

You can follow Hawa’s endeavors and get your Basbaas fix here.

Ifrah Ahmed is an Editor of Araweelo Abroad.