'The best way to sleep well is by changing people's lives'
The company avoids the fruit-gathering process, letting the communities pick and transport their harvest up the river to the processing facilities, where they are also offered jobs. The fruit is turned into powders and purées for the U.S. juice market because açaí does not transport well or taste good on its own. (Brazilians eat the berries with sugar or honey and a granola or cereal topping.)
Busby points out a tree with a smooth, oblong, coconut-like fruit drooping from the branches.
"This is the cupuaçu fruit, a close relative to cacao," he says. He smashes it on a rock to break the shell and reveal gridded, gooey, cream-colored insides. Each square is a large seed covered in stringy pulp that tastes of banana and citrus.
Cupuaçu (pronounced koo-po-uh-SOO) is EarthFruits' latest export and the company's main hope for growth. It ripens between February and July, when açaí production slows for the off-season. Like açaí, the fruit is packed with antioxidants, and researchers at Lehman College in New York City suggest it can help prevent colon cancer. Busby and Stefani hope they can use it to keep the business strong and the locals busy all year round.
But as in any industry, one hot product doesn't guarantee a successful follow-up - cupuaçu has not yet gained traction in the U.S. Ken Love, a fruit expert and president of the West Hawaii chapter of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, says it takes a "killer marketing strategy" and multiple media appearances to sell an exotic fruit to the mainstream market - in other words, the kind of marketing muscle a tiny company like EarthFruits doesn't have.
Stefani remains optimistic about cupuaçu's chances, pointing out that they only started shipping the fruit at the end of 2007. "It is not a mainstream product like açaí," she says. "But there is increasing interest from the big players" in the pulp and purée markets.
Hiking out from Mutirão, the Earth-Fruits owners pass Coop Fruit, a processing plant that Stefani works with. Like many EarthFruits projects, Coop Fruit is a work in progress. The depulping and purifying machines are rudimentary, and there are gaps in the walls where small animals can enter. EarthFruits started out buying small, closely monitored quantities of pulp from the plant. Stefani is now teaching the management team how to reinvest their profits into capital improvements. Once EarthFruits deems the plant self-sufficient, it will sign an exclusive distribution agreement with Coop Fruit.
Developing local entrepreneurs
Sandoval Alves da Silva, a tall, bushy-browed entrepreneur, owns a state-of-the-art processing facility called Bela Iaçá. On his own, da Silva had never considered the international market.
"I was the first one in my family to get a college degree," he says. "I used my knowledge to start my own processing plant and employ my whole family. I started to freeze puréed açaí and sell it locally, but then I met EarthFruits. They taught me how to get to the next level."
Busby and Stefani helped him improve his technology and obtain the certifications necessary to supply ingredients to large U.S. and European companies. Bela Iaçá now boasts hydropowered cleaning, depulping, and pasteurizing machines. Its freezers are filled with barrels of frozen purée that will soon be shipped to Houston and Los Angeles.
Bela Iaça tries to reuse all its açaí waste. Some of the seeds go back to the river communities, where they are burned in furnaces in place of forest wood.
The next day the EarthFruits owners visit the place where the rest end up. They drive from the mango-lined streets and apartment buildings of Belém's wealthier neighborhoods to the Bairro do Guama, where most houses lack basic plumbing and barefoot children splash in muddy puddles.
Stefani and Busby enter the house of Humberkelly Cardoso de Souza, known as Kelly, who lives in a derelict room with her mother and father. Outside, her four children kick rocks at each other under the blazing sun. The family's only possessions are a couch, a television, a gas stove, and a table. The table is covered with polished and dyed açaí seeds, which Kelly strings together into necklaces and bracelets.
Stefani guides women such as Kelly into entrepreneurship, starting with setting up a simple bank account. Kelly has been making bracelets for more than a year and employs a team of workers to help the business grow. Each month she produces thousands of bracelets, which are marketed in the U.S. as authentic Amazon jewelry.
"At the rate I'm going," says Kelly, "I will be able to move out of here and give my family a better home. I can even afford to give my daughter dance lessons."
Stefani and Busby wish Kelly luck and head to a park in the middle of the city. Here there are still towering trees where monkeys scream and swing overhead. Busby points out a sloth relaxing under the cool leaves. Stefani buys a cupuaçu ice cream.
While U.S. real estate fades, Middle East booms
Found in translation: Avoiding multilingual gaffes
- Digital tip jar coming to a coffee shop near you
- How immigrant entrepreneurs are making it
- Ex-con launches startup aimed at inmates
- Free startup advice from Silicon Valley's best, including Marissa Mayer, Marc Andreessen
- Why Atlanta is ripe for innovation
- I'm a legal immigrant, but not allowed to work