How a Startup Manages to Balance Rapid Sales Growth with Rainforest Sustainability

by The Insights

The global “superfood” market is worth around $162 billion and is expected to grow an average of 5.5% by 2028, according to figures released by IMARC.

But if superfoods help us take care of our minds, bodies and taste buds, should we also ask ourselves if their production has a positive impact on the environment, especially if the products in question are grown and harvested? in some parts of the world considered important in terms of biodiversity.

It was a question I wanted to explore with Albana Rama, Founder and CEO of The Rainforest Company. His company – which ships packs of acai berry puree to stores in Europe – just raised €36m in VC funding. According to Rabana, a commitment to protecting the rainforest environment is key to the company’s mission. So how does this work in practice?

A new competitor

Sometimes it seems like every day brings a new superfood. 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 packed with antioxidants. According to its proponents, it may have a beneficial effect on heart health and the immune system. Over the past few years, these berries have probably made their way to a health store or supermarket near you. There are a number of providers in the market.

And if we rely on the activity of VCs, it is a market with potential. In the context of agri-food startups, the 36 million euros raised by The Rainforest Company last December represented a significant sum. This was not only one of the largest fundraising rounds in the European food tech sector, but also the largest capital raise by a female founder. The fundraiser – led by family office Kaltroco – also came at a time when investment in food technology as a whole had risen from $54 billion in 2021 to $28 billion in 2022, according to Forward Fooding.

So what was the attraction?

An ESG agenda

Well, revenue clearly played a big role. Since its launch in 2016, The Rainforest Company has rapidly increased its sales. Its mash packs are currently sold in 12,000 outlets across Europe and following an entry into the UK 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 have increased by 200%. Rama says earnings of 80 million Swiss francs in 2033 are expected this year.

But underlying that is the ambition to have a positive impact. Rainforest Company’s stated goal is to pursue an ESG policy that outperforms any other company in the market. So why is it so important to go further in the environment?

Inspired by the forest

Rama was born in Kosovo but moved to Switzerland with her parents. Early in her professional life, she worked in the financial industry where she held positions at GE Capital and Ekman AG. “I had a great career in finance but I started to become disillusioned. It didn’t give me the fulfillment I was hoping for,” she says.

The turning point came when she visited the South American rainforest. “I took 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.

Thus, in establishing The Rainforest Company, Rama set out to provide local people with a means of earning a living that did not involve environmental degradation.

“I saw that we could take advantage of the plants growing wild in the forest,” she says. “And by offering a decent price, we could incentivize farmers to work for us.”

Scaling the supply chain

So how do you build a truly sustainable business while avoiding greenwash accusations? Rame says the supply chain was critical.

“Setting up was the longest part of the process,” she says. “We had to speak directly to the farmers. We see them as partners and aim to include the whole community,” she says. There are currently around 200,000 producers.

But it wasn’t just about finding people to grow and harvest the berries. A processing facility was also needed, as well as a port close enough to the rainforest.

The second challenge was to find a market for a product that had not gained the popularity it enjoys today.

The company held a launch event at a vegan restaurant and invited journalists while reaching out to influencers. Retailers were also invited. The company began to market its products in stores in Switzerland. Today, the UK market is a priority, with its products available through supermarket group Waitrose, delivery service Ocado and the Whole Foods chain.

Business impact

But is the company really helping the rainforest in measurable ways? Rama points to a fair pricing policy to ensure that farmers are not (and do not feel) taken advantage of. And when it comes to the farmers themselves and local partners providing logistics and processing, the company exercises due diligence to ensure that its own ESG policies are adhered to. Particular emphasis is placed on biodiversity and the climate.

Carbon Lock

The company’s impact report claims to have stored 6.3 million metric tons of CO2 through the preservation of the rainforest. Going forward, the goal is to phase out 13.7 million metric tons of gas by 2024.

But does this policy make a difference for customers? Rama says the company targets a mass audience across generations. In this blend, some consumers will no doubt be swayed by the company’s ethical stance, but others will be much more focused on the taste and the berry’s reputed health benefits. But a demonstrable positive impact is part of the mix. Customers, Rama says, are interested not only in the health and taste of the berry, but also in sustainability.

And it’s part of a bigger picture. If VCs have been attracted by rapid sales growth and – as investor Futury put it – “internationalization and product expansion” – Rama aims to show that business goals can go hand in hand with preservation of forests.

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