This California company’s Brazilian partnership is more fruitful than ever. sambazon acai
By: Lianna Patch
Photos: Sambazon Courtesy
When brothers Ryan and Jeremy Black, with friend Edmund Nichols, started a business in 2000, they just wanted to share the nutrition and taste of the Amazon rainforest’s açai palm berry with consumers outside of Brazil.
But the founders quickly realized that working with multiple middlemen to harvest, process, and ship açai puree wouldn’t affect merely their own bottom line. Without a sustainable foundation, the business might carry the risk of damaging the rainforest ecosystem and affecting the Amazon’s indigenous communities — some of which have relied on açai as a major food source for years.
So Nichols and the Black brothers decided to take over their own supply chain. They named their company Sambazon, standing for “Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon”. By ensuring that its açai supply is sustainably produced, Sambazon bolsters the Amazon rainforest’s biodiversity and indigenous communities, rather than depleting them.
“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,” Ryan Black says. “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.” Along with its original açai puree, the company now produces organic açai juices, frozen products, supplements, and açai energy drinks.
The California-based company vertically integrated its suppliers and certified its supply as organic and fair-trade. It also built a factory in Amapa, Brazil that now buys açai berries from over 10,000 independent family growers, and employs about 150 people, half in Brazil, according to The Guardian. “The goal of business should not just be to make profit, but to serve the community and the common good — i.e., social responsibility,” Black says. “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 be part of the solution, not the problem.”
Along with supporting family farmers, Sambazon works with experts to ensure that the company has as little environmental impact as possible on the Para and Amapa regions of the Amazon, where its supply chain is based. “We partner with forest cooperatives, NGOs, and academics to learn and make sure that our work is sustainable,” Black says. “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.” Seeds from harvested fruit are burned as fuel in Sambazon’s Amapa factory and in a neighboring brick factory, reducing the need for rainforest wood use.
Toeing the Triple Bottom Line
Forming a partnership with locals was a gratifying experience for the Blacks — and a successful navigation of the inevitable cries of “Colonialism!” that can come with U.S. businesses’ involvement with other countries’ natural resources. “Personally, I have learned that Brazilians are very passionate people and have a great heart,” Black says. “They are always willing to be friendly and welcome you into their home or place of work … 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.”
He notes, however, that Brazilians’ enthusiasm sometimes translates to difficulty expressing opposition: “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.”
Black says he’s a proponent of change at the individual level. “If you don’t like artificial ingredients in your food, stop buying them; buy certified organic,” he says. “If you don’t like unfair practices being used to make your clothes, buy fair-trade certified [clothing].” His goal is not to promote elitism, which can sometimes be associated with the higher cost of organic foods and fair-trade clothes, but to inspire and support consumer choice.
Sambazon has demonstrated that running a business can be sustainable as well as profitable. It counts itself among a growing number of “triple-bottom-line” businesses that measure success economically, socially, and environmentally. “I do believe that Sambazon is influencing the next generation of entrepreneurs who want to build triple-bottom-line businesses and make a difference,” Black says.
In March, the company introduced its line of Sambazon 100 açai-based juices, which contain 100 calories or fewer per bottle and less sugar than other premium juices. Though the Amazon offers a multitude of “superfoods,” Sambazon will stick with açai. “There are so many amazing fruits in Brazil,” Black says. “From cacau to cupuaçu to acerola [and] yerba mate, the list goes on. For now, we will continue to keep our focus on açai!”
* Editor’s note: This piece has been modified from its original published version to reflect additional comments by Ryan Black, CEO of Sambazon
Lianna Patch is a writer and editor from New Orleans, LA, whose portfolio spans copywriting, cultural publications, and literary journals.
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