When Silicon Valley food tech company JUST (formerly Hampton Creek) announced its newest product to go to market in February, it was largely touted as an effort to alleviate malnutrition in West Africa.
Indeed the product named Power Gari, a nutritionally fortified cassava-based porridge now available in Liberia, was created after Taylor Quinn, director of emerging markets at JUST, had a conversation with a pediatrician in Liberia who told him that most fortified foods were too expensive for most Liberians. But in order to positively impact malnutrition in Liberia, Quinn knew that JUST would need to make a product that was also profitable.
“Our goal with this work is to build a nuts and bolts business with strong unit economics. The mission is the overarching piece of it of course, but what makes up my day to day is all the nuts and bolts,” said Quinn.
Using Liberia as a case study, the company is already studying new markets for its next plant-based porridge product where Quinn says they’ll apply the same process used to develop Power Gari, creating a new product and a new supply chain in each market.
We caught up with Quinn to get into the gritty details of how Power Gari was developed and how JUST created a profitable business model for a product that costs just seven cents per serving.
How did you come to the Power Gari product itself and what lessons did you bring from Just Mayo and the other JUST products?
The short answer of how we came to land on Power Gari has been two years of trial and error, trying to leverage our Michelin-starred chefs, our food scientists, our plant discovery process etc. with expertise from Liberian moms, Liberian farmers, Liberians chefs of all shapes and forms, to make something the makes sense here in Liberia.
I’m a social entrepreneur professionally, but academically I’m an anthropologist, and so looking through that lens we asked ‘How do we design a product that doesn’t require cooking instructions?’ We do have cooking instructions on the package for transparency purposes and for extra clarity, but this should be something that is an inherently Liberian product that I can hand to an illiterate grandmother and she knows exactly what it is.
In sourcing the main agricultural product in Power Gari, cassava, it seems like you couldn’t use JUST’s usual method of combing the earth for the perfect protein since you wanted to support local agriculture. So how many choices did you really have?
We were looking for something that was drought resistant, that could be grown affordably, that was grown by smallholder farmers across the country — a crop that could be leveraged in different ways and a crop that was inherently Liberian. That’s why we landed on cassava as the base. We’re incorporating vitamins, soy, and forest-harvested palm oil to add that nutrition and protein profile.
In the US we try to make the food that people find familiar, like mayo and cookies, better for you and affordable and delicious. So we asked what type of food do Liberians consume all the time and how can we take a food that’s traditional and put a new spin on it to make it exciting and novel?
Can you describe your distribution methods?
We sell through a couple different channels: primarily food service directly to schools and some hospitals in 25kg bags. Retail is a little different in that we made a conscious decision to avoid selling in supermarkets where wealthier people shop and we’ve gone directly to the biggest, most chaotic open-air markets. Each market is set up with a group of market leaders, so we’ve identified the women entrepreneurs in each market that are seen as the thought leaders — people that consumers come to for advice. We needed to get those people on board and make sure they have really healthy margins on the Power Gari so they can make good money by selling this and then give them marketing tools and unique packaging so that they can stand out in a very crowded market space. That’s been our primary means of going to market to this point and the product has been flying.
How do the unit economics work?
One of the big problems with this work, whether you have big companies or nonprofit projects is at the end of the day the unit economics don’t really make sense. If we’re not selling at seven cents per serving, none of this matters. But in order to get down to that cost, we had to design production systems that are entirely based on the local reality. So one of the local realities here that often costs entrepreneurs is the cost of energy. If you’re outside of the capital city Monrovia, you’re not going to be on the electricity grid and therefore the cost of running generators to fuel machines is exorbitant. The cost of fuel is rising every day right now.
We decided to set up operations in rural northern Liberia – to design mixing machines leveraging our process engineering team at JUST that could be hand-cranked rather than machine-powered. By moving production outside of big urban areas, the cost of living is much lower and therefore the cost of doing business is much lower in terms of paying people even though we’re paying good salaries.
Sourcing packaging locally, doing all those things has allowed us to keep our costs at a level where we can still have both a solid wholesale price that allows healthy margins for vendors as well as us at JUST to make a real profit off of this product.
JUST has always been somewhat of a disruptor. This sounds very disruptive to the developing markets that you’re entering. How do you handle being a US company entering a new market, making a big splash without making enemies?
In Liberia, nothing is owned or controlled by JUST. All of our work is done by Liberian entrepreneurs who are partners of ours. The entire Liberian value chain is all done by Liberian businesses. We are just licensing a formula, licensing a brand, and then advising with our expertise. But everything is 100% Liberian owned and operated so that helps a lot. But to get to your point, we’re not scared of ticking people off. We want this work to prove as an example to other food companies. Even if you’re one of the world’s biggest food companies, that’s no excuse that you shouldn’t be doing better.