Sexism challenges dog food start-up on African island

The women-owned dog food company plan to expand to other African pet food markets and New Zealand, yet chauvinism challenges their progress.

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Dog on a pile of rocks in a sugar cane field in Mauritius | photo by Mauritius Stockphoto | BigStockPhoto
Dog on a pile of rocks in a sugar cane field in Mauritius | photo by Mauritius Stockphoto | BigStockPhoto

More than 1,000 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa, five enterprising women overcame rampant sexism to found the first dog food company on the island of Mauritius. Now, they plan to expand to other African pet food markets and New Zealand, yet chauvinism still challenges their progress.

Six years ago, German ex-patriot Susanne Engel and four other women participated in a fundraising exercise on Mauritius to support a local animal welfare organization, PAWS, by baking and selling dog biscuits.

“It was such a success on an island that had no treats on the retail shelves at all, that I decided to put some money on the table and see if we can make it a viable business,” she told Petfood Industry. “I started with a range of biscuits, developed a unique treat range and cans under the brand name Doggeesnaxx, with colorful design and the desire to make a difference.

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“We now have a patent pending on the production process and have developed a franchise concept for regionalized production that can be implemented anywhere. The first franchise is in preparation in New Zealand and we hope to launch during the course of next year. The second is planned for Namibia, as we already export there. Next on the list is South Africa, where we are awaiting the registration of our products.”

Pet food company struggles against sexism

Throughout the company’s development and growth, Engel has looked for investors to fuel expansion. However, she has encountered not just a glass ceiling, but a stone wall.

“In the 6 years, I have not been able to raise a single cent from anyone – no bank (despite property guarantees – overdraft facilities were only granted after my husband co-signed), no investor,” said Engel. “To get where we are I have sold two houses and liquidated anything I could get my hands onto.

“Mauritius is a very male dominated country, in politics as well as in business. Parliament has eight females out of 60 members. There is hardly a board of directors including women, other than human resources maybe or social development (Germans call that ‘Gedöns’ – unimportant stuff). But that is nothing Mauritius specific.

“It is virtually impossible for a company with female ownership and management to get taken seriously. I have been to every investment company, every bank, every government institution, everybody and their mother.  They stop short of telling us that it is impossible that a bunch of girls could possibly have achieved that. ‘The CEO has degrees in business administration and marketing? The MD has been CEO of a local offshore bank for nine years? Still, there must be something wrong…’

“Price Waterhouse Coopers Mauritius did our business plan. PWC’s boss, Andre Bonieux, looked me in the eye when I enquired why there was no mention in 75 pages that we were an all-female company and said, ‘if you want this to go anywhere Madame, you better leave it out…’

“One investor want so far (and I am not kidding) to say in front of a whole group of people (at the local golf club) that they actually saw a super opportunity in our company but ‘what if the girls lose interest and start buying shoes  again instead of working? Then we end up having to run the factory.’”

Engel still holds out hope of finding an investor to fuel her dog food company’s expansion.

“Only with the right partner it will have proved worth it to risk everything, and that stubbornness and determination pays off in the end,” she said. “If I cant find one, I am just another female failure.”

The women of Doggeesnaxx dog food company

Susanne Engel - After leaving her native Germany, Engel worked in business administration and marketing, among other senior positions, in South Africa. Engel moved to Mauritius in 2008.

Mauritius Dog Food Women WorkersElisabeth Auguste (on left in photo) - “Elisabeth began as my housekeeper and helped me bake biscuits for the first year when we operated from my kitchen,” Engel said. “When we moved into the factory, she moved with me and started on the production line. Three years ago she was promoted to supervisor and this year, she was promoted to assistant production manager.”

Samanta Shipchurn (on right in photo) - “Sam started with us as an admin assistant when we opened in the new building,” Engel said. “When we were looking for a production manager, she asked to be given the chance as she and her husband had owned a restaurant together. Since we were all learning at the time, we decided to give it a go. Today she is THE specialist for the production of SofDry products, responsible for staff training and the training of franchise holders.”

Peggy Burkhardt - “Peggy has an eco-friendly cleaning company on the island for 15 years now and has promoted and sold our products from day one,” said Engels. “She is also involved in animal welfare projects and supports PAWS.”

Julie Reid - “Julie has worked with us from day one as well. She designed and supervised construction of the production facility and does project work for us,” Engel said. “Her background is senior management and company ownership, in the telecommunications industry in Cape Town, South Africa.”

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