What do you get when you mix Kenyan mango farmers, a European food initiative, a German consulting firm, and a Kenyan health food company? Give up?? The answer, of course, is dried mango. (Kaushe maembe in Swahili.)
How exactly did that come to pass? As you might suspect, it’s complicated. But it starts with a whole lot of wasted mangoes. More than half the crop—64 percent to be exact—never made it to market. That’s 300,000 tons of tasty, nutritious mangoes squandered every year in a country that, like most places, is no stranger to hunger. There are very few secondary markets. Somehow, it is cheaper to import mango pulp from India to make juice.
The next ingredient was a European yen to fight food waste through a practical project. That interest came from the SAVE FOOD initiative, which launched in 2011 as a collaboration between German exhibition organizer Messe Dusseldorf and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (and later the UN Environment Program). Messe Dusseldorf and SAVE FOOD hired africon, a German consulting firm specializing in sub-Saharan Africa, to perform research on Kenyan food losses in 2013.
Now, that European dedication to fighting food waste has gone global. Thursday, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a coalition of 30 executives from businesses, governments, UN agencies and NGOs launched a campaign ensure global momentum toward halving food waste by 2030. That goal, Target 12.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, lends the campaign its name: Champions 12.3. In a related announcement, the Rockefeller Foundation just committed $130 million to fight postharvest loss, mainly in the developing world under an initiative called YieldWise.
The semantics are important here, as there are two key terms in the world of squandered food—waste and loss. Waste tends to happen in the wealthy developed world, where human decisions and behavior doom roughly one-third of food to go for naught. Roughly that same amount of food is ‘lost’ in the developing world for reasons out of locals’ control—poor storage, transport, and market access. Loss isn’t easy to fix, but it’s easier than changing consumer behavior in the world’s wealthier countries. And with the right kind of investment—in technology, infrastructure and knowhow—the loss minimization and saved food can be staggering.
Within that framework of fighting loss, africon and several of its SAVE FOOD friends sought an immediate impact. “There were a lot of companies expressing interest in doing more than just studies,” said Sonja Mattfeld, the East Africa Director at africon. “The idea was to actually do something, not just talk about solutions.”
Mangoes provided just that opportunity. “We chose mangoes because it has among the highest losses, but also because the mango is a very good fruit to sell,” Mattfeld said. “They don’t grow locally in Europe, and the taste is very popular now. But then the question was, how do we save these mangoes?”
Enter a Nairobi company called Azuri Health, which specialized in making porridge. Azuri’s CEO Tei Mukunya seemed an even more unlikely fit for a trans-continental food saving collaboration. Mukunya, 41, didn’t set out to save the world, or even a lot of mangoes. She worked in marketing for British American Tobacco for five years after graduating from university. Yet, after some disillusionment and her father’s subtle suggestion, she transitioned to working on a project that trained local women to produce a porridge made from corn, beans, pumpkin and banana. This “nutriporridge” project, a grassroots program based on rigorous research by the University of Nairobi and Penn State University, was called BASCOT. Mukunya, ever the marketer, changed the name to Azuri, which is “an extract from the Swahili word ‘mzuri,’ meaning something good.”
“There were a lot of companies expressing interest in doing more than just studies. The idea was to actually do something, not just talk about solutions.”—Sonja Mattfeld, East Africa director at africon.
In 2010, GIZ, the German equivalent of USAID, hired Azuri to help Kenyan mango growers market their products. During this collaboration, Mukunya got the idea of drying mangoes from GIZ. Azuri began drying mangoes using a solar dryer and a local supermarket was interested immediately. That consulting work yielded not just the idea, but also connections to technologically-advanced farmers with hygienic operations—a key in selling dried mango commercially.
Mukunya said that preserving through dehydration is not wildly popular in Kenya, but not unheard of either. “There’s knowledge about drying locally, but when you try to sell it commercially, it gets harder,” Mukunya said. “Drying any food requires a high level of hygiene for it to be commercial, so it didn’t seem to take off in Kenya. That’s why we found ourselves the only guy in the market.”
With its food safety certification, solar dryers and marketing savvy, Azuri was the the lone mango drying operation when SAVE FOOD began researching Kenyan mango loss and looking for projects to fund. The timing was perfect, as Mukunya said that her European collaborators “jumped onto our dream.”
Thanks to assistance from the member companies of SAVE FOOD, Azuri is now building a new drying and packaging facility. Mukunya says that it should be open by September, and definitely for the January to April 2017 mango season. And not a moment too soon, as there is now competition within Kenya for the dried fruit market.
While Azuri’s sales are evenly split between dried fruit and nutriporridge, they only plan to sell their mangoes abroad. “We’ll go to Europe because SAVE FOOD is there and we have contacts there,” Mukunya said. “There are opportunities in UAE and beyond. Once we get our certification, the sky is the limit.”
And so maybe, just maybe, in the not-so-distant future, American consumers may be calling Azuri’s dried mangoes ‘mmm, mmm mzuri!’
Jonathan Bloom is a journalist, speaker, and consultant on the topic of wasted food. Bloom is the author of American Wasteland and creator of the blog Wasted Food, You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @WastedFood, or in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, two sons and many, many containers for leftovers.