Episode #13 – How Agricycle’s Sweet Business Model Turns Food Waste Into Women’s Empowerment

When most of us think of food waste, we typically think on a local scale. We think of the extra food that’s tossed from our fridge, or perhaps food from restaurants and grocery stores that’s thrown away instead of going to someone in the community who’s hungry. Though this sort of food waste is also very important to focus on, we typically don’t think about food waste on a global scale — and we certainly don’t think about the opportunity that gets tossed out with the rotten mango basket.

Enter Josh Shefner, Co-Founder of Agricycle Global. What started as a college project with a (very Milwaukee-esque) goal of turning mangoes into beer to help farmers in developing countries has now morphed into a brand that empowers women, upcycles a variety of food waste into different products, and changes the lives of tens of thousands of people across the globe.

When they first started out, Josh and his partners very quickly realized that their mangoes to beer model was far too complicated and involved too many steps to work. People in developing communities had to take mangoes, dehydrate them, brew them into different beers, and so on. There were too many steps, too much equipment, and the idea of a dried mango beer didn’t seem to trip many triggers. 

But along the way, they recognized a key part of the process that had a low cost to entry and a big value: dehydrating fruit that would’ve otherwise gone to waste.

The brilliant folks at Agricycle (then called Blue Mangoes) saw that a dried fruit model existed, but it wasn’t putting the money in the right place. Dehydrators for jobs of that scale were expensive, and like many other opportunities for work in countries like Jamaica, Panama, Uganda, Guatemala, and more, they put the money into the pockets of those that already had capital. 

Dehydrators from other organizations were given to the rich, english-speaking men of the village, and they, in turn, charged their hardworking people to use the equipment. This meant the people actually doing the work were hardly seeing any profit at all.

Agricycle’s new dehydrator changed all of that. Together with Josh, Claire Friona developed the initial equipment and concept that would change how things are done. They created a passive solar dehydrator that was small enough to be owned and operated by individuals. 

The team’s engineering background allowed them to build and manufacture their own dehydrator from the ground up, beta testing in different communities along the way. The end result is truly remarkable — it works like a chimney, forcing hot moving air over the fruit to dry it. They also engineered the dehydrator with food safety standards in mind, so every piece of fruit that’s processed meets the strict US standards and keeps the fruit out of the elements and away from other factors that may cause it to spoil.

Now, people in villages are given their very own dehydrator, empowering the farmers themselves instead of the land owner. Something they’ve found to be quite amazing is that most of the people that benefit from this model are the women. In these communities, women typically have to do everything through their husbands, and finances are no exception. With no land or assets of their own, women are unable to establish even small lines of credit, and cannot bank or manage money on their own.

But, with the help of Agricycle, women are given small loans through banks to purchase the individual dehydrators that are paid back within a few short months. After that, they’re independent owner-operators that make an average seven to ten times the village’s average income. Through their business, women are then empowered with skills like financial literacy and food safety knowledge.

A real added bonus? Research has shown that women in these villages spend their money in a much more community-conscious way, choosing to invest more in education, community programs, and family initiatives more than their male counterparts. So, not only are women given their own businesses and revenue streams, but the money is put to better use in the community, benefiting everyone around them.

The best part is, all of this is made possible by recycling fruit that would’ve otherwise gone to waste. On average, these villages have seven or so mango trees — they’re planted for big milestones, like to commemorate the birth of a child. They also provide great shade. But the fruit that grows on the trees is often discarded — at local markets, mangoes sell for as little as half a cent, and maxes out at a price of about two cents. 

However, when it’s dehydrated and resold in the US, a three-pack of dried mango slices from a brand like Agricycle’s own Jali Fruit Company sells for upwards of $16. As a healthy, tasty snack with no added sugar and a long shelf life, it’s no wonder Americans find a high level of value in a nutritious snack product in a market saturated with unhealthy snack foods like potato chips.

Jali Fruit Co. (pronounced “Jolly”) is named after a West African word that means “storyteller”, and the company takes pride in its customers’ ability to trace their fruit back to the source. On every bag of Jali Fruit Co. dried fruit, there’s a QR code that customers can scan to see the exact place their fruit came from, telling the story of the women who dried it and the trees that grew it. 

In every case, Jali’s fruit comes from ancestral trees, and is free of any added sugars or preservatives. It’s also chock-full of vitamins and antioxidants. It’s no wonder they’re on to a hit.

If you’d like to learn more about Agricycle Global, check them out at agricycleglobal.com. There, you’ll learn about the Jali Fruit Company, as well as Agricycle’s other brands like Tropical Ignition, which turns food waste products like coconut shells and cassava starch into sustainable charcoal. You can also read more about Agricycle here on Fast Company.

 

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