West African cashew: The next big thing in plant-based meat?

A ripe cashew fruit with its attached cashew nut, nestled in a protective shell.

A ripe cashew fruit (apple) with its attached cashew nut, nestled in a protective shell.

The cashew nut is iconic, both in its distinctive boxing-glove shape and creamy taste. Less known is the cashew apple, a bulbous fruit from which the nut protrudes.

Fibrous and chewy, farmers and industry have been struggling to find a use for the fruit. Annually, 36.9 million tonnes of cashew apples are produced, however they’re mostly discarded as waste. Only 3.5% is used commercially.

But two entrepreneurs in Senegal say that the same fibrous characteristics that make it an unpopular fruit, make it the perfect meat alternative.

They are processing the wasted fruit into ‘cashew meat’ and exporting it to developed countries, meeting demand from consumers looking to reduce their meat consumption and tackle the greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock sector.

Described as a ‘win-win-win’ for food waste, climate change, and cashew farmers, could this little-known fruit be the future of plant-based meat, an industry worth an estimated $13.9 billion in 2023, and anticipated to reach $290 billion by 2033?

‘Very similar to animal meat’

Founder of Cashewmeetly, Linnéa Falkinger, discovered the cashew apple’s untapped potential when having dinner with friends in the southern region of Senegal in 2016.

“I thought that I was eating like some kind of meat stew, so I was shocked when my friends told me it was cashew apples,” says Falkinger, explaining that cashew producers had long been seeking a purpose for this underutilised crop.

“The texture and colour are very similar to animal meat,” says the Swedish entrepreneur who has lived periodically in Senegal since the age of 16. “It has an umami taste with sweet and sour notes, versatile but without the strange aftertaste that soya products can have.”

Coincidentally, Senegal is home to two of the few global producers of cashew meat. Independently of Cashewmeetly, co-founder of Senegalese startup Nutrivie, Latifa Diedhou began producing a line of vegetarian meat from cashew apples three years ago.

Diedhou’s discovery of the cashew apple’s potential was more intentional: “During the cashew harvest, I saw all the fruit rotting into the ground. I thought there was a big opportunity here.”

After five years of development, Diedhou, in collaboration with her mother, a food processing engineer, and with the support of the French agricultural research institute, CIRAD, has successfully brought her cashew meat to market. In 2022, Diedhou undertook a startup accelerator scheme with the climate change NGO AICCRA that provided business training and the chance to present her product and business to investors. Diedhou gained $15,000 in this round of investment to scale her business.

Wanting to protect their secret recipes, both entrepreneurs remain tight-lipped on the manufacturing processes, only revealing that it’s a combination of cutting, washing and boiling the apples to produce the cashew meat.

Cashewmeetly exports its products to Europe and beyond.

Cashewmeetly currently exports its products to Europe.

However, the two entrepreneurs are at different stages of their respective business lifecycles. Cashewmeetly exports cashew meat processed in cooperatives from multiple locations – including Senegal, Benin, Tanzania, and Brazil – to Europe. The product is available in over 500 branches of the Swedish supermarket chain Axfood, featured in ready meals at Stockholm’s Urban Deli, and is distributed across Europe. Falkinger reveals that it will soon begin exporting to the US and Japan.

Meanwhile, Diedhou is currently in Paris looking for another round of investment and pitching Nutrivie’s cashew meat to European retailers while distributing locally in Senegal.

Navigating export challenges

Both entrepreneurs highlight the difficulties of exporting processed African products to developed markets, a reversal of the historical trade pattern where raw commodities were shipped to the global north for processing and value addition.

Falkinger of Cashewmeetly comments on this trend within the cashew nut industry: “Ninety-five per cent of cashew nuts grown in Africa are exported and processed in another country and only 5% of the jobs stay local.

“It doesn’t have to be this way if we create a business model that keeps jobs local and reinvests in children’s education,” says the Swede who shares her profits with local communities by investing in schools and offering microloans to African entrepreneurs.

Meeting the stringent standards required for distribution in Europe and elsewhere is both laborious and costly.

The requisite FSSC 22000 certification is one of the highest food quality standards. It covers everything from environmental criteria for producers, transport, storage, processing, health and safety on factory premises, food hygiene, packaging, traceability and digitalisation of company data. Every year, the companies undergo a planned audit where an inspector goes through the paperwork and production line to address any risks, plus an unannounced visit each year.

With only 10 employees at Nutrivie, Diedhou says it is challenging for those not operating at an industrial scale: “We are in between artisanal and industrial, we need to scale up to make our processes more even.”

Falkinger notes that low literacy rates compound the challenge in fulfilling the extensive paperwork required to export Cashewmeetly products.

Added to this, political unrest can further complicate manufacturing in Africa. “The peak season for cashew apples is only eight weeks, and any unrest can shut down an entire year’s production,” says Falkinger, highlighting the example of recent protests in Senegal related to the upcoming elections.

Latifa Diedhou, founder of Nutrivie

Latifa Diedhou, founder of Nutrivie

‘The market is ready’

Despite these hurdles, Cashewmeetly has successfully established export operations from three African nations and is eyeing expansion into Nigeria, India, and Mozambique. Currently, the company is constructing a factory in Senegal, which is projected to employ 500 individuals, although the project has faced multiple construction setbacks.

“Patience is your best friend,” says Falkinger with a wry smile.

“The market is ready for cashew meat that can be traced from farm to table,” she says. “Since the start, the demand is higher than the supply. Customers from around the world seek us out – the product has basically marketed itself.”

From a health perspective, Diedhou points out there’s a lot to like about the product compared to many plant-based meats.

“Many are soy-based and ultra-processed, whereas we just use one ingredient – no one in the market can say the same,” says Diedhou, adding that Nutrivie’s cashew meat has attracted the attention of European retailers, contingent on obtaining export certification.

As of July, Cashewmeetly’s products are Fairtrade and organic certified, ensuring greater value for farmers and workers while also enhancing its marketing with additional ethical credentials.

Whether ‘made in Africa’ cashew meat can become the front-runner for meat alternatives, remains to be seen. But if it does, it will in no small part be due to the determination and patience of entrepreneurs like Diedhou and Falkinger.