Healthy superfoods, the rise of the convenient snacking culture, and the adventurous culinary consumer. It is the convergence of these three food trends – currently prevalent in the European market – that led to the launch in late 2020 of ZUVA, an all-natural food brand made from produce grown in Africa.
ZUVA is the first consumer brand from Germany-based agribusiness company Amatheon Agri, with farms in Uganda and Zambia where it cultivates crops for bulk export and as inputs for its products. ZUVA’s product line-up includes African-grown quinoa and chia, as well as three quinoa-based convenient snack bowls with African flavour profiles of chakalaka, chermoula and bobotie, and three teff-based porridge bowls.
How we made it in Africa spoke to the founder and CEO of Amatheon Agri, Carl Heinrich Bruhn, and Victoria Cavanagh, director of international sales and marketing, about establishing a successful healthy food brand from Africa.
Amatheon has been operational in Africa for almost a decade. What led to the launch of ZUVA as a consumer brand?
Bruhn: Amatheon celebrates its 10th anniversary in September 2021. I grew up on a farm in the north of Germany and worked in the food processing industry before establishing the company. But my goal was always to start operations in an environment where there was still an upside for development and growth. Our headquarters is in Berlin but we have local teams in-country for our farming, trading and processing operations in Uganda and Zambia and we are hoping to reignite our activities in Zimbabwe.
With ZUVA, we wanted to connect our African story with the international market. Originally, we produced staple crops on our commercial farms and through our outgrower scheme. However, we recognised the potential to address the growing market demand for healthy, organic and natural foods, as well as plant-based proteins and superfoods.
Who is your target market?
Bruhn: We looked at the markets worldwide and saw that superfoods were receiving a lot of attention, especially gluten-free products like quinoa and chia. These are usually grown in South America but we believed there was no reason why we could not cultivate them in Africa. We did some tests in Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe and started with large-scale production in Zambia two years ago. We also installed processing capacity in Zambia to get the products ready for bulk trading and export to Europe.
So, when we started ZUVA, we launched with plain quinoa and chia; only the final processing step, filling the branded packaging containers, was done in Germany before going to the shelves for sale.
The next step was to tap into the trend of convenience. We did this with the introduction of three lunch bowls with quinoa as the main ingredient.
Our target market is the growing LOHAS group, people living a lifestyle of health and sustainability. This is a growing segment worldwide, especially in megacities; for example, this is spreading on the west coast of the US in California as well as in Australia.
The next introduction was to bring teff-based porridges, also in three flavours, to market. This is geared towards the health-conscious consumer who would normally start their day with a muesli-based bowl.
Cavanagh: While we started with the plain quinoa and chia, we knew it is not enough to have only ‘basic’ products these days. Brands should be at the forefront of innovation and that is what our lunch bowls and superfood porridges aim to do. They also address another trend, that of the adventurous consumer. This may be the largest trend in Europe last year; people want to explore new flavour profiles and new foods, but Africa was underrepresented and not on the map in terms of culinary experiences. Hence, the flavours of chermoula, bobotie and chakalaka.
Where do you source the ingredients for ZUVA products?
Bruhn: The crops (quinoa and chia) come from our farms in Zambia and Uganda. We have also introduced chilli production in Zambia which we will process into a spice range to add to the ZUVA line. This year, we will start processing 10,000 tonnes of chilli from Zambia.
We have installed a superfood processing and storage warehouse in Zambia where we clean and treat the products to the final stage before exporting.
With teff, we are still in the trial phase.
The other components for the bowls and porridge are sourced from Africa if possible; otherwise, we find alternatives.
We will expand our product offering to include herbs and spices, also offering the flavour profiles in our bowls in a mixed herb format.
How did you introduce quinoa and chia to your outgrower farmer partners?
Bruhn: Originally, the outgrowers cultivated staple crops such as maize and soya beans for us. Gradually, we formed strong relationships and provided training, technical support and on-farm processing capacity. Once we completed the trials for quinoa and chia on our commercial farms, we started introducing these crops to them as well.
In the beginning, we used 1,000 hectares of our commercial farm for quinoa production, with about 300 to 400 hectares under irrigation. At that time, 100% of our quinoa came from commercial farming. Today, we have about 4,000 outgrower smallholder farmers producing quinoa and the split has moved to about 30% commercial and 70% in favour of the outgrower programme. This creates market access for these farmers for high-value export-focused products.
What lessons have you learnt in terms of working with outgrower farmers?
Bruhn: Building the relationship by being open to adapt your perceptions and your views and to learn from the local realities are very important. Then, only once you have invested in this process, can you start with training programmes to improve the yields and productivity, help to source better inputs and facilitate access to micro-finance.
For the new crops, we had to spend a lot of time on the right seed rate, the quality of seed, planting dates and the spacing when planting.
Because we export to global markets, quality and adhering to standards are incredibly important. We have obtained all the certifications required, such as International Featured Standards (IFS) which we have at holding company level to trade the commodities. We have also started obtaining organic certification for our outgrowers through the organic certification organisation, Ecocert in South Africa. We will have around 1,000 outgrowers certified this year.
Cavanagh: It is important to ensure you are not perceived as a briefcase buyer by the local farmers. We are there, live there, and have staff from the local community. This is an important part of building the relationships required for a successful outgrower programme.
Build your operations incrementally so you can make the mistakes and learn from them at a smaller scale before expansion.
Bruhn: One important contributor to success for us is having our commercial farm in the middle of the outgrower farming community as a centre point or anchor. That is where we, ourselves, test and learn. We get in the expertise to improve our operations and then we transfer it to the outgrower programme.
What potential is there in the superfood space in Africa?
Bruhn: There is so much that is undiscovered and untapped. We cannot share all our plans yet, but there are new products that we are looking at. What is in the public domain is that we see a lot of potential for moringa. It is one of the most nutritious plants in the world.
Cavanagh: Baobab and moringa are probably the most known superfoods from Africa that have been receiving some attention. Teff and fonio also seem to be growing in recognition and lately, I have seen hibiscus gain a lot of visibility.
A lot of time and energy was spent on bringing South American superfoods to the global market, and we are very excited to witness what is possible for the foods from Africa.
For us, it is about finding the balance of acceptability at all levels: price point, taste, ease of market entry. Currently, we will focus on the ingredients we have and expand on the product range, but not necessarily introduce new novel ingredients.
What does the level of competition in the superfoods market look like?
Bruhn: Like all markets, it can get crowded but if you have a unique positioning and an authentic story, coupled with innovation and quality, you can have success.