This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Sometimes the best ideas emerge from the rubble of a plan gone off the rails.
Agricycle Global is a case in point. Founded on the guiding principle of transforming waste into opportunity, Agricycle strengthens communities in the developing world by helping subsistence farmers — mostly women — turn agricultural castoffs into salable products such as fruit snacks and gluten-free flour.
If that sounds like an inspiring success story, you’re right — but it started as almost a punchline.
In 2015, Josh Shefner and his classmates at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) were asked to make a plan for selling a beer brewed with dried Jamaican mangoes. It bears emphasizing that we’re talking about Milwaukee here, America’s Brew City, a place partial to bitter libations — not tiki drinks or near-beer hybrids for venturesome palates.
“We were tasked with developing a business model for dried mango beer that would sell,” said Josh. “And, well, it wouldn’t. So we recommended just selling the dried mangoes.”
The whole project was designed to assist a Jamaican nonprofit, based on the belief that farmers there could use solar dehydrators to generate new revenue from excess mangoes. Armed with research from the nonprofit, Josh and his classmates planned a trip to Jamaica — only to discover that the research was largely fabricated.
Listen First, Then Act
For whatever reason, the Jamaican nonprofit didn’t feel they had the time to interview the farmers.
“So, we show up,” Josh recalls, only to find that “none of the farmers knew what a solar dehydrator was, or how to put mangoes inside of it. And once they had the dehydrated mangoes, they were like, ‘What do we do with these?’ We said they could sell them, but there was no market for that.”
Though Josh’s later engineering studies included rewarding projects from Guatemala to Liberia, he never forgot one overriding lesson that he learned from experience in Jamaica: “It taught me a lot about starting with the farmers first.”
What Josh learned from the farmers was that their ancestral trees produced an abundance of fruit — far more than the local market could absorb. And because there was no efficient way to ship the fruit for international consumption, tons and tons of it simply went to waste.
Converting that waste into much-needed revenue for farmers is the idea behind Agricycle Global and its first consumer brand, Jali Fruit Co.
It’s a brand based on the highest standards of fully traceable, zero-waste, ethical trade. Mango, pineapple, and jackfruit are hand-picked from trees on small family farms, then sun-dried using passive solar technology. By working directly with cooperatives around the world, Jali can eliminate the middleman, putting an average of 7 times more cash into farmers’ pockets.
Nearly 100,000 pounds of fruit that would have previously gone to waste have been upcycled into more than 135,000 packages of dried fruit snacks under the Jali Fruit Co. brand. In fact, when you order a five-pack box from the Jali online store, you’re helping to redeem about four pounds of food waste while supporting thousands of livelihoods at co-ops in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Haiti.
Those farms may be half a world away, but Jali works hard to connect consumers and producers in a way that feels personal and respectful. Every bag gets an individual QR code so snackers can learn where their fruit came from, while reading real stories of the farmers who grew it and the women who dried it.
Investing in Women
The Jali Fruit Co. brand is based on reducing waste and increasing revenue from pineapple, mango, and jackfruit, but Josh isn’t content to stop there, and Agricycle has at least two more tricks up its sleeve, all as a result of asking, “Okay, what do we do with the byproducts of these?”
For instance, nobody wants mango pits or breadfruit seeds in their dried fruit snack, but rather than let those items go to waste, Agricycle is milling them into a line of a gluten-free flour products under the brand name What the Fruit (WTF for short).
As another example, at some of the co-ops where Agricycle gets its fruit, the shells of coconuts typically go to waste. However, when coconut shells are mixed with other byproducts like cassava starch and palm kernel shells, then carbonized and crushed, the result is a charcoal that burns hotter and longer than traditional charcoal — without the need to fell precious trees. That’s what Agricycle’s Tropicoal Ignition is.
All of this upcycling creates value and drives the revenue that allows Agricycle to pursue its mission, which is to empower farmers and strengthen their communities. And those farmers — the people doing the yeoman’s work closest to the harvest and processing of Agricycle’s source materials — are predominantly women.
“We wanted to work with small groups that impact each individual community,” said Dawn Halpin, marketing manager for Agricycle. “The women are the pieces that hold these communities together and move it forward. Generally, any money they make, they are not necessarily spending on themselves. Their salary is spent on school fees for their kids, and things for family or communities.”
“And it’s also not just about adding more women co-ops,” Josh noted. “It’s tailoring our products toward vulnerable populations. In Liberia, for example, the coconut co-ops are majority women-led, and the people in charge of the processing are mostly refugees. We’re always looking at how we can support more vulnerable people.”
Spend for good: Currently, Jali Fruit Co.’s website is the best place to find Agricycle’s signature dried fruit products. Imperfect Foods subscribers can look out for Agricycle Global products, and the Agricycle website is where you can always keep up with current products and new additions to the brand suite.
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