The global market for “superfoods” is worth around $162 billion and is set to grow by an average of 5.5 per cent between now and 2028, according to figures published by IMARC.
But if superfoods are helping us to take care of our minds, bodies and tastebuds, should we also be asking whether their production is having a positive impact on the environment, particularly if the products in question are being grown and harvested in parts of the world considered important in terms of bio-diversity.
That was a question I was keen to explore with Albana Rama, founder and CEO of The Rainforest Company. Her venture – which is shipping Acai berry puree packs to stores in Europe – has just raised €36 million in VC finance. As Rabana sees it, a commitment to protecting the Rainforest environment is key to the company’s mission. So how does that work in practice?
A New Contender
Sometimes it seems that every day brings a new supefood. The Acai berry is one of the latest contenders. Harvested from a palm of the same name in Central and South America, it is apparently jam-packed with antioxidants. According to its proponents it can have a beneficial effect on heart health and the immune system. Over the course of the last few years, these berries have probably made it to a health store or supermarket near you. There are a number of suppliers in the marketplace.
And if the activity of VCs is anything to go by, it’s market with potential. In the context of food startups, the €36 million raised by The Rainforest Company last December represented a signficant sum. Not only was it one of the largest funding rounds in the European foodtech sector it was also the biggest raise by a female founder. The fundraising round – led by family office Kaltroco – also came at a time when investment in foodtech as a whole had slipped from $54 billion in 2021 to $28 billion in 2022, according to Forward Fooding.
So what was the attraction?
An ESG Agenda
Well, revenues clearly played a big part. Since launching in 2016, The Rainforest Company has increased sales rapidly. Its puree packs are currently sold through 12,000 points of sale across Europe and following a move into the U.K. market, there is potential for further growth. The company has generated revenues of 38.5 million Swiss francs since 2018. Between 2021 and 2022, they grew by 200 per cent. Rama says earnings of 80 million Swiss francs in 2033 are expected this year.
But underlying that is an ambition to have a positive impact. The Rainforest Company’s avowed aim is to pursue an ESG policy that outstrips anyone else in the market. So why is going the extra environmental mile so important?
Inspired By The Forest
Rama was born in Kosovo but moved to Switzerland with her parents. Her early working life was in the finance industry where she had roles with GE Capital and Ekman AG. “I had a great career in finance but I began to get disillusioned. It didn’t give me the fulfillment I thought it would,” she says.
The turning point came when she visited the South American Rainforest. “I went on a three-week survival course to get out of my comfort zone.”
Despite the beauty of the Rainforest, it was almost impossible not to be aware of the problems it faced in the form of deforestation to make way for the cattle and Palm Oil industries.
So, in setting up The Rainforest Company, Rama set out to provide a means for local people to make a living that didn’t involve the degradation of the environment.
“I saw that we could make profit from plants that were growing wild in the Forest,” she says. “And by offering a decent price, we could incentivise farmers to work for us.”
Scaling The Supply Chain
So how do you build a genuinely sustainable business while avoiding accusations of greenwash? Rame says the supply chain was key.
“Setting it up was the longest part of the process,” she says. “We had to talk directly to the farmers. We see them as partners and we aim to include the whole community,” she says. There are currently around 200,000 growers.
But it wasn’t simply a question of finding people to cultivate and harvest the berries. A processing facility was also required, along with a port close enough to the Rainforest.
The second challenge was to actually find a market for a product which had not gained the traction it enjoys today.
The company held a launch event at a vegan restaurant and invited journalists while also enlisting the help of influencers. Retailers were also invited. The company began to get its products into stores in Switzerland. Today, the U.K. market is a priority, with its products available through supermarket group, Waitrose, delivery service Ocado and the Whole Foods chain.
But is the business really helping the Rainforest in any measurable way? Rama points to a policy of fair pricing to ensure that farmers are not (and do not feel) exploited. And in terms of the farmers themselves and the local partners providing logistics and processing, the company carries out due diligence to ensure its own ESG policies are adhered to. There is a particular focus on biodiversity and climate.
Locking In Carbon
The company’s impact report claims to have stored 6.3 million metric tons of CO2 through preserving the Rainforest. Moving forward the goal is to remove 13.7 million metric tons of the gas by 2024.
But does this policy make a difference to customers? Rama says the company is targeting a mass audience across generations. Within that mix, some consumers will doubtless be influenced by the ethical stance of the company but others will be much more focused on the taste and reputed health benefits of the berry. But proveable positive impact is part of the mix. Customers, Rama says, are interested not only in health and the taste of the berry but also sustainability.
And that’s part of a bigger picture. If VCs were attracted by rapid sales growth and – as investor Futury put it – “internationalization and product expansion” – Rama aims to show the commercial goals can sit alongside forest preservation.