Not JUST food aid: How a manufacturer plans to feed the hungry — and profit
With its new Power Gari porridge produced in Liberia, the company formerly known as Hampton Creek is using its knowledge to change the way people think of assistance to look at the developing world.
JUST’s new factory in Ganta, Liberia is 7,200 miles away from its high-tech San Francisco home base — and it feels a world away.
JUST, which was known as Hampton Creek until changing its name earlier this year, is known for high-tech equipment, melding science and nutrition, and cutting-edge technologists creating new ways for people to eat affordable food that both tastes good and is good for them.
In its San Francisco office, the seven-year-old company has worked with protein isolates to create vegan mayonnaise, salad dressing, cookies and egg-like products. JUST's latest food science venture is lab-grown meat that it plans to debut later this year.
JUST’s Liberian factory, which makes a cassava porridge product called Power Gari, is in an old hotel. Its equipment, while meeting international food safety standards, is often run by hand. It’s been made by a small machine shop in Liberia, not at precision factories in the U.S. or China. And the factory itself is off the grid — though the $850 mixing machine does have a small motor that can be used.
Taylor Quinn, JUST’s emerging markets director, remembers the first time he visited the factory when it was operational. He was with the team from Kawadah Farms, a local business that manages sourcing, processing and distribution of Power Gari.
“We hand-cranked the Power Gari, and we opened it up, and it came out completely well mixed and without any clumps and everything, even with the oil addition,” Quinn told Food Dive. “And we were all like, ‘Damn, this is real.’ And that was probably the most exciting moment.”
The factory has an exciting purpose: creating an affordable, nutritious and tasty product for people in Liberia, who are among the world’s poorest. But this isn’t a food aid project. It’s a business venture. And it fits perfectly into JUST’s larger corporate mission.
“We hand-cranked the Power Gari, and we opened it up, and it came out completely well mixed and without any clumps and everything, even with the oil addition. And we were all like, ‘Damn, this is real.’ ”
Director of emerging markets, JUST
Josh Tetrick, JUST's CEO, says his company is dedicated to a fair, honest, nutritious, affordable and sustainable food system for all. And this doesn’t just mean consumers in the U.S. who can afford to shop in grocery stores. Tetrick told Food Dive the driving force behind the Power Gari project was solidified years ago when he read the book “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” by C.K. Prahalad.
“If you look at the poor as martyrs and victims, you’ll only donate to charity. Or not,” he told Food Dive, summarizing the book’s main point. “If you look at the poor as consumers and empowered, you’ll realize you can develop products and services that might improve the state of their lives. ... And that can actually be a business. It doesn’t have to be a [corporate social responsibility] initiative.”
By April, about 1 metric ton of Power Gari had been produced, Quinn said. April's production level added up to about 23,000 meals, which he said is “just a drop in the bucket” considering the need and demand for the product.
Tetrick plans on eventually expanding this sort of project to other countries where local residents don’t always have the food they need, including other African nations such as Nigeria and Ghana, Asian nations like India, and even areas in the U.S. where affordable and nutritious food is scarce.
Why is JUST getting into this space?
Tetrick said he knows it may sound odd that a company best known for condiments and cookies in the U.S. is working in a developing nation.
“It feels very natural,” he said. “Because there are all sorts of different food issues in the food system, and every day in an incremental way, how do we make that idea of eating well a bit more real?”
Before he was a food company CEO, Tetrick served a short time as an investment adviser to the Liberian government. His on-the-ground experience made him more acutely aware of the micronutrient deficiencies many of the people there face, as well as problems with poverty and access to nutritious food.
According to the World Food Program, Liberia ranks 182nd out of 187 countries in the human development index, which the United Nations uses to measure an average person's quality of life, education and standard of living. Across its population, 64% of its 4.6 million people live below the poverty line — with 1.3 million living in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as less than $1.90 a day.
Quinn, who is an anthropologist specializing in social entrepreneurship, heard Tetrick talk about his vision for JUST and how businesses can impact the food system at a conference in San Francisco a few years ago. He spoke with Tetrick after his presentation, and was hired to move to Monrovia, Liberia to figure out how JUST could have a presence in developing countries.
He spent six months learning from the people there about the best way for a company like JUST to make a difference. A turning point came after he spoke to a pediatrician about the chronic problem of malnutrition among children. Many kids in Liberia had no access to affordable food with the vitamins and minerals they needed in the local markets. Occasional food aid, including fortified powders and peanuts, were donated to the hospital, but not enough to make a meaningful difference.
Quinn immediately started working with the JUST team to try to solve this problem.
“This is about how do you make a product that works, and how do you build a food system that works,” Quinn said. “And I think … that’s where this product is really different from current food aid projects that exist. ... It’s really taking that holistic approach.”
How is this approach different?
Food aid programs for developing countries tend to follow certain unofficial rules. The product is bland but nutritious — not the type of thing people would want to steal. It’s engineered by entities outside the country, and is not tailored to what the local population might want. It’s designed to help the people when they get it, but it’s not something they will want to depend on.
JUST Power Gari breaks all of these rules. It’s almost completely sourced in Liberia, and is moving toward 100% Liberian ingredients. JUST has partnered with a local farming group to run the operations. The product is made in a factory in Liberia, on machinery built in Liberia — which was designed to run in normal conditions in Liberia. Quinn is the only foreigner who works on Power Gari’s day-to-day operations. It’s a simple product that most Liberians would be familiar with. And it was designed to be affordable, taste good, and be prepared easily by people in Liberia.
“What we’re doing is incredibly simple,” Quinn said. “All food everywhere should be based on these four pillars of nutrition, deliciousness, affordability and local value chain. That is not rocket science. Unfortunately, those four things are not often the case. And it’s not just a product. At the end of the day, it’s really a system that allows it to have that staying power in the long term.”
Central to this system was finding a product to make. Porridge from cassava, a local plant, was not the first thing JUST wanted to produce, but it made sense. Thomas Bowman, who is JUST’s lead research chef and creator of the Power Gari product, tried several other ideas first.
“All food everywhere should be based on these four pillars of nutrition, deliciousness, affordability and local value chain. That is not rocket science. Unfortunately, those four things are not often the case. And it’s not just a product. At the end of the day, it’s really a system that allows it to have that staying power in the long term.”
Director of emerging markets, JUST
Liberians love bouillon cubes, so Bowman told Food Dive he tried to create one that is fortified. However, the final product required 26 ingredients, and factory conditions for cooking were not what they are in the United States, he said.
His next idea was cocoa peanut soccer balls in recognition of the sport's immense popularity in the country. This failed after he found the product wouldn’t withstand the African heat.
“We started talking to cooks at schools, to kids, to just people about what they eat every day, kind of observing, and realizing we need to find a way of making their food better instead of coming in and bringing these new things, like everyone else has done,” Bowman told Food Dive.
The solution eventually was found in porridge, which may not be appealing in the U.S, but was well received in Liberia.
The next step was for JUST to find a way to source the ingredients and make the porridge. The company partnered with Kawadah Farms, which started as an agricultural business working with sugarcane and cassava farmers. Now, the local business sources almost all of the ingredients for Power Gari and runs the factory.
Kokpor Daynuah, the operations manager at Kawadah Farms, told Food Dive the key to the entire Power Gari project is sustainability — not just in an environmental sense, but in creating an operation that can sustain itself and continue in perpetuity.
“Food aid programs don’t say, ‘Why can’t we have Liberians grow their own food?’ That would actually be more beneficial to Liberia as a country versus importing meals outside of Liberia,” Daynuah said. “... You think about the supply chain, there are actually a lot of farmers who are benefiting when the food is sold.”
The cassava overwhelmingly comes from women-owned farms in the country, as does the palm oil and sesame used in the product. The brown sugar will come from Liberia, those involved with the project said, as soon as it can be cultivated.
Quinn also said it was very important to have a Liberian-built factory. Most food projects in developing countries find fancy machinery and import it. However, if that machinery breaks down, or if there is a prolonged power outage that prevents it from working, there is not much the factory to do.
Having a local machine shop make the parts for the factory eliminates those possibilities. In addition, when it is time for the factory to scale up and add more machines, it only takes about a week to make them.
“You can have all the hype, you can have the sexiest product in the world, but if there isn’t the machines to make it, if the unit economics don’t work for local business, then none of it matters,” Quinn said.
The economics of the product work well, too. Tetrick said the target consumer for Power Gari is the Liberian who lives on the equivalent of less than $5 a day. According to Quinn, the wholesale price is about the equivalent of 75 cents a package for consumers, or about $1 per kilogram for foodservice.
What does the future hold?
To celebrate the launch Power Gari, JUST held a massive concert and festivities in West Point — the slum that was the epicenter of the 2014 ebola outbreak — last month. The celebration, which also fed about 3,000 people, took a lot of planning and coordination, but kicked off sales with a splash.
Meanwhile, Quinn plans to slowly scale up production. While he said the product is so popular that it doesn’t stay on shelves long, it’s important to be realistic — and preserve quality while growing. Right now, about 65% of the product is for foodservice and 30% is for retail, he said.
But JUST says the early success of the Liberia project will generate momentum for similar initiatives. Quinn and Tetrick both said they’ve had many conversations with large food companies that hope to do something similar — use their power and positioning to make a difference in the world.
“When I have conversations with them, they’re not ignorant to this problem. They see the problem, but they’ve struggled with how to make money solving the problem,” Tetrick said. “... You need to set up an incentive. ... We can do that here to get bigger food manufacturers interested.”
“It’s both crazy from a business perspective and crazy from a morality perspective. There’s this giant gap here, and you could actually help to fill that gap.”
Making money is important, too. Quinn said JUST isn’t making a profit on Power Gari because it’s on a very small scale. But as the product's reach grows, he expects it will make money. And, no matter where the project is, it’s vital to the theory and business model that both JUST and its local partner make money.
“This is us proving we are going to put our money and our time and our energy where our mouth is and find out how can we design a food system that works,” Quinn said.
Tetrick said he would like to create a platform to combat micronutrient deficiencies worldwide. He estimated similar programs would be in five to 10 countries in the next decade. According to Quinn, the vast untapped market a product like Power Gari serves could potentially make these developing world projects JUST’s biggest profit driver in a few years.
In the meantime, Tetrick said he’d be surprised if a couple of partnerships with large food companies don't get locked down in the next couple of months. He said he can’t see why other manufacturers wouldn’t want to get involved in this space.
“It’s both crazy from a business perspective and crazy from a morality perspective," Tetrick said. "There’s this giant gap here, and you could actually help to fill that gap."
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