About five years ago, Darin Olien, a self-professed superfood hunter, was checking out varieties of palm fruit in the Brazilian Amazon. That’s when he first heard about a highly nutritious nut that grows in a vast, neighboring region, known as the Cerrado.
He was intrigued by the research sent to him by a Brazilian named Rodrigo Figueiredo, who was working to export the nut, which grows on the drought-resistant Baruzeiro tree that is native to the region.
When Olien tasted the slender, brown-skinned nut for the first time, he was blown away by its flavor–a cross between a peanut and an almond. After sending the nut to a lab for analysis, he confirmed that it was a powerhouse of protein, fiber, micronutrients and antioxidants, with less fat and calories than many popular nuts.
“The first entrepreneurial lightbulb that went off is that there is no barrier to an American palate eating this thing,” Olien says. “This nutrient-dense nut was that tasty.”
“I quickly put on my superfood hunting hat,” says Olien. When he traveled to the Cerrado, he was overcome by the devastation he saw. “This savanna is being destroyed. I shed tears over seeing it.”
Olin teamed up with Figueiredo and two other partners, Seth Tuckerman and Justin Tanner, to found a for-profit social enterprise that aims to commercialize the supernut–which they have trademarked as Barùkas and also call the baru nut. (It is known by a variety of names in different languages throughout the region.) The cofounders dream of reforesting the the savanna with Baruzeiro trees, restoring the ecosystem of the Cerrado and creating a source of livelihood for the local populations that gather the nut.
The Cerrado, whose forests, grasslands and savannas cover a fifth of Brazil, is far less familiar to outsiders than the fire-ravaged Amazon. But the region is experiencing deforestation at an even more alarming rate–some 50% of the land has already been cleared for cattle, soybean and corn.
The Cerrado is also the world’s most biodiverse region, home to more than 1,600 species of birds, reptiles and mammals, including the jaguar and the critically endangered Spix’s Macaw, according to the World Wildlife Fund. About half of its 10,000 plant species are found nowhere else in the world. And from a climate change perspective, the Cerrado is important, as well. Its deep-rooted trees may sequester about 118 tons of carbon per acre in what amounts to a vast underground forest. The environmental group calls the Cerrado “one of the most threatened and over-exploited regions in Brazil.”
The economic and political forces encouraging massive deforestation aren’t easy to stop. But a measure of resolve and business-minded thinking can make a difference in restoring this vital ecosystem and helping to slow climate change.
Barùkas, is funded by a charitable trust set up by Tuckerman, a retired serial entrepreneur who had previously worked with Olien to develop a superfood protein shake. (He and his wife poured all of the proceeds from the $100 million sale of his most recent venture, a nutritional weight loss program, into the charity, he says.)
Barùkas pledges to plant one new Baruzeiro tree in the wild for every five pounds of nuts it sells. Its longterm goal is to plant 20 million Baruzeiro trees in the next five to 10 years to restore the Cerrado’s natural landscape.
Carlsbad, Calif.-based Barùkas is led by CEO Figueiredo. It currently sells both nuts and a trail mix that includes the tree’s fruit, which is naturally dry and leathery and is toasted in strips.
At present, all of the Barùkas nuts are collected from wild trees by the villagers in the Cerrado, but in ten years–the time it takes for the trees to mature–the cofounders hope to be collecting from the new cultivated trees.
Presently, Barùkas sells its products online via its own website and Amazon.com, as well as at natural food retailers including Erewhon, Jim’s and Juice Crafters. Given the somewhat limited supply of nuts until the new trees mature, they’re focusing on building up a few strong partnerships. Tuckerman says they’d like to find a major coffee chain to sell their nuts in snack-sized packs.
So, what do Barukas nuts taste like? To put it simply, they are delicious. My family taste testers were equally enamored of the strange new nut, which is smooth on the tongue and a bit harder and crunchier than an almond. In the future, Tuckerman says they hope to introduce a Barùkas nut butter, nut milk and other products.
The company’s goal, for now, is to show the nut is commercially viable as an export product, Tuckerman tells me. “We have a large very expensive infrastructure to have local villagers go into the forest and collect the fruit from the ground.”
The villagers must agree to rules, such as not shaking the trees, and leaving at least a third of the nuts on the ground, so they can seed new Baruzeiro trees. They are paid a fair wage for their labor.
“We’re just minding our business trying to do right by these communities,” Tuckerman says.
The cofounders have been working with local universities to find the best varieties of the Baruzeiro tree to plant. They are also encouraging local cattle ranchers to plant the trees on their property, thereby providing shade to their cattle and encouraging the growth of grasses they need for grazing. (The Baruzeiro tree is a nitrogen fixer, providing fertilizer for itself and the surrounding vegetation.) The company signs a contract with the rangers, promising to buy the fruit and nuts from the trees they plant.
“We can’t create more demand than there is supply for the next 10 years,” Tuckerman says. There are some one million Baruzeiro trees spread out around the Cerrado, but finding them all is a challenge.
It’s clear the founders aren’t hoping to get rich on this business, but they do help it will eventually be self-sustaining, and more important, that it will make a difference in the Cerrado’s ecosystem– and the well-being of its inhabitants. It remains for now a highly idealistic venture, one that requires a long view and an enduring sense of mission.
The unfamiliar baru nut, which was once part of indigenous diets, has to be marketed effectively and production has to be standardized to meet health regulations. The company has already started to sell the nuts in São Paolo and Brazilia, in addition to in the U.S.
“Even in Brazil, very few people have heard of it,” says Olien. “The price of the nut was so expensive, it was a novelty. Now we are creating an economy. Barùkas is back in Brazil.”