SAN FRANCISCO - About 1-in-3 people in the world eats food that fills them up but doesn’t have enough protein, vitamins and minerals.
Known as “hidden hunger,” the situation can lead to a weakened immune system, stunted growth and impaired intelligence.
But San Francisco food tech company Just thinks it has the answer – bring Silicon Valley know-how, drive and resources to figure out how to make a country’s traditional, popular dish more nutritious while maintaining taste and low cost.
Turning a local dish into a nutritious meal
Known for making plant-based mayonnaise, cookie dough and salad dressings that can be found in U.S. supermarkets, Just launched an initiative in Liberia working with local manufacturers and suppliers to make a product called Power Gari. It is based on cassava, a popular ingredient in Liberian cooking.
In January, Power Gari began appearing on store shelves in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. It has six ingredients, more than 80 percent of which are from local sources, according to the firm. The company licenses the formula to a Liberian manufacturer and works with local suppliers to meet food safety standards. [[https://justforall.com/en-us/stories/power-gari]]
“Our goal here is to build a better food system in Liberia and that means we are hands-on,” says Taylor Quinn, director of emerging markets for Just, who lives in Monrovia.
Struggling to get the right taste
Over the past two years, Quinn has carried ingredients from Liberia to San Francisco for the chefs and scientists at Just to look for ways to make an affordable, traditional meal more nutritious. But they balance those concerns with making sure that Liberians will like the taste.
“It's sometimes hard to get the exact flavor profile,” Quinn said. “The cassava or the sugar or whatever it may be that we're using in northern Liberia is different than what we can get access to here in the office.”
The formula for Power Gari turns the starchy cassava into a fortified porridge of vitamins and minerals. Its 12 grams of protein are derived from a soy protein concentrate. It is flavored with locally-sourced red palm oil and salt.
The company is constantly tweaking the formula, part of its “startup mentality” approach, Quinn said.
Power Gari costs roughly 5 cents per 50-gram serving for the bulk product that is in schools. The sealed packages sold in retail stores costs about 15 cents per serving.
A machine that works when the power goes out
For Quinn, one of the most challenging aspects of Just’s efforts in Liberia is to figure out what works best on the ground. When it came to the machinery used in its manufacturing partner’s plant, Quinn wanted a mixing machine made in Liberia that can work without electricity. He found a local manufacturer who made the machines for about $800 and can come by to do repairs if needed.
When the power first went out during production, the workers switched to hand cranking the mixture. “After a few minutes of hand cranking, it was perfect,” Quinn said.
Expanding to bigger markets
The true proof of Power Gari’s success will be if Liberians buy it. The company says it looked to Liberia as a test case before thinking about expanding to bigger markets such as Nigeria or Kenya.
The goal, according to company founder Josh Tetrick, is nothing less than solving the world’s unjust food system.
“Why are we not approaching this with the kind of ferocity that high growth companies bring to their own operations?" he asked.
“We want to end micronutrient deficiency in the world. We're starting with Liberia,” he added. “And the potential to do it is quicker than a lot of people realize. It is right in front of us.”
Just has raised more than $200 million from investors and is valued at over $1 billion. It has revamped its board recently to add directors with international business, agriculture and sustainability experience.