The global market for “superfoods” is worth about $162 billion and will grow by an average of 5.5 percent between now and 2028, according to figures published by IMARC.
But if superfoods help us take care of our mind, body and taste buds, then we should also ask ourselves whether their production has a positive effect on the environment, especially if the products in question are grown and harvested in parts of the world ? considered important for biodiversity.
That was a question I was eager to explore with Albana Rama, founder and CEO of The Rainforest Company. Her venture – which ships Acai berry puree packets to stores in Europe – has just raised €36 million in venture capital funding. As Rabana sees it, a commitment to protecting the rainforest is key to the company’s mission. So how does that work in practice?
A new contender
Sometimes it seems like every day brings a new superfood. The Acai berry is one of the newest 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 and immune health. Over the years, these berries have probably found their way to a health food store or supermarket near you. There are several providers on the market.
And if VC activity is anything to go by, it’s a market with potential. In the context of food startups, the 36 million euros that The Rainforest Company raised last December represented a significant amount. Not only was it one of the largest rounds of funding in the European food tech sector, it was also the largest fundraising by a female founder. The fundraising round – led by family office Kaltroco – also came at a time when investment in food tech as a whole had fallen from $54 billion in 2021 to $28 billion in 2022, according to Eat ahead.
So what was the appeal?
An ESG agenda
Well, revenue obviously played a big part. Since launching in 2016, The Rainforest Company has rapidly increased sales. The puree packs are currently sold through 12,000 outlets across Europe and after a move into the UK market there is potential for further growth. The company has generated sales of CHF 38.5 million since 2018. Between 2021 and 2022, it grew by 200 percent. Rama says a profit of 80 million Swiss francs in 2033 is expected this year.
But beneath that lies the ambition to make a positive impact. The stated goal of The Rainforest Company is to have an ESG policy that surpasses all others in the market. So why is it so important to go that extra environmental mile?
Inspired by the forest
Rama was born in Kosovo but moved to Switzerland with her parents. Her early working life was in the financial industry, where she held positions at GE Capital and Ekman AG. “I had a great career in finance, but I was starting to get disillusioned. It didn’t give me the satisfaction I expected,” 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 rainforest’s beauty, it was almost impossible not to be aware of the problems it was facing in the form of deforestation to make way for the livestock and palm oil industries.
So, in setting up The Rainforest Company, Rama sought to provide local people with a means of earning a livelihood without the degradation of the environment.
“I saw that we could make a profit from plants growing wild in the forest,” she says. “And by offering a decent price, we can encourage farmers to work for us.”
Scaling up the supply chain
So how do you build a truly sustainable business and avoid greenwashing accusations? 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 strive to involve the whole community,” she says. There are currently about 200,000 growers.
But it wasn’t just a matter of finding people to grow and harvest the berries. A processing facility was also needed, along with a port close enough to the rainforest.
The second challenge was to actually 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 also enlisting the help of influencers. Retailers were also invited. The company started getting 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.
But is the company really helping the rainforest in a measurable way? Rama points to a fair pricing policy to ensure farmers are not (and feel) exploited. And with regard to the farmers themselves and the local partners who provide logistics and processing, the company conducts due diligence to ensure compliance with its own ESG policies. Special attention is paid to biodiversity and climate.
The company’s impact report claims to have saved 6.3 million tons of CO2 by preserving the rainforest. The goal is to remove 13.7 million tons of 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 no doubt be influenced by the company’s ethical stance, but others will be much more focused on the berry’s flavor and purported health benefits. But demonstrable positive impact is part of the mix. Customers, says Rama, are not only interested in the health and taste of the berry, but also in sustainability.
And that is part of a bigger picture. If VCs were attracted by rapid revenue growth and – as an investor Future so to speak – “internationalization and product expansion” – Rama wants to show that the commercial goals can stand alongside forest conservation.