We all know that cashews are delicious. But do we know where our cashews are from, who harvested them, and under what conditions? Probably not.
What if, simply by eating cashews, we could help boost an impoverished village’s economy, provide viable employment opportunities to women, set a dramatically higher standard for overseas factory working conditions, and save a rainforest while we were at it?
It might sound too good to be true, but that’s exactly the opportunity that Live Forest Farms provides to U.S. consumers. And by the way, the cashews are vastly more delicious than your standard supermarket fare. Aaron Killgore, founder of Live Forest Farms, tells us more:
Your company in 140 characters or less: We’re a food import company that focuses exclusively on single origin, ethically sourced products that drive conservation and sustainable agriculture.
The spark that inspired the birth of Live Forest Farms: I was in Bali, Indonesia in 2012 and 2013, and I was involved with a nonprofit organization working with villages in the northeast part of the island that were in pretty serious poverty. My background as a conversation biologist led me to partner with the nonprofit to set up sustainable agricultural products. Ultimately, I ended up working with villages next to a protected forest and recognized a lot of potential for them to boost their economy by highlighting the fact that they are up against a special natural area. This led to me applying for and receiving a small grant from a UK foundation that I used to found a nonprofit called the East Bali Watershed Initiative.
I started working with cashew farmers in area and realized there was no farming assistance—farmers were working with trees that were 50 years old and their yields were extremely low. I realized they could increase their income over 10 times using grafting, pruning and fertilizer techniques. Even more interesting and surprising was that the cashews were bought in the shell and shipped to other countries, where labor is cheaper. There was no accountability or transparency in how cashews were being processed, and that describes virtually every cashew that you’ve ever eaten.
Another man from the United States, who worked at the same nonprofit 6 months prior, raised $50,000 to start an experimental cashew processing plant, I returned to Portland to open markets to the innovative products that the plant can produce – that’s how Live Forest Farms came into being.
The problem that Live Forest Farms solves: In May 2014, a national-level halt on logging was set to expire, and there was a vote on whether or not to open up the rainforest to logging. Miraculously, the government decided to continue the moratorium. A few weeks later, slash and burn agriculture in Sumatra for palm oil led to massive forest fires—the smoke from the fires shut down Singapore for four days.
Many farmers don’t have other alternatives other than to cut forests down and plant palm trees. If we can provide alternatives, while providing employment, stabilizing the economy, engendering stewardship, and diversifying natural resources, then at least we have a seat at the table to discuss these issues with the community, and avoid natural area destruction that continues to happen in Sumatra and throughout the world..
Our model is intended to accomplish all these things. It’s been one-and-a-half years since the cashew processing factory is up and running, and we’re now employing 200+ women who have never had jobs before. The hours are flexible, it’s an open-air factory, and two months ago, we finished a daycare center so children can come with their mothers to work. There’s also a biomass gasifier, which utilizes cashew shells to partially power the factory. The model has been so successful on the ground that an impact investing firm in Singapore invested nearly $1 million to triple the capacity of the factory.
What wild success looks like: The way we import agricultural products to the United States is flawed in many ways—the lack of transparency in the supply chain, the way workers are being treated, the way the landscape is being altered, and the way food products are being treated. If we can create a market in the United States for single-origin products, we recreate this all over the world.
Most formidable challenge to date: Financing. Portland has really embraced the concept. The story is the kind of story a lot of people here want to support. Our cashews are much higher quality than you get anywhere else. We’ve been successful at getting them into markets. We’ve got wholesale distribution, and we’re distributed in coops and in New Seasons all over town. At farmer’s markets, we’ve taken raw cashews and started to make creative food products—we have a vegan cashew pesto that’s been doing really well. We’re also looking to partner with other food companies that use cashews as a key ingredient. Our only barrier to success is lack of early-stage financing.
Most surprising success to date: Given my background in science and biology, everything is a surprising success. Probably the most welcome surprise has been that the Portland community has embraced this to such an extent. There’s a ton of people out there reaching out to me to offer services, often pro bono, to get this started.
What is your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur? Have a complete business plan with financial projections ready and money in your pocket before you launch. That’s it.
What’s on your reading list: I’m reading The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki, which is a useful and interesting book. With the ups and downs of a start-up, I love to refer to When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön. But really, other people’s expertise has been most important. There’s no blueprint for doing any of this, so networking and finding others to walk you through the steps is incredibly valuable.
What’s on the horizon: We’re launching two new products, one of which is a candied hibiscus flower, which came about because we were experimenting with diversifying agriculture in the area and found out that hibiscus grew really well. And we have cacao and sea salt encrusted cashew we’ve developed that’s absolutely amazing.