Mwila Kapungulya speaks with Todd Churchill, explaining how he makes an African air-dried beef snack called Biltong. They spoke at Kapungulya's booth during the Food Agriculture Ideas Week event at the Science Museum on Monday, October 3, 2022 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Renée Jones Schneider | Star Tribune

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Growing up in Zambia, Mwila Kapungulya could buy biltong at nearly every store, pub, and neighborhood food vendor. But the dried-meat snack was much harder to come by when he moved to Minnesota more than 15 years ago.

So he and a few fellow African immigrants eventually made their own and started sharing it, then selling it—then selling out of it.

Zambezi Biltong has quickly become a farmers market favorite, and its founders have big ambitions once more people know what, exactly, biltong is.

Just don’t call it jerky.

“It’s a pleasant variation from what many have grown up to know as a meat snack,” said Kapungulya, Zambezi Biltong chief executive and co-founder. “Once they get a taste of it, it speaks for itself.”

Biltong differs from jerky in its preparation—it is air-dried, not smoked, and does not contain added sugar. Credit: Renée Jones Schneider | Star Tribune

Biltong originated in southern Africa and is prepared by curing meat in salt and vinegar and letting it air-dry over several days.

Jerky, meanwhile, is typically marinated, smoked, and flavored with sugar. It is dried relatively quickly through low-temperature cooking.

Though extra spices are sometimes added to biltong, “it’s more to complement the natural flavors of the meat,” Kapungulya said.

The growing popularity of biltong comes as meat snacks overall are seeing soaring sales. Among the 12 best-selling snack categories, sales rose fastest for jerky and similar products last year, according to market research firm IRI.

“Meat snacks has had one of the most phenomenal years of any category I’ve studied in a long time,” said IRI executive vice president Sally Lyons Wyatt in a presentation earlier this year. “You have more brands in that category now. … Meat snacks are hitting it on all cylinders and the sales results show.”

In the United States, biltong has only recently seen its star rise and remains a small fraction of the nearly $2 billion meat snacks market. Leading brand Stryve was founded in 2018 and reported $18 million in sales in the first half of this year.

Minnesota is home to a number of beef jerky producers—including the operational headquarters for industry leader Jack Link’s. So how can biltong stand out in a crowded and well-established market?

“It’s a healthier alternative to other snacks out there,” Kapungulya said. “Zero sugar, no MSG, no nitrates. The base is really just spices, vinegar and the beef, air-dried.”

Zambezi and other brands tout their zero-sugar, high-protein snack as friendly for the trendy keto and paleo diets.

On Friday afternoon, Zambezi Biltong was the seventh most popular beef product on Amazon, behind similar meat snacks with zero sugar.

Zambezi Biltong was named for the Zambezi River, which flows through southern Africa and includes Victoria Falls. It is a waterway common to all three co-founders–Kapungulya, from Zambia, and Ranga Chinongoza, and Henry Muchinerip, from Zimbabwe.

“Products like these help people travel, just by engaging in other cultures and traditions,” Kapungulya said. “It’s being able to share a bit of our culture with our adopted home.”

They launched the product in February 2021, despite the pandemic limiting their in-person sales and sampling opportunities. The trio had already been selling southern Africa-inspired packaged spices together.

“We thought, if we don’t do this now, it’s probably never going to happen,” Kapungulya said.

Zambezi Biltong has landed in a few local stores and breweries but mainly sells at farmers markets, festivals, and online—including through a subscription model, which has become more popular for e-commerce.

Eventually the company wants to get broader distribution, and already has found a manufacturer that can produce 30,000 bags of biltong per day.

“We’re looking at getting into larger stores,” Kapungulya said. “We still need to do some groundwork in terms of introducing the product.”

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Brooks Johnson is a business reporter covering Minnesota’s food industry, 3M, and manufacturing trends at the Star Tribune.