Changing demographics—and increasing demand for gluten-free products—have put cassava root on the radar in the United States.
Veronica Garza, co-founder of Siete Family Foods, a family business making gluten-free tortillas, heard about cassava flour several years ago and even managed to find a little at a Latino market in Austin. She used it to make a tortilla, but it wasn’t ideal, she said. “It was bitter and crumbly and just didn’t work well.”
She nonetheless was intrigued, and eventually she stumbled across a patent for a process to produce cassava flour that promised to eliminate the bitterness and perform more like a wheat flour.
Siete worked with the patent holder to develop a cassava flour that met Garza’s requirements and began making a cassava-based tortilla. Now the company sells two types of cassava tortillas and line of cassava chips as well. “It’s been pretty popular,” said Miguel Garza, Veronica’s brother and co-founder. “There are a lot of consumers looking for new options in gluten-free, and we are one of the few companies offering a cassava product.”
Trends like that have caught the eye of Kola Adeniji, the proprietor of Niji Lukas, a Nigerian conglomerate with interests that include agriculture and food processing.
But in order to take advantage of them, Adeniji first had to figure out how to extend the shelf life of cassava, which deteriorates within three or four days of its harvest. Thus, much of the crop is sold in local markets or left to rot in the field. Farmers could make more money selling cassava to processors like Adeniji, who makes the tuber into flour and other products.
He found a solution through Apeel Sciences, a startup company that was working on an all-natural, virtually invisible coating that could double the shelf life of a cassava root. “Apeel will open a lot of markets for us,” Adeniji said. “It will change the way we ship to Europe.”
If Apeel can reach fields around the world, it could lead to significant improvements in not only the carbon footprint of the imported fruits and vegetables the West consumes, but also in the livelihoods of the people in agricultural economies that grow them.
Apeel was founded in 2012 after James Rogers heard a radio program on food waste on the way home from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, where he was doing some work on ultrathin polymers for use in the solar energy business.
“I couldn’t believe how much food was going to waste when people were going hungry,” Rogers said. “It kind of got me fired up.”
He figured he could use the same principles he was experimenting with as a graduate student to make thin coatings that would preserve fruits and vegetables and have many other benefits as well, like reducing or even eliminating the need for refrigeration and pesticides.
Today, Apeel coatings are edible, approved for use on organic products, and deemed “generally recognized as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration, and they are rolling out on avocados this summer in partnership with several major grocery chains.
Just a few years ago, more than one-third of John Mutio’s mango crop went to waste, rotting on the ground before the small farmer in Kenya could secure a buyer for the fruit.
In 2016, though, he lost only a handful of fruit, thanks to Apeel, which he applied to his mangoes in hopes of slowing their deterioration. Now Mutio hopes to sell his mangoes in Europe and Asia, where exotic produce commands high prices.
“After coating the mangoes, we stored them at room temperature for 25 days,” Mutio said. “It really prolonged the lifespan of the fruit”—an untreated mango will spoil within two weeks—“and maintained its flavor—no mangoes got spoiled.”
The Kenyan Department of Agriculture estimates that as much as half of the fruit harvested in the country spoils before it reaches any market due to challenges such as the lack of refrigeration and long and slow distribution chains.
Such issues leave small farmers like Mutio to haggle with middlemen, who know well just how long a farmer can hold out before he must concede to fire-sale prices or face rot.
Rogers compares the impact of Apeel to that of the mobile phone, which eliminated the need for African countries to invest in expensive land-line equipment. He contends that the coating will help reduce the need for roads, logistics, and other infrastructure in short supply in the developing world.
Rogers said that mangoes from Kenya would command prices 10 times higher in Europe than what Mutio can sell his fruit for in local markets or through a middle man. “Imagine a company like Fresh Direct or Blue Apron running a marketing campaign that said, ‘Hey, next month we’re going to be offering mangoes grown by small farmers in Kenya,’” he said. “I know there would be customers for that.”
The Rockefeller Foundation has backed Apeel’s African venture as part of its Yieldwise program, a project to reduce post-harvest waste among small farmers in Africa. The company has found ways to coat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to delay ripening and prevent spoilage caused by various pests. The coatings are imperceptible and non-toxic, making them ideal not only for farms in the developing world but to major produce companies in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
But while the coatings promise to deliver better fruit with less refrigeration and spoilage, coaxing growers in the United States to use them has been hard. Growers were concerned the application process would add cost to their operations, and so Apeel developed a mobile application system that fit into semi-trailers, taking ownership of the coating process.
The company also began telling its story to major grocery chains (which are, after all, the ones coping with spoilage and short shelf-life), enlisting their help in persuading growers to use Apeel.
And so this year, U.S. consumers will start seeing avocados with an Apeel label of some sort in their grocery stores. Not only will Apeel double the shelf life of a ripe avocado by slowing water loss and oxidation, it also will help prevent interior browning, which is caused by a fungus called anthracnose that extends something like a straw through tiny cracks in the skin of the fruit and extracts sugars, leaving behind an ugly footprint.
The goal is to give consumers a naturally ripened avocado—no more brown paper sacks and bananas to coax a rock-hard avocado to ripen—and to lower shipping costs for growers and reduce the number of avocados retailers have to throw away.
Apeel may also give Americans and Europeans greater access to foods rarely found in Western countries.
Currently, Niji Lukas sends its cassava to Europe by air. If it could move the product by boat, it would cut its shipping costs by at least half, Adeniji said, thus allowing the company to ship more cassava to markets where it is quickly moving into the mainstream.
Mangoes are another good example. Some of the best mangoes are grown in Africa and India, but they often can’t survive the shipping time it takes to get them to local markets, let alone to markets in the West where they could command premium prices.
“We are eager and looking forward to the product hitting the local market, but we are not sure how much it will cost,” said Mutio, noting that Apeel had not yet priced the coating he used. “At the same time, Apeel needs to do more demonstration to reach more farmers across the country.”
Angeline Mbuku, a neighbor of Mutio’s, needs no further persuasion, however. She grew up on a farm and also grows mangoes. “I didn’t get to use Apeel during the trials, but I witnessed it work on John Mutio’s mangoes,” she said. “I’m pretty sure it will add huge value to our fruits and help us sell more fruits.”
Dennis Okeyo contributed reporting from Kenya.
Photos courtesy of Apeel.
Correction: This article was updated to reflect the fact that Apeel is not a B Corporation, and its product is not certified organic, but rather approved for use on certified organic products.