Little Known Ways to Build an Amazonian Superfood Empire ryan black sambazon
BY: Claudia Repsold
As a journalist for the past 25 years, I have shared many stories. From time to time, I bump into a tale that is worth telling. Sambazon is one of these.
Like any other Brazilian, I am very skeptical of any “gringo” who comes to Brazil and takes our natural resources abroad — especially resources from the Amazon rainforest.
However, Ryan Black, Jeremy Black, and Edmund Nichols are not exactly “gringo material”. They are Californian dudes building a multimillion-dollar açai business with sustainability and social awareness engrained into their operations. They introduced açai to the U.S. market, and revealed to Americans the taste of this Amazon superfood. We asked Ryan what it’s like to do business with Brazilians, and how he keeps Sambazon profitable without compromising its sustainability and social consciousness.
Brazil & US Biz: What would you say to people who think it’s not possible to be profitable and socially responsible at the same time?
Ryan Black: The goal of business should not just be to make profit, but to serve the community and the common good — i.e., social responsibility. Social responsibility is a matter of ethics and integrity. It’s sort of like an Olympic weightlifter saying that they cannot compete without anabolic steroids. Unfortunately, capitalism unchecked can arrive at a place where people and businesses wake up to find that they can’t compete without cutting corners or cheating. This is not profit, nor is it success. We have to try harder. We have to find a way to win while respecting each other and the Earth, or society. We have to be part of the solution, not the problem.
At Sambazon, we take the greatest pride in knowing we do all we can to positively benefit everyone and everything our company touches — from the farmers harvesting our açaí, to the people who drink it, and our planet. Sambazon currently supports more than 10,000 family farmers in Brazil and protects over two million acres of Amazon rainforest through our Fair Trade- and Organic-certified project.
Brazil & US Biz: How do you personally make sure that Sambazon’s supply chain safeguards Brazil’s natural resources?
Black: Being fortunate enough to work with one of Brazil’s great natural resources, the Amazon rainforest, comes with its share of responsibilities — not only for Brazilians, but also for the entire globe. In the case of açai, the base of the supply chain is made up of tens of thousands of indigenous people with local knowledge about the forest and the people, plants, and animals that live within it. So, the first thing we do is listen. We partner with forest cooperatives, NGOs, and academics to learn and make sure that our work is sustainable.
Additionally, we work with experts outside of the forest to implement best practices. These include agro-forestry and sustainable agriculture techniques, organic systems plans, fair trade practices, and technical assistance training for our partners, our team, and the local community.
Brazil & US Biz: What were the challenges of building a brand that respects Brazil’s cultural heritage without co-opting it?
Black: Brazil has so many amazing riches, from the beauty of its people and culture to the beauty of its natural resources and habitat. Brazilians have an amazing zest for life, and, I believe, also have a deep respect for the environment. Brazil is the main producer of açai in the world, and doing business here commands that we respect the origin, the people, the fauna and forest, and the reputation and perception of Brazil across the world. We never wanted to jeopardize the healthy link we have with the source of Sambazon’s key raw material, and we aim to celebrate this richness in what we do.
Brazil & US Biz: Do you think Sambazon’s example will lead major food producers into more transparent, vertically aligned processes?
Black: I hope so, but I don’t think that people or companies will change until their customers demand it. Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, used to say, “Next time you go to the cash register, demand more Change”. If you don’t like artificial ingredients in your food, stop buying them; buy certified organic. If you don’t like unfair practices being used to make your clothes, buy fair-trade certified [clothing]. Businesses will only continue to buy products that people continue to buy. I do believe that Sambazon is influencing the next generation of entrepreneurs who want to build triple-bottom line businesses and make a difference.
Brazil & US Biz: What’s the next superfood you’re planning to expand into?
Black: There are so many amazing fruits in Brazil…From cacau to cupuaçu to acerola [and] yerba mate, the list goes on. For now, we will continue to keep our focus on açai!
Brazil & US Biz: As an American, what have you learned from working with Brazilians? Do cultural differences help in any way?
Black: Personally, I have learned that Brazilians are very passionate people and have a great heart. They are always willing to be friendly and welcome you into their home or place of work. I have also learned that in business — because Brazilians want to please people and not miss any opportunities — they have a hard time saying no, which I guess is similar to many cultures. They say that in soccer, where no doubt Brazilians are possibly the best in the world, that Brazilians kick with both feet. I think this is true in business as well, and you’d better be ready for it if you plan to play on their turf.
Brazil & US Biz: What is your advice for American entrepreneurs who want to do business with Brazil?
Black: My advice would be to spend some time there, learning about the culture and the people and the language, I guess like doing business in any foreign country for an American. Things move at a different pace, to a different rhythm, which is not bad — just different. Brazilians can be very loyal and hardworking, and they have very good instincts. Our business would not be even close to where it is today without our key Brazilian advisors, employees, and partners. If you want to be successful in Brazil, you need to tap into that talent.
Claudia Repsold is the Editor-in-Chief of Brazil & USA Biz. She is a Brazilian international award-winning journalist with twenty years of experience in editing, research, coordination, production and reporting news on Brazil and U.S.