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Strength Through Sustainability

Melinda Williamson improves health of community members and local economy with fermented tea.

In 2010, while working at Oklahoma State University, Melinda Williamson (Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation) was diagnosed with an autoimmune illness. This diagnosis would change her life forever, but not in the way one might think. The health scare inspired her to look inward, gravitate back to traditional teachings, and embrace the belief that food is medicine. This naturally led her to introduce more whole foods, leafy greens, and fermented foods into her diet. Through this transformation, Melinda decided to move back home to the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation Reservation in Kansas and start her own business.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I wanted to have a purpose and help people; and I kind of knew that I wanted to be in the food industry,” explains Melinda.

In 2016, Melinda launched Morning Light Kombucha from a 120 square foot space in her basement. As a fermented tea, kombucha offers a plethora of health benefits, especially for the immune system. Melinda has successfully used it to keep her autoimmune illness under control for over 10 years. But, Morning Light Kombucha is so much more than the drink they produce.

Since the start of the company, Melinda has deliberately built every aspect of the business on a set of sustainability-focused values. Morning Light Kombucha partners with several sustainable farms in the area to source their ingredients, which strengthens the local economy and food systems. Melinda and her family forage for wild fruits and berries, renewing traditional Native practices. To reduce waste, Melinda began by offering refillable bottles at farmers markets and through wholesale kegerator accounts, which was a relatively new concept in Northeast Kansas.

“That has been the really exciting part, trying to get people to look at things differently. They weren’t really looking at their own usage,” says Melinda.

After two years of hauling product up and down the stairs of her basement, Melinda secured a 1,600 square foot commercial building in downtown Hoyt, Kansas as Morning Light Kombucha’s new location. The business continued to grow, and Melinda was introduced to Akiptan through an Intertribal Agricultural Council event in late 2019. Although Melinda never considered financing options for her business, this sparked some ideas.

“I had never received any funding before; I had always used my own money. But, I had been thinking of launching a canned kombucha line,” said Melinda.

Since there weren’t any options for glass recycling in her area, Melinda made the choice not to offer pre-packaged bottling for her kombucha line up to that point. However, there were several small businesses that were interested in carrying her product but just didn’t have the space for a refill station. A pre-packaged product line would be perfect for them, so she started looking into cans as an option. Melinda got in touch with Akiptan and started talking about what it would take to get a canned kombucha line into production.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Morning Light Kombucha had to stop in-person sales, but quickly pivoted by creating an online store and offering doorstep deliveries. That pivot proved to be very successful, increasing sales by 30%. During the pandemic, Melinda continued talking with Akiptan and secured a loan to purchase the equipment, cans, and materials needed for her new product line. Morning Light officially launched their canned kombucha line in February 2021.

“It has really taken off and taken our business to a whole new level,” says Melinda.

With a strong working relationship, she views Akiptan more like a partner than a lender.

“I was terrified to borrow money, but they made the whole loan process a lot less scary. Akiptan is so helpful and very personal,” says Melinda.

As a thriving business, Morning Light Kombucha recently hired three employees and contracted with a bookkeeper for the first time. But the growth doesn’t stop there! Melinda recently purchased 10 acres of land on the Reservation with plans of building an off-grid brewery. Included in this undertaking is a 4,000 square foot building, composted waste management facilities, a pond to receive excess filtered water from the brewing process, and small-scale fruit plots. Melinda hopes to have the new facility complete in 2022.

We would like to thank RSF Social Finance for their investment in Akiptan so that we can continue financing Native ag businesses like Morning Light Kombucha.

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