Welcome to Part Two of our conversation focused on Exploring Sustainable Food Systems around the world.
In this episode, we are bringing a whole new meaning to the term “super-grain”. Taking you back to the ancient grains of West Africa that were once labelled ‘lost crops’ and bringing these nutrient-dense, delicious foods back into our food system.
Join us as we discover how ancient grains could be the key to a sustainable food system, a sustainable planet and better health for all of us.
Chef Pierre Thiam, founder of Yolélé Foods and Teranga Restaurants, and author of the new cookbook Simply West African, shared how his experience of living in New York city provided an opportunity and platform for him to share his cultural heritage through his love of food.
We spoke with Joni Kindwal Moore, the founder of Snacktivist Foods and host of the podcast Regenerative By Design. You can find out more about their mission to introduce more nutrient-dense ingredients into our open market by making ancient grains accessible to all by visiting the Snacktivist Website.
We delved deeper into the topic of sustainable foods with Sarah Day Levesque who is the Managing Director of Regenerative Food Systems Investment. Their mission is to work across diverse groups of funders and stakeholders to mobilise more capital for regenerative food and agriculture projects with the goal of connecting regenerative farmers to capital.
Be sure to visit our Guests page for the detailed list of guests featured in this series.
This short series on Exploring Sustainable Food Systems is supported by Fructify Network.
Unlock exclusive content and access to our podcast while supporting our show. How is that possible? Become a Narratives of Purpose patron at patreon.com/noppodcast
Hello dear listeners, welcome to Narratives of Purpose, you are now tuned into a new episode showcasing unique stories of changemakers, stories of people who are contributing to make a difference in society. This show was created to amplify social impact by sharing individual journeys of ordinary people who I believe are making extraordinary impact within their communities and around the world. My name is Claire Murigande. I am your host on this podcast. If you want to be inspired to take action, then look no further, you are in the right place, get comfortable, and listen to my conversations.
Today's episode is the second of our three part episode from the short series Exploring Sustainable Food Systems. I will take you on a journey of reviving ancient grains. We will also discuss the status of funding, regenerative agriculture. My guests today are based in the United States, but they all have a connection to the African continent, particularly one of them, who was born and raised in Senegal, Chef Pierre Thiam.
...And I'm travelling in the south and I see that grain again. And when you get to the South, they serve you that grain to honour you. And I'm wondering, "wow, these flavours coming back from childhood and I don't remember seeing it in Dakar. Why is that?" That was the question I'm asking myself. It's such a wonderful grain, so delicate. And now doing more research on this grain, it turns out that this is a grain that's resilient and believed to be the oldest cultivated grain in Africa. I'm like, "wow, why is this grain just limited to the rural area. Why isn't it a world class crop?"
Chef Pierre Thiam's company Yolélé Foods advocates for smallholder farmers in The Sahel region by opening new markets for crops grown in Africa, such as fonio, West Africa's oldest grain.
I'm a mom of three children and my kids have food allergies as do I, so that's always been part of my curiosity and my motivation is to figure out A) when you do suffer from food allergies, what can you eat? Because it does make it rather restricted. And then B) more importantly, like what's causing this epidemic of allergies? Why is it that in the modern era, we're suddenly rejecting the basic foundational foods that humanity built civilisation around? To me that is a distress signal that something's foundationally wrong with our food system.
That is Joni Kindwall Moore, CEO and founder of Snacktivist, her company partners with American farmers who use 'climate smart grains' that support regenerative agriculture, all while radically impacting nutrition with allergy friendly ingredients.
To talk about mobilising capital for Regenerative food and agricultural projects, I will also welcome on this episode, Sarah Day Levesque, Managing Partner at Regenerative Food Systems Investment.
I was working with this group of farmers, they call themselves biological, organic, beyond organic, all different kinds of farmers. But their premise was the same; healthier food system for both humans and for the environment. I was looking at the capital that was flowing into these farmers and it was pretty much non-existent. And I had spent 10 years prior working with all this investment capital flowing into the agribusiness space in the industrial ag space. And that's where I thought "light bulb" - we need to shine a light on the opportunity to invest in a regenerative food system and in farmers who want to do things differently.
For this episode, and ultimately for our sustainable food series. To reach more people. I invite you to take a moment and share your feedback by giving us a review on Apple podcasts, or directly on our website at narratives-of-purpose.podcastpage.io then simply click on the review page. This will help other listeners find our show and further amplify the stories of changemakers we bring on Narratives of Purpose.
In this second part of my exploring sustainable food systems on the podcast, I was fortunate to speak with truly amazing people whose remarkable work to revive ancient grains I had been following from afar. Let's begin the journey in Senegal with Chef Pierre Thiam. Chef Thiam had not planned to build a career related to food or hospitality. He told me that he was just adapting and adjusting to the situation he faced back then as a student. So, long story short, he was on his way from Dakar to Ohio for his studies when he stopped over in New York City for a while. But then he got robbed a few days after arriving, his return ticket to Senegal was the only thing he had left. And before flying back, he took a job in a restaurant as a busboy to make a little bit of money before he went back home. And that's how it all started.
I took the job, because it was a job that required no particular skills, it was just taking empty plates back to the kitchen, or filling a glass of water for the customers and stuff. But that's really where it all began for me. I got into that job, the routine of taking the plates back and learning something that I never thought I could learn. You know, in that kitchen, there were only guys in the kitchen, and I'm from Senegal, where it's a gender based activity; cooking is for the women, a secret of the women. Growing up in Senegal, you're fascinated by the cuisine, regardless of your gender, because food is just such a big part of the culture. We take the time to eat together, at noon, the whole country stops and everyone goes home for lunch, and lunch is always elaborate meals that take hours of preparation. Mom goes to the market every single day and gets you the fresh things, cooks from scratch. The food is sophisticated. And there were all these other influences that we have in Senegal, because of the positioning it has become a hub for many years, you know, since colonial times. So we have all those other food cultures that have been coming in. And I grew up in that environment, with like the neighbouring countries, we have street food from Benin, and Togo and Côte d'Ivoire, we have obviously the French presence, we have the Vietnamese community, we have a strong Lebanese community.
So all of that is part of my upbringing. And so even though I wasn't cooking, I'm fascinated by food. So I'm like, now men are allowed in the kitchen, and this is how I’m here now. And these guys become my close friends, my close comrades. Because they see me looking and I was spending more time than any busboy would spend in the kitchen. And the chef became a friend of mine. For two reasons, he liked to practice his French, he had studied a little bit in France and I was his opportunity to practice it. So he offered me to come in the kitchen and spent time and he's like (I was a young kid) “I could see myself in you from when I was starting cooking, and you know, if you are interested in learning a skill - a busboy, there's no future in it, but you can start from the bottom like I did." And from there I got the skills.
I left that restaurant a few years later, went to work at an Italian restaurant to get another set of skills, went to work in a French bistro in Soho, and eventually I got promoted to chef de cuisine at another Soho restaurant. And then I was really trying to see what's the next step. And the next step for me was to go back to my tradition, I was always missing that food culture from West Africa. And I also wanted to belong in this new country, and for me was to belong with my whole self with what I have to contribute. New York City wouldn't really be the real food capital of the world, if the cuisines of my culture are not present. So that was really all of that thinking that was coming. And gradually, as I was chef de cuisine in that restaurant, I was also offering food from memory, to my staff for staff meals. When we do family meals, I would just think about the dishes that my mom and my grandma would make. The things that we would eat in Senegal, and I would just present it to staff meals, and staff meals was like all new flavours for them. And they were like, "wow, this could be introduced to the restaurant. Why don't we serve that as a special?" And all those reactions confirmed to me that this is a mission that I wanted to take now. I really wanted to find inspiration from that cuisine.
After opening his first restaurant in Brooklyn in the early 2000s, which served African inspired bistro cuisine, Chef Thiam got a cookbook deal that took him on another trajectory. As he said, "a trajectory of creating an African food brand company".
As I'm writing the first cookbook, I'm thinking of substitutions for ingredients as I'm writing the recipe because some ingredients are not accessible to the market here in the US. So I'm like now the next step is to figure out how to make those ingredients accessible so that my audience and my readers could actually prepare the dishes the same way that my mum would prepare them, that's when the this idea of creating a company that would be an African food brand that would have products in supermarkets around the world came to be. And as I'm thinking about the products, I'm also thinking about products that not only back home supporting the small farming communities, giving back in a sense, because everything I was doing was inspired by that tradition. So I owed my career to them so it was one way to give back. But also to contribute as a model of development, and selecting products that are also impactful in a positive way for the environment, products that are resilient, products that are drought resistant. And the first one that came to mind, the first one was an ancient grain called fonio, as I was growing up in Dakar, I wouldn't even have access to this grain, only when I would go to the south to visit my grandparents during the summer vacation would I have that grain. So as I'm doing research, I'm working on my second book now and I'm doing research. I'm travelling in rural Africa because I wanted the book to be about where that food is coming from. Who are the producers? Who are the farmers? Who is growing the food? Who are the fisherman? And their stories and their challenges. And I'm doing that and I'm travelling in the south and I see that grain again. And when you get to the South, they serve you that grain to honour you. And I'm wondering, "wow, these flavours coming back from childhood, and I don't remember seeing it in Dakar. Why is that?" That was the question I'm asking myself. It's such a wonderful grain, so delicate and now doing more research on this grain, it turns out that this is a grain that's resilient, believed to be the oldest cultivated grain in Africa. I'm like, "wow, why is this grain just limited to the rural area? Why isn't it a world class crop?" It's delicious. And then you do more research. And it turns out this grain is also a nutrition powerhouse, it's gluten free, it's protein dense, it has so much going for it. And it cooks in five minutes and it's so versatile. And it’s amazing, it's mind boggling that the grain has been ignored. It's like considered 'a lost crop' that they have a term for these grains, there are crops in Africa that are considered 'lost crops' or ‘orphan crops’ and I'm very naive thinking, "Okay, I'm going to turn this grain into a world class crop."
And gradually until today, we are in all the Whole Foods in America and all the supermarkets like Sprouts and Target. And we have a strong online presence. And we added other products now from fonio.
It's an amazing story because from what I hear from the beginning, it was really an unplanned opportunity. But then you were able to step by step gradually, by learning on the job to really own it and make it yours. So you spoke about the grains, the brand is Yolélé and you also have a restaurant chain called Teranga. So tell me a bit about how you built this between the restaurant and having also this brand, that is bringing this super grain further away from the Sahel region
Before your Yolélé, I had restaurants. I had two restaurants that were sit-down restaurants, you know like the classic, serving the cuisine inspired by my tradition. But they were sit-down restaurants, and then Yolélé came and I started to have the products in supermarkets. And for me, because the products that I had were new products, even though it's ancient grains, no one knew what fornio was, no one knew what West African cuisine was. So it was an education, and education could be in different ways. It could be through my books, you know my books were dedicated to that, I even dedicated my last book to fonio itself, the journey of fonio - I called it the fonio cookbook. So that was part of the plan on educating and all that came obviously in steps. And then I also started to think, as fonio is taking off, I’m thinking about the others who are still intimidated, because, it's African food, people don't know what it is, and the average people, you can't blame them, they've been brainwashed for so many years, thinking Africa is the continent of scarcity, Africa is the continent of famine, so you can't connect food and abundance with all of that. Not to mention the history between Africa and America and all the crimes and the extraction and all of that affects the opinion. And so now I'm thinking the restaurants could be designed in a way that those also who have never tasted they could come to the restaurant and taste what fonio tastes like, what West African cuisine tastes like, African inspired cuisine, all those ingredients. And the restaurant to allow those people to enter it without even being stopped at the door when they see African food and stuff, I wanted to design the restaurant in a way that's really convenient to that audience. So that's why Teranga came to be, Teranga is a fast casual concept. It's a fast casual concept that really fits into the New Yorkers’ lifestyle. As you enter the restaurant, you can enter and get your food ready within minutes, and eat it and you can also enter and design your own bowl. So you come and you see, like a board that gives you all the different servings, you have the grains, you have the meats, you have the vegetables, you have the sauces, and you make your own dish, so they feel like they have an agency in what's coming into their plate. They're not coming and seeing a dish that's already prepared for them. And they're like, "Whoa, I don't know what this is" They can be careful approaching it, "I'm gonna taste this, I'm gonna taste that," And that worked. That really was the way people discovered the cuisine.
It's two different ventures, you know, the food distribution, the food products is one venture, Yolélé, and Teranga is another one. But Teranga uses products from Yolélé in the menu. They serve each other.
And to that point actually, I wanted to ask you, have you been able to measure, to some extent, the impact of what you've done? Tell me a bit about how you quantify or how do you explain the impact of your work so far?
Well, in many ways really, and it's quite current now that we have chefs from the diaspora, you know, from African diaspora, young groups from anywhere, who reach out and can connect with what we're doing and want to also find inspiration in their cuisine, to that tradition, because West African traditional cuisine had inspired their cuisine growing up, you know, but they haven't seen it when they went to cooking school. Because cooking school is giving them so-called classics, like French and stuff, right? So they want to reconnect, they realise how powerful it is because food is powerful, food is culture and really, that gives them a sense of purpose for them to find inspiration to look for inspiration.
On the continent now, which will be to me, the ultimate beneficiaries, who are the small farmers. I knew that there's going to be a point where we would have to put the focus on them. But before that, we would have to first open the market, because they knew how to grow it, they know they've been doing it forever, but they don't have access to the market. So the first step for me was to make it desirable, to make it 'sexy'. Once we create the demand, we have to make sure that the supply is following the demand. And that was where we had to figure out how to do it with a network of farmers. In the beginning, we identified farmers that were doing a better processing and just connected them with the market by taking their production and shipping it through containers to the US. As it was growing, we kept expanding the network of farmers. But it was definitely not going to be sufficient, the way we were going, we had to keep thinking ahead of time. Because what we wanted to do, we wanted to not only bring these African products, but we really want to bring in the best quality possible. And at all the stages of our operation, we try to partner or collaborate with the best possible in the branding. For instance, when we're branding, we went to a company called Pentagram who are considered the number one boutique design company in the world and we went there and we really told them the story and convinced them to come on board with us. That really made a difference in our packaging, it was so good that it allows us to tell the story, it allows the product to move off the shelves because people just go and move directly to it.
And the interesting part is when you grow fonio in the land, it restores the soil. It regenerates the land because it has deep roots that add nutrients to the soil. So it's really a miracle grain and those miracles you have to make them happen. And that's really where that challenge was. So we designed the mill and we found partners who would be operating the mill in Mali, which is another big fonio country. So the structure in Mali is called Sustainable African Foods. And I explain why ‘Sustainable African Foods’, because we are not a fonio company. Fonio was just our Trojan Horse to enter the market, but it really was about introducing African foods and being a platform, a brand for African foods. We did sell fonio as a Trojan Horse, but we intend to gradually bring other products. So Sustainable African Foods is the mill that will process not only fonio, but will also process other crops like millet and sorghum. And the reason for that is because we really wanted the communities that grow them to not only see fonio as a "cash crop" and stop growing the other things. So we wanted to see that the farmers keep that tradition of growing crops in rotation, and introduce us to those products that grow naturally there, that are resilient, that the world needs to know that are unknown, and that really, once they know them, realise that there's so many properties and so much to gain, not to even mention the flavours that we add to the global table. So that's that contribution that we thought rural Africa could bring. And in doing so, we're offering a model of development that is also harmonious with the environment and with the culture and without disrupting their own product, finding wealth in their own product.
Now, you will certainly agree with me when I say that Yolélé is a thriving company, a thriving social enterprise even. So I asked Chef Thiam about his vision of the future and also for his brand, the potential for market expansion in and outside of Africa. My thinking was that opportunities were greater outside of the continent, but have a listen to what he told me.
The potential is enormous. And to me, the challenge was to unlock that potential by really upgrading the standard of processing, so that it's accessible. Secondly, actually, I think you're wrong, when you say the big opportunity in Europe, actually, in Africa itself there's a big opportunity, because it's a part of our culture. These products are part of our culture, but we didn't have access to them in the standards that we want. If you go to supermarkets in Africa, you would see, like, at least 50%, sometimes 90% of the products are coming from the West, and they're branded this way. But if you go there, and you see a product that is properly done, properly packaged of sorghum that reminds you of that sorghum that your ancestry knows, that will be easily something you would go towards. So that's the opportunity that we realised that we want to tap into. And that's why Yolélé West Africa in Dakar will be going after the African market itself, then starting to add those products. Obviously, Europe and other markets, other regions of the world, are opportunities that are also non-neglectable. And they've been knocking at our doors forever, since the beginning, especially fonio, they've been knocking at our doors, and now with the mill being established, now we have the possibility to access those. So that's the next step. We are going to go after those regions of the world and Africa itself.
But to answer your question, I see a future where Africa is the place where it's coming from, where the solutions are coming from. And the solutions are not for Africa only but for the world. I think the future for our global food security is in those underutilised crops from Africa, and the arable land of Africa.
Let's continue the ancient grain revival journey to Idaho with Joni Kindwall Moore. I came across Joni's work when I discovered the podcast that she hosts which is called Regenerative by Design. She explores the ideas, the stories and the personalities behind the regenerative food system movement. But Joni is also a key player in this movement with her company Snacktivist. There is a quote on the Snacktivist website that I really like, which says "It is what we put in our products, not what we leave out, that makes them special." And this is what Joni explained to me about this quote.
I feel like for decades, we've had this focus on this binary narrative of "it's good or it's bad, or it's black, or it's white, or it's free from or it's not." And I feel like we need to shift that paradigm to being like "what is it full of?" what are the value attributes rather than just always focusing on what it lacked. And in the "Free From" movement, you look at gluten free foods in the United States, so many of them are just totally devoid of nutrition, they may be free from allergens, but they're certainly not healthy. And they're not using really healthy ingredients. And so many of these ancient grains that I'm really passionate about, have incredible nutrition and wonderful nutrient profiles and I just feel like it's time we started using them a lot more.
Joni introduced herself as 'a farm kid from rural Oregon', saying that growing up in the countryside gave her a different way of looking at the world and where food comes from. On top of being a registered nurse, she also has a background in the hard sciences as an ethno-botanist, who spent her life studying how people use plants for food and medicine. I wanted to know what led her to create Snacktivist. And this is where I found out about her connection to the African continent, have a listen.
In my 30s, I ended up getting my RN and spent a little over a decade as an ICU ER nurse, and also doing some diabetic education. So again, working on medicine and health and everything, but really focused on diet as the foundation of health time and time again, it kept coming back to that being like the missing link, where we were doing all these heroic things that were fantastic and have a place but often ignoring like the core foundation of what creates Healthy People, which is the same thing that really creates a healthy planet and healthy environment as well. So that's what made me end up becoming a founder and CEO. I also have three kids, and my kids have food allergies, as do I. So that's always been part of my curiosity and motivation is to figure out like A) when you do suffer from food allergies, what can you eat? Because it does make it rather restricted. And then B) More importantly, what's causing this epidemic of allergies? Like, why is it that in the modern era, we're suddenly rejecting the basic foundational foods that humanity built civilization around? Like, to me that is a distress signal that something's foundationally wrong with our food system, and that rather than normalising allergies, I mean, we have to accommodate to them, of course, but we should not normalise it, we should take that as like a banner to like march under and say, "What is wrong with our food system? Why are people having allergies in the first place? And how do we fix that? How do we push back on the epidemic of allergies?"
Tell me a bit more about how it started. What is the origin story? Obviously, you mentioned allergies, your kids having allergies yourself, but also growing up on the farm and having this special lens on how food should be. So tell me about how you started Snacktivist Foods.
It really was kind of an interesting starting place just because, as a mom making foods for our family, I am allergic to eggs, and my son could not tolerate wheat and my daughter couldn't tolerate dairy products. So you know, when you're looking at baking, you're looking at a lot of basic foods, and that eliminates a lot of them, you can't eat them. And so I had gotten quite good at baking things that were vegan and gluten free. But while still using these whole grain, ancient grains, I would bring them to work at the hospital. And people would seriously like to go, "You should sell these, these are so good”. And usually this kind of food is not good. And that's why we don't eat healthy because we have to have it tasting great. And so, it just got me thinking like, I've always kind of had an entrepreneurial spirit. And in fact, I was in a situation at my last hospital, where I had a very intrapreneurial spirit and I liked to identify problems at the hospital level that were either preventing access to care or delaying the time or costing extra money when it shouldn't. And I put together some projects at the hospital and I literally got in trouble for doing it. Because they're like "You don't have permission to be thinking about how to solve these problems like you're a nurse, just stay in your lane, you're not allowed to be thinking about system level stuff." I was like "okay" and I was really motivated about food system activism because I was on a nonprofit board for local and regional food system work. And so that's really what led me to just go "You know what, I really don't have money, I don't really have time. I really don't have the know how but I was like, let's just start doing this. Let's put products in a bag" I wanted to launch finished products from the beginning, like snacks that are ready to go. But we didn't have the money, we didn't have any capital. So that's really how Snacktivist was born. I started putting our ancient grain flour blends into bags and selling them as baking mixes. So our first two products were a sorghum based ancient grain pizza crust mix. And then a Focaccia mix that was like a rosemary garlic bread, again, focused on sorghum, millet and teff, the primary ingredient profile. And that's where it all began.
It's interesting. You just mentioned three grains there, sorghum, millet and teff. And so I have cultural heritage in East Africa, and these are grains that I know from there, from traditional porridge you would drink in the morning, or even like Ethiopian food or Erythrean they have injera which is made with teff. So when you started did you have collaborations or partnerships with some farmers? And how did that evolve with time?
I think it was through the lens of being an ethno-botanist and studying what other grains are essential to the palates of people around the world is really why I got so excited about these crops and these foods. And of course, the cuisine of Erythrea and East Africa is very rich in these crops. And I did a lot of study into how that all works. So that's what led me to going "oh my gosh, these are really incredible grains, they're very nutritious. They grow in very harsh environments that are high elevation and dry - like teff." And I started looking to see what the agronomic potential was domestically, because I didn't want to start out just importing these. I wanted to see if they were locally available. And the teff story is a really fun one. In Idaho, which is a very small state, we have under 2 million people in the entire state, even though we're a huge state. There's actually a family in the Boise area, which is south of us that has a teff programme where they have a processing and milling facility, and they work with farmers in Idaho and the region who are growing teff. And the story of that company, it's called Teffco or Maskal Teff. The dad spent time in East Africa in the 70s doing agricultural work there, and he discovered teff as a crop and was like "this would grow back home in Idaho, this would be a fantastic crop." And so that's how it began. And they are still 30/40 years later, one of the leading teff producers domestically in the United States, and they provide a lot of the teff flour to domestic Somali, Erythrean, and Ethiopian communities in the United States and provide a lot of a teff flour to them for their products. We ended up starting to buy our teff flour from them, and we still do and have a great partnership with them. And then with sorghum and millet it is available as a soft commodity, you can buy those crops from any major green brokers. But what we find in the United States is that most sorghum and proso millet is grown and fed to livestock. So the development of sorghum flour and millet flour as a human grade food is in its infancy. So we're working to develop that right now. And I work with farmers personally. And we also have a lot of deep relationships with universities, where they're doing the research, they're doing the agronomy, they're doing the seed breeding and genetics. And so that way, I'm not doing all that heavy lifting, but I'm working with them to try to kind of bring this movement together so that we can grow the market segment for sorghum and proso millet in human grade food. But we have to establish quality first, and that will help it to grow.
Joni just mentioned her experience working with universities. In fact, she's also the co-founder of the North American Millets Alliance. She told me that a lot of their work across the United States stems from the collaboration with universities, where they are trying to build a community, the science, the awareness, the agronomy and the market drive for millets and millet related crops, such as sorghum and teff.
Unless the movement comes to fruition, it will slow the understanding of the consumer about what our 'why' is at Snacktivist so it's needed momentum that we need to leverage to grow at Snacktivist. And UN Year of Millets is this year. So, that’s really driving some great narratives out there in the community to increase that awareness about why millets are so important. The UN takes a stance that given that we are in a warming pattern on the planet, and it does not give any indication of stopping anytime soon, that it's of urgency that we shift a lot of our major food staples towards crops that are literally designed for tolerance against heat and drought. And that's why they made UN Year of Millets this year because it's so important. And then also because a lot of these crops have a different relationship with soil and soil building than other chemical intensive, highly hybridised crops that are out there in the market where they are detrimental to soil development. What I hear from my farmers is that they love planting millet and sorghum and teff because it conditions the soil, they don't require a lot of fertilisers to perform. And then they don't need all the heavy irrigation so they feel like it's restorative crops, it's crops that kind of allow their land to rest while still being productive.
And that's really an important point because as we speak about shifting mindsets, mentalities and so on, it's really also to understand what are the benefits? Not only for us, in terms of health and nutrients, but also for the soil, right? And that's something really important to mention that they actually regenerate the soil.
And soil health is so critical, I mean, we know that we're really up against a tight deadline globally, where our soils are nearing complete depletion. And that's driven by many different activities, from erosion to sterilisation from use of heavy duty chemical intensive ag inputs. But we know that if our global soil systems get to a point where they're too exhausted, we will not be able to produce food anymore. And you can only imagine what kind of a catastrophe that would create globally. Even just with the war in Ukraine and everything, and like seeing the ripple effects of having our global food systems impacted and weather patterns of the last year as well. We see those ripple effects causing human suffering. And so I think that to me, is a real wake up call to be one step ahead. And thinking about, "okay, as the world is changing and moving, how are we trying to stay one step ahead?" And repairing the soil and regenerative is so instrumental in that as well as breaking dependency on synthetic input farming systems.
Since you started, how have you measured the impact of your work? And what are people saying about your products?
People love our products, we have a really long customer retention rate, once we’re discovered our consumers tend to like re-buy their lifers - which is fantastic. And then we're always really interested in not only what our home consumers think, but also our chef consumers, at the food service level, what is the feedback from chefs and people who are running kitchens, because that's a really different perspective. And if you can serve something that's really healthy, but good enough to serve in a foodservice setting, you know you're really winning. As far as our impact points that we're tracking right now, I will totally admit that we've been so busy, just working to grow the brand that we've really been focusing on driving sales and exposure and momentum and adoption. And that has really consumed all of our KPI focus. But we are always working on the side where we're bringing on new farmers, we're building out farmer connected supply chains. We have an aggregated supply chain. So frequently, we will have to pull from commodity because we can't run out. But then we don't have any farmer connected in stock. So we have to pull. But it's still a drought resistant crop, like it's still a crop that needs to be out there, whether it's farmer connected, regenerative or not, you know what I mean? At the end of the day, we want to grow that awareness around those crops and the role that those crops play in food systems.
So my goal is actually by the middle of the year, we're launching these QR codes on our packages, and it's through another company that I'm involved with called Food Vision, that is a tech enabled platform that will allow transparency from field to plate, and will also help to communicate impact data in an auditable, authentic way, instead of just greenwashing, like "Oh, hey, here's what we're doing." It'll be like, "Oh, hey, look, under the hood. Here's actually what we're doing, both good and bad. Like, here's kind of what we're up against." Because what people need to realise is that building regenerative supply chains from scratch is hard work. It's not something that you're like, "Oh, I'm gonna be regenerative today." Well, the regenerative supply chain for our products does not exist. We literally are building it, piece by piece, brick by brick. And we want to invite consumers into that experience, because it's intentional, it's deliberate. And you have to really care a lot to make this work. We'll be having that QR code delivery, it's going live next month on our packaging, but it will just be phase one, which is more kind of introduction to the Snacktivist brand and learning about ancient grains and learning a little bit about our farmers, but then phase two will start to connect them of like, "Oh, this teff came from here," And so, we're building out those layers as we go.
That's amazing. I really love it. Because, especially since the pandemic, people are being more and more conscious of how we eat, how we live, literally how we conduct our daily lives. The fact that you know the product that you are buying, you know where it's coming from, you know who you're helping and how it was done. I mean, that's absolutely amazing. Transparency is really key at this point.
It is because we're never going to be able to define regenerative, I don't think, and so that makes it a really formidable challenge as far as getting certifications or validations on the market. And again, it's that binary mindset. It's either Non GMO Project verified, or it's suspicious. It's either organic or it's not. It's that binary mindset that doesn't work for regenerative because regenerative is systems based, it's not black and white, you know? And so, to me, for someone who's spent a lot of time thinking this through of like, how can we do this? The only answer is transparency, so the only way it can be done.
We have more coming up from our guests after the break. You will hear from Sarah Day Levesque, Managing Director of Regenerative Food Systems Investment.
Ultimately our goal is to play a bigger role in connecting the solution builders, the farmers, the supply chain, the folks that are really trying to build solutions for the system with the right kind of capital because that seems to be a gap that's missing.
Don't go away. We'll be right back after this short break.
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Welcome back to Narratives of Purpose. This is the second of our three part episode from the short series exploring sustainable food systems. Today, the focus is on reviving ancient grains and regeneration, but also mobilising more capital for regenerative food and agricultural projects. Before the break, you heard from Chef Thiam's work with Yolélé Foods and Teranga on opening new markets for crops grown in Africa, such as for fonio, West Africa's oldest grain. You also heard from Joni, the founder of Snacktivist, talking about driving a new grain economy.
Now, let's come back to the conversation I had with Joni for a short moment. One last topic I wanted to get Joni take on was meat analogues. You have certainly seen many of these products in stores, or even restaurants. They're basically called plant based meat made mainly from soy, or peas, at least the products I have seen here in Switzerland. Joni was quite candid about this and she even mentioned the question of funding.
My call to action for people that are in the meat analogue business is there is a need for alternatives, but make sure that they put what they're "full of" at the front of the conversation, and that they're like, "Hey, we're getting these peas from farmers in Saskatchewan, and they're doing regenerative practices” and that needs to be forefront. And unfortunately, it's the "free from" mantra that it's leading the charge and I just find that to be problematic.
Over the last couple of years growing what we're doing, time and time again, I'm talking to VCs and investors. And they're like, "No, because we're investing just in meat analogues." And I'm like, "Okay, so you wouldn't invest in a naturally vegan product using regenerative ancient grains?" They're like, "No, we're really focusing on meat analogues" And trillions - I mean, so much money went into building up that industry kind of artificially, and it actually starved and neglected an entire huge segment of the innovating, natural product sector that were starved for capital, because all the capital went into meat analogues for the last three years, and literally starved out all these amazing other innovations that are of much more significance over the long term. So I actually personally kind of have an issue with that whole thing, it really makes me mad. Because here we are at the Plant Based Food Association, the big global Expo at the Javits Centre in New York, in 2021. Our booth was swamped, because they're like, "Oh my gosh, we're so burnt out on fake meat. I'm so happy to just have a waffle. It's normal food, you know?" And then we'd be like, "Hey, well, why don't you invest? I mean, look at how crowded our booth is. It's more crowded than any other booth." Then their response would be "Oh, no, we just want meat analogues as an investment. So it's just chasing fads, and chasing fads never got humans anywhere. But I always say "Look, we're still here. We're still growing. And a lot of your investments in plant based meats are gone. I bet you wish you would have invested in us three years ago and not those other companies that tanked in the last 12 months." So, that's where I'm more of a CEO.
Since Joni just introduced the issue of capital and investment. It's the perfect transition to my third guest on this podcast, Sarah Day Levesque. Listen to how Sarah's journey in the regenerative agriculture space began and how she started Regenerative Food Systems Investment in short, RFSI.
I didn't grow up on a farm which a lot of folks in the space did. I grew up in a town surrounded by farms and with a university that was very agricultural based. But I grew up wanting to save the world. I remember being adamant that I was going to save the whales - that was the environmental thing when I was a kid. But that didn't really go anywhere and it was my first year of college. I took a course in environmental studies and there was a guest speaker there who had just returned from China and he had been working in farming systems there. He was showing all the pictures of what he did and how he was able to support the communities there and bring tools there. And that really resonated with me. This was the first quarter as a freshman year of college, from that moment on, I was like, "Okay, agriculture is the way that I can have an impact on the world”. I took some courses in agronomy and immediately determined, I was not tough enough to be a farmer. And a good thing, because it's really hard to get farmland these days if you're not already a farmer. But then I took some economics courses, and I really liked this intersection of economics and financial decisions and how that plays into the choices, from a production side and also from a consumption side. And so from there just been building this with the mindset "how do we recreate a food system looking at the economics and the decisions that people have to make around that?"
So was that the reason why you started RFSI, Regenerative Food Systems Investment, to combine these two approaches and be closer to your wish to save the world?
It wasn't an immediate path to that, but looking back, I can see all the connections now. I spent some time in Kenya doing my graduate thesis work and working in a small scale farm milking system. So it was raw milk producers, and how can we combine both food safety with the economics of they need to support their livelihoods with this. I loved that experience, but also realised I wouldn't be able to work abroad forever because I love being close to my family. And so I went to work for a consultancy that worked in more of the agribusiness space, what I would call now more of the extractive agribusiness space. I spent 10 years with them and there I focused a lot on the investment space - the capital that was coming into the food system. It wasn't until about six or seven years ago that I had the opportunity to move on from that position and join a company that I felt was going to provide more impact in the direction that I wanted to go. And that was joining the parent company for a company called Acres USA, who teaches ecological farming methods for farmers that are looking to take chemicals out of their systems and look for different economic paths forward as well. When I got two acres, I was working with this group of farmers. They call themselves biological, organic, beyond organic, all different kinds of farmers. But their premise is the same healthier food system for both humans and for the environment. I was looking at the capital that was flowing into these farmers and it was pretty much non-existent. And I had spent 10 years prior working with all this investment capital flowing into the agribusiness space and the industrial ag space. And that's where I was like "light bulb, we need to shine a light on the opportunity to invest in a regenerative food system and in farmers who want to do things differently." And that's where I started RFSI from so it's a mouthful, Regenerative Food Systems Investments. But the idea was that not enough capital providers and funders knew about the opportunity to invest in different kinds of systems. Not enough of that investment was happening so there weren't any examples to follow suit. And so that's where RFSI started with a convening of getting the right people in the room to discuss it and from there, we've been building out how we facilitate the system.
What type of activities or what initiatives do you have with RFSI that you are educating or at least creating this awareness for the investors that there's no capital flowing into this type of agriculture?
We started with convening in 2019, three months before COVID hit, we had an in-person convening, which was convenient that we got that off, at least, and just gathered folks together. And our point was not only to shine a light on the opportunity to fund the system, and farmers in the system, but also to say, "Listen, there isn't a developed system yet for regeneration, we have farmers, but in order to make them successful, we also have to build a system around it. So what kind of systems need to be built? We need to have the support services for farmers, we need to have markets for the farmers, technical assistance." So all the way from the folks who are servicing the farmer to the CPG companies or the food companies that are going to sell their products. So the idea was how do we bring all these stakeholders together and then show the investors that look at this entire system that can be funded. So we do annual convenings, we had our last one in October in Denver, it was a sellout crowd. It was awesome. And really just kind of showed us how much the space is growing and how much investors and food system builders are looking at this space. We also do some online programming to keep people connected when we're not in person. We're launching an RFSI Europe event, it'll be virtual on January 25th. So super excited about that because there's so many cool things going on there. And then we have launched a free funder directory which is trying to bring all of the funders of regeneration together in one spot so folks can come and say "Who is funding the space? Who are the investment service providers in this space?" and start understanding a little bit more about what that landscape looks like so that we can get more of our solution builders funded and get aligned with the right capital.
Ultimately, our goal is to play a bigger role in connecting the solution builders, the farmers, the supply chain, the folks that are really trying to build solutions for the system with the right kind of capital, because that seems to be a gap that's missing, which is there's capital curious about the space. And then there are all the solution builders that kind of need that funding to get their operations up and going. But not all capital is created equal. So how do we get this solution builders aligned with the right capital?
You will have of course noticed that my conversation with Sarah was recorded before the RFSI Europe event that took place two months ago, in January. Along the lines of collaboration, I was wondering about the importance for RFSI to connect with other organisations outside of the United States. This is what Sarah said.
Outside of the US, we have partnered with some organisations in Australia, so Impact Ag Partners, who were at our first event in 2019. They've been very supportive of getting programming over to Australia as well, they have a very strong regenerative agricultural system there. And we need to grow the investor base there, and the investors and funders that are maybe looking from the outside to fund that system and develop that system there. So we've done some programming with them and in that community for the last two years, which has been great. And then Europe, absolutely, there's such a big opportunity. I think it's been very interesting for me to see where Europe is in terms of regenerative agriculture, then post farm gate, and how the system is developing outside of that, which I think there's a lot of opportunity to continue to build.
Can you quantify or at least give us a sense of the impact your organisation has had so far since you started, especially in the communities? You just mentioned that you've been focusing on the US, but you connect farmers, right? You connect people, and this is all linked to the community? So have you seen any impact there through your work?
The quantifiable part is interesting, because we work in a space, especially with investors, where they want to quantify a lot of this stuff, certain types of investors at least. And so that's something I've been reflecting on since late last year. I was thinking we need to start quantifying what our impact is, because we're so worried about helping other folks be able to fulfil their impact. So I don't have a lot of quantifiable data just in numbers of how many people we're reaching. But I do have qualitative data, which is what we're working on right now, which is the stories of the first year of our event. And we'll share some of these actually, in the coming year. But the first year of our event, just the folks that we connected are then going forward and starting companies that serve this space at a greater capacity. So Providence Capital Group, if you look them up, they met and the connection started at our event and they've really grown to work with lots of companies who are fundraising in the space and having a lot of big impact. Oftentimes, we get requests like "I'm just starting to come into the industry, where do I start? Where do I look?" And so that's been a fun, non-planned impact that we’ve had, which is how do we get folks connected with the right people so they can build their little spot in the regenerative space and the regenerative food system? I just presented last week at an event where we presented to primarily farmers, small to middle scale farmers, and showed them that there is an increasing amount of capital coming in. And you can now look beyond your standard government grants to other types of capital. And so we have an increasing number of them reaching out and saying, "Okay, who do I connect with? How do I get this? What do I need to do to get myself ready to talk to somebody about giving the money?" So those are the places we were hoping to grow or impact in the coming years.
It goes without saying that as an entrepreneur, and whenever you start any new venture, you will have challenges to overcome. I was curious to understand what were Sarah's major challenges with RFSI, even though she had been in the investment sector for a much longer time, prior to joining the regenerative food space.
So first thing when I came and started working in the regenerative space with Acres, and with the community here, I will say, Wow, the amount of collaboration that happens in this space versus in the agribusiness space that I'd worked in before was stark, but you could just tell immediately that this was a community of people and organisations that were like "let's work together to create change," which was awesome. I hadn't experienced that in the 10 years prior. So that was great. I think the hardest part if I had to choose one of the hardest challenges working in such a nascent area, when we started in 2019, and we really started planning and 2018, regenerative food systems, of course, rooted in indigenous values and systems. But really, we're coming to the mainstream. And we were a little early, I think, talking about the capital conversation. And I think still there's so much that's nascent about it right now. So the fact that there isn't a definition, the fact that investors still can't look and see all of the examples of how you can have a successful funding of this system. All that new nascent stuff has been challenging, in that we have to work around it and say, "How do we keep this going? How do we continue to serve this space and help fill those gaps and kind of fill it as we wait for people to come in and come in and come in?" And so the more work we do, the better off we're going to be, it's just getting through that work to make sure those gaps of knowledge and understanding of data are filled.
So how do you see this space evolving? Because as you say, it's nascent, it's a new field, there's not a lot of experience so far to convince the investors or even some definitions to be aligned with everyone. Just give me your own perspective. How do you see this evolving? Are there any things you see are gonna change pretty soon? Or do you think it's going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort, because it also requires changing mindsets primarily?
That's a huge point right there, the changing of mindset. So it's interesting, I am a pretty cautious person. But I also tend to stay on the positive side, my feeling is there's no way this doesn't succeed. The challenge, of course, and you'll probably hear this throughout the series as you talk to folks, but the challenge is greenwashing and the folks that are coming in, and are they being authentic in their efforts to support the building of a new food and agriculture system? But I truly believe that the more players we get involved, the better, and I think that's coming. We see so many more corporate commitments this year at our event, so many more funders saying I might not be able to do it yet, but how do I allocate money to space? We're just going to have to proceed with caution and care. I think there's going to be a certain amount of trust that has to happen in terms of there's new players coming in, let's let them in. But how are we going to kind of have the checks in place to make sure that we stay authentic to what regenerative should actually be, which is actually being regenerative and not just in the agronomic and ecological aspects, but in the financial and community and livelihood aspects as well.
Just one point on your mindset. The big thing for us, I think, is COVID has brought such a big shift in how we look at food systems. And so that attention is amazing, and I think that has taken us far in how much awareness there is. The next shift, I think, is looking at our other systems. So looking at how policy plays into this and how financial systems play into this, because I've been talking a lot lately about how we are asking our farmers to have this mindset shift and how they produce. But we also need to say then how does our supply chain make that shift as well? So they also have to do things differently. How does our policy make that mindset shift? And how does our financial system make that mindset shift so that it's not continually the farmers having to take on all of the risk and transition versus everybody else also accepting some of that risk?
To conclude this second episode explored the multiple benefits of ancient grains and funding, regenerative agriculture. Let me share with you the individual recommendations from today's guests, for each of us to also contribute to a more sustainable food system in our everyday lives. First up, is Chef Pierre Thiam, the co-founder of Yolélé Foods and Teranga, a fast casual food chain in New York City.
Be an educated consumer, be part of the solution, especially when it comes to food, I mean, you're going to put it in your system, food is everything. Food has the power of life and death. You know, it could give you health and life, and it can kill you. And it kills you sometimes radically or it kills you slowly. A lot of the time we're killing ourselves slowly. When you look at all the chronic diseases that we have, everywhere around the world, but especially in Africa. In Africa, the ones we have are imported that's not part of our traditional diet, we just imported them, it's all connected to our diet, all connected to the food. So educating yourself is one thing you can do. And again the choice you have every day when you decide what you're going to eat is up to you. That is something that's completely up to you. So where you put your money for your own health, for the health of the planet, and for being a positive actor to the uplifting of rural farmers, small farmers. Because they are the ones who got it, and now we need to just support them.
The next guest to share her recommendations is Joni Kindwall Moore, CEO and founder of Snacktivist.
I just think for people that stop before they put something in their mouth for just a second. And just to think about it, what are the effects of this? Is it good for me, but is it good for 'we'? That is a huge perspective shift because more and more people are aware and reading labels and looking at the nutrition facts. And that's great. That's step one. But I think we do need to just take on that additional layer of not only thinking about how it's affecting us, like our own personal body, but how is it affecting the community? How is it affecting the planet? And once you start asking those questions, then you just stop and think about it. A lot of the learning starts to come to you, right? It just takes asking the question and suddenly a whole new world emerges that you never saw or recognised, was there. And that's where the path of long term food system, sustainability and resilience will happen is when people start asking the right questions.
Closing up our recommendations part is Sarah Day Levesque Managing Director at RFSI, Regenerative Food Systems Investment.
Pay attention to what your purchases are, how you're consuming. It's hard to do and I feel bad asking consumers to take out one more thing and say learn about where your food comes from even just a little bit. That will go a long way in understanding what your impacts truly can be because we do vote with our dollars. And then secondly, I'll throw another one in there if you have a chance to visit a farm to understand - do it. One, it's just an amazing experience, but I also think it will bring folks closer to the experience of farmers and everything that they go through to produce food for us every day.
I'm going to add a third one, if anybody is interested in this and it's not for everybody but, just grow something. Like if you have a container to put it in, or you know a little tiny space to make a garden. That opens up a whole other world of one, mental health, because it's amazing, but also again brings you more in connection and reminds you that we actually have capabilities of growing food and it's a rewarding experience.
So what about you? Are you familiar with any of these ancient grains? Is fonio, millet, sorghum or even teff part of your staple foods? And have you ever considered investing in regenerative agriculture? We would love to hear from you. Share your experiences with us by connecting on our social handles. You'll find the links in the episode show notes.
Join me again in two weeks. For the third and last part of our short series exploring sustainable food systems. I will bring you closer to those who focus on building networks and building community around food production. You don't want to miss this final episode, because I will be joined by Imani Black, the founder of Minorities in Aquaculture, an organisation that promotes a more diverse and inclusive aquaculture industry. My second guest will be Bastiaan Frich, a leading member of urban agriculture Basel, a network that promotes projects in the Basel region committed to organic and holistic food cycles. Finally, I will also host Romain Oeggerli and Yohann Pellaux. The cofounders of Alles Gut! Gemüse Kebab, the first sustainable kebab restaurant in Geneva.
Thank you so much for tuning in today. I appreciate you taking the time. Remember that you can share this episode with your network with your friends and your family. As always, we would appreciate you rating our show with five stars on Spotify. Last but not least, we have set ourselves up to grow a thriving membership community that gives you exclusive content and access to our podcast. Please check our Patreon page and choose a membership level you feel comfortable donating for all the details are patreon.com/noppodcast. We are grateful for your support.
Until the next episode, take care of yourself, stay well, eat well and stay inspired.
This podcast was edited and produced by Tom Evan Hughes at rustic studios.
This episode was written, edited and hosted by Claire Murigande.