Sambazon Inc. of San Clemente, Calif. was formed in 2000 when a couple of friends traveling in Brazil noticed the local popularity of the antioxidant-rich açai berry and saw an opportunity to introduce it into the U.S. They started by purchasing a container of frozen pulp and peddling it to juice bars in southern California, but as sales took off in retail stores around the United States they began to look into more reliable and efficient ways to collect and process the açai berries, which grow in the wild in the Brazilian Rainforest.
In 2006, Sambazon’s Brazilian subsidiary, Açai do Amapa Agroindustrial, obtained a $3.7 million loan from OPIC for the construction of an environmentally-sustainable, organic açai-berry processing facility. The Company saw the plant not only as a way to introduce sustainable industry into the rainforest, but also to secure a more stable supply for its growing U.S. business.
“As a small business without a lot of assets, we were challenged in the world of credit. And obtaining financing was even harder for an overseas project” recalls Sambazon CEO, Ryan Black, who co-founded the business with his brother Jeremy. “OPIC not only provided the fixed asset financing we needed and also gave us the flexibility to grow our working capital as our business required. As an agricultural company with an annual crop period, this was immensely helpful to our success.”
The business has grown steadily, providing income for 10,000 small family farmers in the rainforest who harvest the açai berries. “Every year, we continue to certify more and more farmers in fair trade and organic farming,” says Black, who once described the company’s mission as “to use açai as a vehicle to promote sustainable development in the Amazon by making the trees too valuable to cut down.” In the U.S., the Company’s açai juice drinks are now available in grocery stores and restaurants across the country. That explosive demand has also contributed to increased employment in the U.S. Since it began building its processing facility in the rainforest, Sambazon as more than doubled its U.S. employee base, to about 60.
Sambazon won the 2006 Award for Corporate Excellence, the “ACE” award for its work with indigenous populations in the Brazilian Amazon.