The story behind acai: How one small business helped make the rainforest “too valuable to cut down.”
Fourteen years ago, a business idea was hatched during a surfing vacation to Brazil when a group of friends from southern California discovered the tasty and nutrient-rich acai (ah-sigh-ee) berry. They started Sambazon (short for “sustainable management of the Brazilian Amazon”) to process the berries for sale in juices. But as a small startup, Sambazon faced difficulty obtaining credit. In 2006, the young business turned to OPIC, which provided a $3.7 million loan to support construction of an environmentally-sustainable, organic acai berry processing facility in the rainforest. Today Sambazon’s juices are available in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Japan, Korea and Australia, while also providing income for 10,000 family farmers in Brazil.
The latest detail in this success story came in 2014, when Sambazon paid off its loan to OPIC, underscoring how small businesses can successfully engage in the global economy. In this conversation, CEO Ryan Black talks about some of the challenges and milestones along the way.
Sambazon is a real small business success story. You’ve built a flourishing business here in the U.S. that has also benefited farmers in the Brazilian rainforest. What are you most proud of?
It’s humbling to think that we were the first to bring acai to the U.S. market and we’ve done so operating under triple bottom line (social, environmental, financial) principles ever since. We take pride in doing all we can to positively benefit everyone and everything our company touches from the farmers harvesting our acai, to the people who drink it, to our planet. Along with supporting thousands of family farmers, Sambazon is protecting more than 2 million acres of Amazon rainforest through our Fair Trade and Organic certified project.
You started this company 14 years ago. What were some of the biggest hurdles you encountered along the way and were you fully prepared for all the challenges that come from starting a small business and working in a developing country?
We’ve had our fair share of challenges, including changing the way many people think about food.Acai bowls were virtually unknown outside of Brazil when we started and we’ve also introduced a fruit puree since you cannot see the actual acai fruit without going to the Amazon. On top of that, the name of the fruit is very difficult to pronounce, so there has been an ever evolving educational component to sharing acai with the world. In addition, the consistent increase in raw material costs and the requirement to pay cash for fruit during the three- to four-month harvesting period was another challenge that became a learning opportunity.
From the outset you identified sustainable management of the rainforest as a core part of your business plan and over the years you’ve helped provide income to thousands of farmers. Can you describe some of the local farmers who have benefited?
There are more than 30 different communities we work with in the Brazilian Amazon and we have several programs to support them socially and economically. We’ve supported the building of schools, community centers and medical centers. We also provide technical assistance and training to the acai farmers to support and help educate them so they can improve the sustainable growth and harvest of acai berries and obtain important food certifications, such as USDA Organic and Ecocert Fair Trade.
How did you first learn about OPIC and how did you decide to approach OPIC for financing? How was OPIC’s support a factor in your success?
We heard about OPIC from one of our early supporters, Mr. Willy Foote from Root Capital (another OPIC client). I met Elena Gonzalez from OPIC’s finance team and she was an enthusiastic believer in our vision even though we were a very small business at the time. OPIC provided the financing to help build our principal manufacturing facility, which was a landmark for the company. Through that initial investment, we were able to establish the universal gold standards for quality manufacturing and socially responsible cultivation of acai.
Talk about the U.S. side of your business. How many people do you employ in your San Clemente, California headquarters and what sort of growth are you seeing?
Sambazon currently employs 200 people worldwide, with about 50 in our headquarters in San Clemente. We are constantly adding staff.
The term “small business” is often synonymous with local business. Do you think that small businesses can find the same opportunities in foreign markets and in developing countries that multinationals pursue?
As a small entrepreneurial company, Sambazon was able to respond more quickly and I think, achieve our goals faster than larger multinationals would have been able to. This flexibility enabled us to establish efficient working relationships with nongovernmental organizations and the like in foreign markets. We’ve also had clarity of purpose from the beginning. We knew that large-scale sustainable management of acai could help protect the Amazon Rainforest while also supporting the locals living there, which is something everyone could get behind.