By Ulya Aligulova
When Bishara Alkher arrived in the United States as a refugee in 2006 he had no idea that one day he’d be an entrepreneur launching Karkangee, a hibiscus beverage, with dreams to reach all 50 states with his product. But 16 years later, after years of labor, that is exactly what has happened. Karkangee launched earlier this month and has already been picked up for sale by Coffee by Design, the award-winning coffee house and roastery with three locations in Portland and Freeport. Alkher hopes to expand to more retailers, including grocery stores, soon.
Karkangee (or karkanji), which means hibiscus, is thought to have originated from Chadian cuisine, but is a popular drink all over North and Central Africa and Jamaica. The beverage is rich in antioxidants and is believed to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol as well as aiding in digestion. Studies have shown that hibiscus has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. In addition, hibiscus extract may also help with weight loss, according to some studies. But most importantly, Alkher said that beverages made from hibiscus are delicious, and he wants people in the U.S. to enjoy Karkangee, and for Africans and Jamaicans who miss it, to enjoy a taste of home.
“We have this hibiscus drink at home that I really love, which is drunk daily in Sudan, Chad, Egypt, and Central Africa, particularly during Ramadan,” Alkher said. “So one day I went to the market to see if I could find it, but all I found was dried hibiscus that the drink is made out of. So I bought some and came home and prepared the drink myself. That got me wondering. There are so many people from Africa in the U.S., and the market is huge and yet you can’t find this drink anywhere. So why don’t I put it on the market?”
Alkher was born in Chad and spent his childhood in Chad and Sudan. He moved to Baghdad, Iraq, to study medicine at the University of Baghdad but had to flee the country after only two years when the Iraq War broke out in 2003. He sought refuge at the al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria, close to the Syria-Iraq border. After spending two years at the camp, Alkher was able to move to the United States as a refugee. He first settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where he worked for three years as room service staff at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. In 2010, Alkher decided to relocate to Lewiston with his family, and that is where he has lived ever since.
His decision to move was motivated by the superior educational opportunities Maine offers. “Maine is the best place to go to school,” Alkher said. “ When you go to school here, you can receive help from the government, which isn’t something that’s available in Georgia. When you first arrive in the United States as an immigrant, the biggest challenge is learning English.” When he first arrived, he didn’t know any English and enrolled at Central Maine Community College in 2011 to focus on learning the language and on his education. He has been studying there part time ever since. He hopes to eventually transfer to a university in Portland to study human services.
Once Alkher had the idea of creating a hibiscus drink, he realized he had absolutely no idea where to start. But that did not hold him back. He began researching, and found Davison Inventions, a Pittsburgh-based company that helps people from around the world kickstart their inventions. Services include product/patent research, prototype development, packaging design, and licensing representation. They also help clients present their ideas to corporations, manufacturers, and retailers for possible licensing.
“I gave them my idea and they researched whether anyone else in the U.S. over the last 20 years had the same idea. Turns out no one has. The only thing that existed is hibiscus tea, but not hibiscus juice. So I sent them the recipe and the finished product, and they came up with the bottle and packaging design, as well as a promotional video,” Alkher said.
The next big step was licensing the product, since homemade goods can’t be sold directly to consumers without one, according to Maine’s cottage food law. One day he decided to show Karkangee’s promotional video to one of his professors at Central Maine Community College. She tried the drink and liked it so much that she told her brother about it. He is president of the Auburn-based manufacturing corporation, The Strainrite Companies.
“I was so lucky to find them, and for them to agree to license Karkangee, because they did all the testing and production themselves, and I didn’t have to pay for any of it,” Alkher said. He signed with the company, and agreed to share 45% of the profits. Strainrite sent the drink to their labs in California, where they ran tests and tweaked the recipe. “This all happened in 2019. At the end of the year, I went back to visit Africa for a couple of months, and unfortunately COVID-19 broke out while I was there and I was stuck and couldn’t come back until the end of 2020.”
Through all the years, challenges, and setbacks, Alkher persevered, and now Karkangee has hit the market. “My dream is to see my product on store shelves not only in Maine, but in every state in America,” Alkher said.