On a windy and overcast Sunday afternoon at the Mueller Farmer’s Market in Austin, dozens of people are stopping by a tea stand. There are a variety of mixes to sample: hibiscus tea and lemonade, hibiscus tea and mango, sweetened and unsweetened hibiscus tea. And that’s hibiscus as in the flower. The responses from newcomers seem to be positive.
“Man, this is baller right here, this is good,” says one customer after trying the hibiscus and lemonade mix for the first time. “You guys make all this yourself?”
“Yeah, the owner does, Awad,” says Athena Hathaway Meskimen, who works the farmer’s market stand.
Austin resident Awad Abdelgadir started Nile Valley Hibiscus Tea in 1995, and it’s come a long way since then. Today, you can order it while watching a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse, or buy boxes of it at H-E-B, Whole Foods and other local grocers. But Abdelgadir says that 20 years ago, hibiscus tea wasn’t very popular at all.
“Well, I started because I was drinking it myself,” he says. “Actually, I went to Whole Foods – the old Whole Foods. And I wanted to buy some hibiscus tea, but they had some bad hibiscus. And I said, ‘Oh, this is terrible.’ They said, ‘If you have something better than this, let us know.’ I said, ‘I’ll get you some.’ So I bought them some from Egypt.”
The tea – grown along the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan – was a success. And it’s healthy too: studies have shown that drinking hibiscus tea can lower high blood pressure and reduce high cholesterol. Abdelgadir grew up drinking the tea; he’s originally from a small village in the northern region of Sudan called Kolomiseed. Growing up there in the 1950s, there was no electricity or running water. But what he remembers most is not having enough to eat.
“I was hungry all the time, that’s one of the things… it never leaves my head,” Abdelgadir says. “And when a child is very hungry, it just kind of engraves in your brain.”
When Abdelgadir arrived in Texas in the late ‘80s, he started working on small projects to help his village. His first focus: bringing clean drinking water. Before he installed a water system, villagers drank water from the Nile, which was often polluted with parasites and chemicals from fertilizers and diesel pumps. It even cost his father his eyesight.
As his tea company grew, Abdelgadir began taking on bigger projects. In 2006, he founded a non-profit, the Mother Maryam Foundation, using around 80 percent of the tea company’s profits to fund the foundation.
“It’s a very small budget, but the money goes a long way because every single dollar we raise here makes it to the village,” Abdelgadir says. “I like to keep things small. Even the tea company is very, very small. I like to know the people I’m dealing with, keep it small and humble.”
At every farmer’s market, there’s a jar placed on the tea stand’s table where customers drop loose change. That money isn’t going towards tips, but towards paying teacher salaries in a remote Sudanese village.
“It motivates me to buy from them more,” says returning customer Amelia Fan. “I want to know my money is going to a good cause.”
With the help of grants and individual donations, Abdelgadir and his tea company built a school, brought electricity to his old village for the first time and built the only professionally-built clinic in the area – which now serves around 17,000 people. This last December, Abdelgadir and volunteers held a free healthcare day where villagers could come by for a physical examination, vaccinations and get medications. They were expecting around 200 people, but around 1,000 showed up. Abdelgadir says it shows the necessity for accessible healthcare in the area.
“I think people care so much about their day-to-day lives that they have a tendency to forget about what’s happening a hundred miles away from you guys,” says Leah Goatzel, Mother Maryam board member. “I think it is a necessity just to bring the community together and to help a community that you don’t necessarily see every day.”
Since he started his tea company, hibiscus tea has become much more popular. Competition has increased and Abdelgadir says he’s lost business to other beverage companies. But that hasn’t discouraged him – or his nonprofit. Goetzel recently launched a Go Fund Me to help support the medical clinic, which is overwhelmed with high demand. They’re also working to get a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund malaria shots.
These are big projects for a small nonprofit, but Abdelgadir says he takes it one box of tea, one child, and one malaria shot at a time.