OPIC partner Big Tree Farms featured in Portland Business Journal
This account of a small American business expanding into a developing market, by Ben Ripple, co-founder and co-CEO of OPIC partner Big Tree Farms, ran last week in The Portland Business Journal.
Big Tree Farms didn¹t have a formal business plan in the 1990s when my wife and I began working with small farmers in Indonesia. Our opportunity was initially built on a series of coincidences, including an airline ticket won playing poker and a small plot of land gifted from a Balinese local, which helped launch us on a quest to learn more about sustainable agriculture.
Twenty years later, our Ashland agribusiness generates annual revenues of over $15 million selling health foods derived from fresh coconut flower nectar to retailers from Whole Foods to Costco. We¹re growing at about 30 percent a year, and our business is benefiting not only coconut farmers in Indonesia but also small American packaging and logistics businesses.
When my wife, Blair and I arrived in Bali, we wanted to learn traditional practices from the farmers who¹d been harvesting produce for generations. But we discovered communities that were struggling to find their place in an increasingly global economy. Many lived in poverty. And while worldwide demand for organic foods was exploding, these farmers often used harmful chemicals that they were able to buy locally, putting their immediate environments and larger market opportunities at risk.
We started small, teaching individual farmers more sustainable practices. When we realized that farmers could earn higher margins from products derived from fresh coconut flower nectar rather than raw coconuts, we worked with them to produce coconut sweeteners.
“While we once sought to start a nonprofit, we've come to understand that business can be used as the ultimate tool to drive positive social change and improve livelihoods for marginalized farmers.”
Businesspeople often say that it¹s not about the money, but for us that was always true. Yet after many years of bootstrapping, we came to understand we could be more effective if we were profitable. The thing we had been so uncomfortable with -- our own success -- was clearly the ultimate “gas in the tank” if we were going to attain true sustainability for all our stakeholders.
Three years ago we decided to seek a financial partner and applied for financing from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. Government Agency that supports American businesses in emerging markets. We obtained a $3.7 million loan to grow our business, but not before completing a rigorous application process. While the financing was critical to our continued growth, the due diligence process provided a valuable education and launched us into a more professional phase of growth.
Our business today is still relatively small but it is truly global. In Indonesia, we work with a network of more than 15,000 farmers, and around the U.S. we have multiple partners, from the organic food producers that use our ingredients to the small businesses that package our products.
Along the way we¹ve learned a lot about agriculture and just as much about starting and growing a small business. And the two lessons have complemented each other.
While we once sought to start a nonprofit, we¹ve come to understand that business can be used as the ultimate tool to drive positive social change and improve livelihoods for marginalized farmers, while at the same time introducing quality organic food products that make a difference to markets around the world.