“It all started when I was diagnosed with a couple of food intolerances while I was living abroad in Switzerland and London, around 2008," said Zahini co-founder and CEO Paola Rebollar. "During this time the whole free-from market was just taking off and I went from seeing one option on the shelf to entire shelves at the supermarket with so many great alternatives.
"When I moved back to Mexico in 2015 I started looking for dairy-free yogurts and I was surprised that there were no options at the supermarkets.”
Rebollar, who studied chemical engineering at University College London, began to do some research about the free-from and vegan market in Mexico and found it was “years behind" Europe and the US.
“I thought, why not develop a dairy-free yogurt instead of just importing it? It's a market that has double-digit growth in Europe and the US, so why not develop great quality products in Mexico using local ingredients?”
She founded the start-up Productos Zero Lácteo and, with the help of zero-equity start-up accelerator MassChallenge, launched the Zahini brand.
Local ingredients, live cultures
The non-dairy yogurt range contains four flavors – plain, mango, blackberry, and matcha tea – with a 125 g serving of the coconut yogurt providing 2 g protein and 7 g sugar. It is sweetened with agave syrup that naturally contains a small amount of inulin.
“We try to source most of our ingredients from local producers," Rebollar told FoodNavigator-LATAM. "The agave comes from Jalisco, the coconuts come from states on the Pacific coast, even the pectin is produced in Mexico. In terms of our flavors, we chose blackberry and mango as these are two native fruits that grow in the state of Michoacán.”
It uses the starter cultures Lactobacillus Acidophilus, Bifidobacterium Lactis, Streptococcus Thermophilus, and Lactobacillus Bulgaricus to kickstart the fermentation.
However, Zahini is not allowed to market its products as yogurt. "We checked with COFEPRIS [...] and we have to call it ‘fermented coconut food’ and the dairy-free milks are called ‘almond or coconut drinks’. Of course, as a new product category, the name is confusing for consumers."
Ingredient list: water, organic coconut pulp, sugar-free natural blackberry concentrate, organic agave syrup, corn starch, pectin, live active cultures.
Eyeing national expansion
For the first year and a half, Zahini had listings in specialist organic and health stores in Mexico City, which allowed it to improve its sourcing and scale up production and logistics. In June this year, however, supermarket chain City Market (owned by Comercial City Fresko) began stocking its products. The start-up now has over 50 points of sale throughout Mexico.
For the minute, it wants to consolidate its position domestically before looking to export.
“There are still so many opportunities here, that it is a bit early for us to consider exporting. But maybe in the future,” said Rebollar.
“People are more open now to food alternatives [in Mexico]," she added. "Before vegan food had a bad connotation and now it's something that people are more conscious about.”
The biggest challenges the Queretaro-based start-up has faced so far have been related to cold chain storage, Rebollar said.
“Cold chain is still tricky and expensive in Mexico. Also, we have a 45-day shelf life, so we have to basically produce on-demand and deliver straight away. Another challenge has been the initial purchase volumes for raw materials, packaging, and production. Again, because of the shelf life, we can't afford to produce tons and tons and then have them go to waste.”
Zahini is also in the process of developing a drinking yogurt alternative enriched with plant-based protein.