Jani: A New Type of Plant-Based Product - Uplifting Upcycling #8

A brand new plant-based product with the potential to return 100 million tons of unused vegetables in to our food system each year.

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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers. Welcome to our final instalment of Uplifting Upcycling.

There are a lot of “plant-based” products out there that try to replicate meat. It’s pretty rare to see a company launch a plant-based product that isn’t some kind of “burger”, “nugget” or “milk”. But today we’re going to hear from a startup that’s doing things differently.

Fourth Cultured Food Group was founded in 2020 by Joëlle Courties. Joëlle is an entrepreneur whose vision is to upcycle the millions of tonnes of cassava leaves currently wasted each year into an ultra-nutritious, ready to eat or reheat stew.

Joëlle sat down with us to tell Fourth Cultured Food Group’s story and explain how they plan to add an annual 100 million tonnes of vegetables to our food system without ever planting a single seed.

The Fourth Culture Food Group’s new superfood 

I founded the Fourth Culture Food Group in 2020. Our mission is to build a better food system for our planet by using idle assets. We achieve this by upcycling cassava leaves from Thailand, the world’s second-largest producer of cassava byproducts, into a nutritious stew.

The product is called Jani. It’s a nutrient-dense superfood stew. It’s vegan, contains almost 30% plant protein from the cassava leaf, and is packed with tons of fibre, iron and vitamins A and B.

As well as being a contender to take salad’s place as the go-to healthy meal, Jani has a shelf life of 36 months (and counting), making it an easy to store, easy to access vegetable.

Jani has roots in Joëlle’s childhood

I grew up eating cassava stew in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Cassava leaf stew is THE pan-African dish, eaten across most of Africa. It’s also consumed in South America, and Malaysia and Indonesia to a lesser degree. But it’s hardly known outside of these regions. This makes Jani a brand new product for most of the world which is, at the same time, rooted in tradition.

In 1996, war broke out in the Congo, forcing Joëlle and her family to flee to France. Her childhood experiences motivated her to create a nutritious product with a long shelf life that could be eaten in times of crisis. This was the seed of Jani, which has flourished into a plant-based product with mass-market potential.

Joëlle’s inside view of the food system meant upcycling was the only solution

Joëlle’s life has given her a unique perspective on the world’s food system, which she explains is far more fragile than most people realize.

My father was an agricultural engineer. He often took me to farms and plants when I was young, and I saw up close the challenges of food production, such as waste. I’ve seen beyond the production level too. From 2010 to 2016 I worked in sourcing in China, and I became aware of how our food supply chain contributes greatly to waste. In less developed countries, disorganization results in much-needed food going to waste during transportation or storage for example. 

Joëlle has experienced the challenges of the food supply chain, which most of us only read about in newspapers or reports, up close. But that’s not all. 

Being in Shanghai during China’s economic boom was a window into the problems of the future. There was huge pollution and overpopulation. Economic success led people to consume lavishly...I saw a lot of over-ordered food being thrown away. The growth I saw was not sustainable, so I began to consider how creating a sustainable supply chain could solve issues like food waste, pollution and overpopulation. 

The idea that upcycling was the solution to many of these issues came to Joëlle when she started her own trading company in 2016. 

I was importing starch from Thailand, which is made from cassava. What shocked me was that the leftover leaves, the leaves of my childhood dish, they were just being thrown away. 

Turning over a new cassava leaf

In Thailand, cassava leaves are considered waste from production processes that use the root, so farmers burn 74% of them each year.

Cassava leaf was something I knew as food. For cultural reasons, it wasn’t eaten in Thailand, so instead, it was burned, causing heavy pollution in South East Asia, and depriving our global food system of millions of tons of vegetables.

In total, the world wastes around 100 million tons of cassava leaves every year. Joëlle saw an opportunity to add these staggering amounts of wasted vegetables back into our food system without planting a single seed, while also reducing pollution. After four years of research and preparation, she moved to Thailand and launched the Fourth Culture Food group to bring Jani to the world!

Pioneering a brand new product brings challenges

Cassava leaf stew is a product that is totally new for many consumers. For Joëlle, this is a story of scepticism and opportunity.

I’ve been working now for some years to convince farmers in Thailand to sell or donate their cassava leaves to us for upcycling rather than burning. At first, farmers were sceptical, they viewed the leaves as waste and they already had a way to dispose of waste. Thanks to support from a local partner, we are starting to convince farmers that they can reduce Co2 and contribute to nutrition for Thailand.

The cassava leaf situation in Thailand highlights one of the struggles of upcycling. Implementing it can bring immediate costs that overshadow the long term gains.

Harvest is human labour-consuming, so many farmers don’t want to organize the hiring, training etc., so depending on their situation, they let us organize everything. In the future, we hope to set the price of the leaves as a normal commodity and let farmers handle more of the supply chain to increase their revenue. That being said, we make a specific point in paying the workers who harvest on the farm a minimum 15% over the normal wage. What we hope to do is to have some bonus wage as an incentive for farmers to contribute to our supply chain.

Similarly, Joëlle had to work hard to find a local manufacturer who would support upcycling cassava leaves into stew.

Cassava leaves aren’t eaten in Thailand. In fact, in Asia, they’re associated with war, which is the time they used to be eaten as a highly nutritious, easy to source food. We worked hard to educate OEMs about the potential of Jani, and fortunately, we found a partner to support manufacturing.

The response to Jani from consumers has been much more positive, however. 

We’ve received really positive feedback from all our product tastings. At first, consumers need a little education because cassava is unfamiliar to them, but when they try Jani, they go crazy for it!

Joëlle has found western and Asian audiences respond enthusiastically to Jani.

I think a global shift towards plant-based food has made people more open to trying new foods. That’s why we want to target vegan-friendly markets like the US, and Europe, where flexitarianism is a growing trend. We brand Jani accordingly as a vegan, plant-based source of protein. 

COVID-19 has re-written the rules of the market

The COVID-19 pandemic ground Joëlle’s plans to launch Jani to a halt. Despite the setback, she has used the time to her advantage.

COVID-19 had some silver linings. Firstly, we don’t have to work as hard to convince people about the need to upcycle cassava leaves, and the benefits of Jani. People now get that we need a sustainable food system that utilizes, rather than makes, waste. With my background in sourcing and my experiences in the Congo and China, I have always been vocal about how fragile our world's food system is. People used to dismiss me but after COVID-19, they take me very seriously.

The food crises that COVID-19 sparked have also made traditionally vegan sceptic segments in Asian markets more open to plant-based products according to Joëlle. 

We’re seeing interest in Thailand in Jani too. Its high-protein, high fibre qualities are attractive to people in Thailand who are still really struggling with the impact of COVID-19. Of course, there are areas in Thailand that are leading the world in veganism, like Chiang Mai which brands itself as a vegan city. So now we’re planning to launch Jani in Thailand. 

How will the Fourth Culture Food Group market Jani?

When introducing a totally new product, marketing is vital for success. Here Joëlle has a lot of ideas.

Education is really key. We’ve had a lot of success with product tastings, so pop-up stores to give consumers a chance to sample the product is important. We’re also working with chefs and restaurants on collaboration products. This is a useful channel for consumers, and it also lets food services see the value of Jani. With 3 years of stability, a taste and texture profile similar to spinach, and as it doesn’t require refrigeration, what chef wouldn’t want Jani in their stockroom?

Hospitality is an industry that faces numerous challenges in terms of food waste: from logistical, to storage, to sustainable consumption and disposal. Hotels such as the Four Seasons in Japan have already partnered with CRUST to seek more sustainable uses for their wasted bread. Shelf-stable, upcycled ingredients could be an additional source of relief for their struggles. 

In addition to creating opportunities for consumers to try Jani, Joëlle is working on researching and developing other functional products with cassava leaves.  

We’re developing vegetable spreads, and experimenting with the powdered form of cassava to increase the applications of our product. This will make it more accessible to food processors and chefs.

Will Jani touch down in Japan?

Japan is one of the most interesting markets in Asia for us. In Africa, cassava leaves are often eaten with seafood. So, Jani has the potential to synergise with local cuisine in Japan. I was also working with a chef from the Okura hotel in Thailand to develop recipes with cassava leaf as there’s exciting potential to use Jani as a high-protein substitute for seaweed.

Joëlle is planning a trip to Japan to explore the market and seek out opportunities to introduce cassava leaf-based products. We asked Joëlle about the prospect of introducing Jani as a crisis food, for which there is a big market in Japan.

Jani can definitely be used as a crisis food, and it has many benefits as it’s a vegetable which is a food type that is traditionally hard to store, yet at the same time, really key during times of crisis. Though the potential that we’ve seen for Jani to appeal to the mass market means we won’t exclusively sell it as a crisis product.

That’s a wrap!

There you have it, folks. We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Joëlle for sharing the Fouth Cultured Food Group’s story with us.

We’ll be taking a break from scheduled programming for the next two weeks while we prepare for our new cycle! We’ll keep the exact topic a sea-cret for now (hint hint), but stay tuned to find out more. Don’t worry though, we’ve prepared some exciting content for you to enjoy in the meantime. Stay you next Tuesday!

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