Frenchman Emmanuel Besserve been living in Panama for the past 13 years. He is the co-founder of Oops Vegan, an educational vegan blog and online community, and Quinoa Marketing, a marketing agency for plant-based and sustainable businesses. Given his Latin American expertise, we knew he was the person to speak to about the rise of plant-based foods across the region. In the below interview, we chat to Emmanuel about the most exciting alt protein startups, which countries in the region have the most activity and why, and what regional crops could emerge as the next alt meat ingredient to watch.
Which do you think are some of the most pioneering alt protein brands in the region?
The NotCo company in Chile and Fazenda Futuro in Brazil (also known as Future Farms) are the rising stars of the plant-based ecosystem in Latin America. Both companies are global players and have received tons of investments to fund their growth.
We also see various startups that are focusing on turning local resources into innovative plant-based businesses. We can mention Desserto, for instance. This Mexican company uses one of its country’s national resources, cacti, to produce a high-quality plant-based leather, thorn-free guaranteed! Desserto was the winner of the LVMH Innovation Awards 2020, in which 1275 start-ups from 79 countries participated. The company also won the Green Product Award 2020 in Munich, Germany along with the Prize for sustainability at the Monte Carlo Fashion Week (MCFW) 2020 in Monaco.
Other companies have decided to focus on technology. The Live Green Co is a startup from Chile that uses artificial intelligence (their software is called Chakara) to create plant-based alternatives to animal-derived products. The database includes about 1,000 plants and their properties. It is the only Latin American startup on the ‘CleanTech Global 50 to Watch’ list and was in the ‘Transforma Alimentos Top 10 Food Innovation’ list for 2020.
But what impacts me the most is the numerous local, small businesses that are entering the plant-based field, and there’s no doubt that some of them will stand out in the near future.
What are the main motivations for consumers turning to plant-based across Latin America?
Like anywhere else in the world, consumers are turning to plant-based for 3 reasons: for their health, in order to stop animal-cruelty and to reduce the environmental footprint. Based upon the social interactions that we get from the social media account we manage in the region (Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia), we clearly see that health is the number one driver for the user. Animal welfare comes close in second position. The consumers are super curious and always “hungry” for knowledge about healthy eating habits and dietary recommendations.
Do you have some data to share about what % of consumers are already vegan/vegetarian? Do you foresee these numbers rising?
It is very difficult to find accurate data in the region. We are looking more closely at the search trends and activity on social media networks in order to get a good perspective of the audience growth. Searches for ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’ have clearly more than doubled last year and this pattern is consistent across Latin American countries with slightly higher demand in Southern countries (Chile, Argentina, Brazil). Studies from Chile show that about 4% of the population is vegan and 14% declare themselves ‘vegetarian’. In Argentina, 12% are either vegan or vegetarian. This number goes up to 20% in Mexico. It’s worth mentioning that the consumer is mainly under 30 years old and that a large majority are women. Many vegan businesses are expecting to see the demand rising aggressively this year.
How important is the environment in dietary considerations/choices for Latin American consumers?
What we are seeing from our users’ comments on our digital platforms is that many products that vegans are frequently using are not available everywhere in Latin America. Let’s take nutritional yeast, for instance. This is a product that is often difficult to find and that is considered quite pricey in the Latina American market. Consumers are very curious about the dietary requirements for the vegan diet. We try to provide as many suggestions as possible, but it is true that product availability and price can make access to veganism fairly difficult. This is why we try to focus on educating the users with information on products that are widely available and accessible (vegetables, legumes and grains for instance).
Most of the times, when we mention global brands (Beyond Meat, Follow Your Heart, etc), the feedback we get is that the product is not yet available in their country or is only available in the capital city, but has not entered the food distribution network yet.
What are some of the challenges for the alt protein ecosystem in the region, e.g. hiring talent, government support, consumer budgets?
First of all, the startup / funding ecosystem is not equal in all parts of South America. Some countries are clearly leaders in helping startups grow, such as Chile, for instance. Secondly, it also depends the market size. Countries with large populations, such as Brazil, Mexico, Colombia or Argentina clearly offer a better environment for organic growth and testing products at scale before receiving an investment. This is why we don’t often hear about plant-based startups from Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Panama.
As mentioned before, a lot of meat alternative products are not always available, and their price is clearly an obstacle to accelerating their availability in the market. Having said that, we keep seeing more and more plant-based dairy products or meat-alternative products available in supermarkets, which confirms the rising demand from consumers.
Are there any cell-based or fermentation-based startups in the region that are worth mentioning?
Except from Fazenda and the NotCo, I don’t see a lot of regional players worth mentioning so far. But there are so many plant-based businesses in the region and so many local ingredients to explore that I won’t be surprised to see startups coming into the spotlight in 2021. I would also keep an eye on startups in the field of vegan leather because Latin America is a big producer of plants (pineapple, cactus, mango, seeds) that could be used as raw materials for this industry.
In Asia there is tempeh, tofu, jackfruit and mushrooms that are used as meat alternatives. Are there any Latin American counterparts?
Latin America is the world’s leading producer of quinoa and chia seeds. I would not be surprised to see the next big food innovation use these plants. There are already companies developing quinoa milk products such as Quiny, a brand that is developed in partnership between Bolivian scientists and Swebol Biotech, formerly part of the Swedish success Oatly. The region is also very rich in unique tropical fruits, grains and legumes. This offers a fertile ground for the Latin American foodtech to flourish.
Lead image courtesy of Emmanuel Besserve/Quinoa Marketing.