Brazilian-born, former professional triathlete Cauê Suplicy has a mission of introducing Americans to healthy and better-for-the-planet snacks. He is the founder of Barnana, the #1 organic plantain chip brand in the U.S.
In a recent discussion with Cauê, I learned that during the pandemic, Barnana doubled its sales, continued to introduce new products, acquired its longstanding Latin American supply and manufacturing partner, Agroapoyo and assembled a world-class executive leadership team.
As both a Certified B Corp and Benefit Corporation, Cauê is particularly proud that his brand has experienced this growth while maintaining his core values, including paying its network of 1,400 smallholder farmers — many of whom are Indigenous to the Amazon — a 30% premium for growing organic bananas and plantains using regenerative farming methods.
He told me that the impact of this farming income reaches 6,000+ people directly in rural areas of Ecuador, and 3,000+ indirectly. Barnana was one of the first food brands to use upcycled raw ingredients to make its products and reduce climate-harming food waste. To date, Barnana has upcycled millions of plantains and bananas and helped catalyze the burgeoning upcycled food movement. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from our discussion about Barnana and its impacts.
Chris Marquis: With supply chain and production issues impacting many areas of the global food supply chain, how has Barnana harnessed the benefits of upcycling and food waste to gain traction and make a difference through support of sustainable farming and agriculture industry practices?
Cauê Suplicy: Sourcing sustainable ingredients is a critical and complex part of sourcing global food systems for organizations of any size. A crucial role for businesses who want to practice sustainability is to identify ways to create a market for all native crops that grow currently. Often, sustainable supply options are simply not available to tap into, or introduce variables to production and distribution that can cause significant disruption to business models.
In the process of building Barnana’s supply chain we encountered both the challenge of food waste and potential to use upcycled bananas and plantains in our products. When learning that 15% of bananas are not considered fit for export as market-ready produce, we offered to purchase them and simultaneously create a new revenue stream for the farmers unable to sell this fruit.
For large companies, adopting sustainable supply chain practices can be hindered because of their scale, which requires sourcing ingredients to meet marketplace demands. On the other hand, smaller businesses like Barnana have more flexibility to adapt and lead the way through sourcing, producing and delivery of products with sustainable practices embedded.
As a smaller-scale organic snack food maker, supplies of the organic ingredients we source can grow at the pace of our business. Additionally, we continue to work directly with farmers to convert more of their land from conventional to organic farming methods as retailer and consumer demand increases.
Marquis: There’s a perception in the agriculture/food industry that ‘going organic’, including adoption of the practices necessary to do so, can be costly and challenging – yet Barnana has succeeded and grown in doing so. What are the forces at play?
Suplicy: For Barnana and its manufacturing partner, Agroapoyo, it all starts with training as many Indigenous plantain and banana farmers as possible. It takes time to build a scalable organic supply of ingredients for any food business, so as demand for our product grows, Barnana is focused on increasing the number of organic growers. Converting conventional farmers and demonstrating the value to them by going organic takes time but once you start, there’s a bit of a snowball effect as other farmers see the benefit not only in short-term financial gains, but long-term as a more successful farming community. This encourages future generations to stay in the region and continue to farm.
For Barnana, the most important and fundamental issue is to pay organic farmers a reasonable and sustainable rate for their crops. Otherwise, they’re not going to be receptive to what needs to be done to convert to and sustain the organic process. While you can offer additional incentives, the primary one is paying a fair market rate and communicating the long-term partnership benefits. That said, for large food companies, it’s unrealistic to think or plan to ‘go organic’ and not expect to have a big hit to your bottom line. You have to think differently.
Marquis: How is Barnana helping the agriculture and farm communities in one of the most climate-temperature impacted areas of the world, become more sustainable?
Suplicy: Businesses need to do more than fund farmers to become sustainable. They need to train, finance and build infrastructure to create conditions that help farmers avoid intermediaries who take advantage of perishable crops.
We pay (Indigenous) farmers more for their organic plantain and banana crops. These are perishable items that can only be sold up to a certain point in their ripening process. Since farmers lack the financial resources to preserve harvested crops, these growers have to go to intermediaries who tend to buy opportunistically at reduced prices. As a supplier for Barnana they have direct access to the global food marketplace at fair market prices.
It is both the knowledge that their product is valuable and knowing that they can sell for a fair price, which relieves a lot of pressure for these farmers. Having a reliable source of revenue is the most important socioeconomic factor towards building a sustainable future for these communities. It prevents migration to cities. If children from these climate-relevant farming communities can’t have a good life, they will leave. Then non-locals or corporations may move into these areas and begin using unsustainable practices.
Supporting and sustaining the farming in these key climate-valued regions also prevents forests from being clear-cut, and invasive species from being introduced. This is a very important, collateral effect.
Marquis: Has/will upcycling food waste become a turning point for achieving sustainability goals for the global food supply and agriculture industries?
Suplicy: Barnana was one of the first to speak up about the sustainability benefits of upcycling as a founding board member of the Upcycling Food Association (UFA). The organization’s goals are to help educate and promote consumer interest and education in food waste issues. Just a few years ago, the term upcycling was practically unknown, but in the past two years the number of UFA member companies has grown to 200.
Upcycling in general, particularly with regard to food supply, doesn’t actually fit into the current supply chain, but instead requires it be modified in order to realize a growth phase for these impactful environmental solutions. That journey is underway and will grow in impact through the broadening of industry wide adoption with retailers and consumers seeing the value in these types of products.
Marquis: How do new entrants into food upcycling markets need to balance financial and sustainable goals and interests to affect widespread change?
Suplicy: For Barnana, the entry point and focus started with the farmers and manufacturing partners. We didn’t start our organic snack food business with upcycling, but discovered it in the building of the supply chain processes. It’s important for new entrants to understand that it will likely be more expensive to start any enterprise in which supply chain reinvention and the establishing of product value plays such an important role in go-to-market strategy. That is why it’s critical to understand the value that your business and product(s) are bringing to consumers.
The organic food industry has never been so big, with economies of scale – the more products that are available, the more people buy. That said, there is still a lot of marketplace incentive for farmers to grow soy and corn, but the more demand there is for organic, sustainable food products, the more consumers will gravitate toward what is good for the planet, and bigger players in the food industry can help scale it.
Marquis: Why did Barnana pursue B Corp certification? What did you learn through the certification process? Did you make any changes in the company as a result?
Suplicy: We were already doing many of the right things which made the B Corp certification process fairly smooth in knowing we always wanted to do good for the planet with a business grounded in a sustainability mission. That means we had already asked those value-shaping questions early on – should we make organic or conventional snacks with more margin? The answer being “organic only” as that choice needed to align with our values.
Though B Corp is not a regulatory body, we have a system of internal checks and continue to revisit those questions against B Corp certification requirements, on a regular basis. Barnana is also proud to be a legal public benefit Corporation (PBC) which shows our long-term commitment to the company’s values.
Doing the right thing first is always going to be our focus. While there may always be reasons to make changes and adjustments to our business practices, it’s great to have that set of values to align with as we continue to evolve our mission. As B Corps like Barnana mature and scale, they inspire future entrepreneurs to start businesses where the triple Bottom Line is built into the business model.
In terms of the company’s workforce mindset as a B Corp, measuring what matters is about much more than proving we are treating people and the planet well; it’s also about ensuring that our business can be a force for positive change in the world.