Features

Eat Brazil nuts, save the Amazon rainforest!

27 April 2022
Evelyn Seltier, International Trade Centre

Healthy. Conscious. Wild.

This is what the Amazonian Brazil nut is all about, and it is not only healthy, but tasty. Its smooth, buttery texture fills the mouth with a delicious, nutty flavour, like that of its tree nut sister macadamia. And the best part: Brazil nuts are the richest source of selenium to be found in any food product.

Brazil nuts are harvested in the wild Amazon rainforest. Their massive trees rise above the canopy, each one producing a fruit that encases 10 to 20 individual nuts. Once these ripen, they fall to the forest floor, waiting to be collected.

However, these trees are in danger. In June 2020, Reuters reported that the deforestation of the rainforest could be at its worst in over a decade. Wildfires, along with farmers cutting down trees to make way for cattle or agricultural products are constant threats.

Conserving the Brazil nut tree has become a symbol for saving the rainforest. Sofía Rubio, the founder of Peruvian company Shiwi, wants to get this message to the World.

Sofia Rubio Shiwi

From biologist to businesswoman.

Being healthy, conscious, and wild is Sofía’s life motto. The 35-year-old Peruvian biologist never imagined she would go into business. But she saw no other way of saving her passion: nature!

While finishing her studies, Sofía had the opportunity to collect Brazil nuts on a concessional plot of land her mother was given by the state. However, the farmers were not interested in gathering the nuts as traders in Puerto Maldonado of Madre de Dios were selling them as raw material at a very low price.

Sofia Rubio Shiwi Peru
Having no direct market access, farmers remain poor. Forever.
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Sofia Rubio Shiwi Peru
Sofia Rubia Shiwi Peru

Business as usual is blind to forest conversation.

Located in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest, Madre de Dios is one of the regions that produces the country’s most Brazil nuts, with the crop covering over 6 million acres.

Between 20% and 30% of its population, including indigenous communities, depend directly or indirectly on their collection and production, according to FAO estimates. Seventy percent of the area’s population live below the country’s minimum wage of $200/month, and communities who depend on nuts are among the poorest.

Most of the concessions are unable to save because of low selling prices, relatively high costs, numerous family members depending on the activity and non-diversified income sources.

“You earn money with either gold mining, timber, agriculture, livestock, tourism or nut collecting. Except for the latter two, all these activities are against the forest.”

The power of trade

“I asked myself: How can the market have such power, such a devastating effect on our forest and people? We need to seize the power of the market, and with it, drive the conservation of nature.”

This is how Shiwi was born. Sofía decided to create a local, value-added market for Brazil nuts to prevent farmers from planting rainforest-destroying food products, such as papaya or corn.

“We add value by creating granola bars, lip balms, butters, oils, or by offering services such as gastronomic trips to the forest that involve local chefs.”

In 2019, Peru exported over 4,770 tonnes of nuts globally (10% of the world share), worth $34 million (World Bank estimates). Shiwi started by focusing on local markets but faced rejection as there was almost no local consumption and buyers were not willing to pay the product price.

“Nobody wanted to pay our farmers a fair price nor our recycled packaging. They didn’t understand the value.”

To Sofía’s delight, a recent gastronomic boom in Peru helped create a platform for sharing her ideas and encouraging local chefs to include new ingredients in their menus. Shiwi also exports oils for the industry and strives to become a steady component of the Brazil nut value chain.

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27 April 2022

To change how businesses think, you need to change the system.

Sofía strongly believes in educating consumers and changing from a system where businesses profit without caring for the environment. She is worried that without a buy-in from government regulators, listening to the voices of people on the ground, and consumers able to pay a higher price for quality and communities, nothing will change. 

“Right now, it is expensive to be conscious. If there is no regulation, there is no incentive to change your business.”

Peru Shiwi
If there is no regulation, there is no incentive to change your business.
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A long, winding road to success?

“I am a biologist and not a money-maker,” Sofía admits while laughing out loud. “I have been talking more than I have been selling.”

Sofía faced numerous challenges starting out as a 23-year-old woman in a patriarchal society.

Financing wasn’t easy either. Being rather isolated due to poor roads, Madre de Dios has limited industrial and commercial facilities. There are no rural savings and credit banks or institutes for developing micro and small enterprises. OECD statistics from 2019 confirm that small businesses have almost zero chances to get a loan by a bank – they need to look for alternative sourcing.

“Money is expensive in Peru. For personal loans claiming a high-risk business, the interest rate is ridiculous. Working with banks was not an option.”

But Sofía is not giving up. Over the years she has seen the global emergence of circular businesses. The international market has been paying more attention to products from the rainforest.

This trend has its detractors, and terms around “natural” and “community-based” are exploited by some. The Shiwi founder is trying to fight misconceptions through a local hub of innovators who educate non-graduated youth in marketing and engineering around the food industry.

Sofía’s advice for other businesses?

  • You do not need to be big to be successful.
  • Have a meaningful business that also secures your living.
  • Many small businesses with similar values are better than one big monopoly.
  • Value nature (what you eat, how you dress).
  • Wellness is not about yoga but about how you include nature and local communities in the business system.
If we don’t do good, we won’t have a planet left to doing any kind of business.
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Shiwi is part of the International Trade Centre’s GreenToCompete Hubs that help small businesses implement sustainable business practices and become climate-resilient, lower their carbon emissions, recycle waste, get certified with sustainability standards or access green finance and value chains.

To help sustainable brands from Ghana, Kenya, Lao PDR, Peru and Viet Nam sell their products online and position in international markets, the Hubs joined forces with ITC’s ecomConnect programme. The Hubs are funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).