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The Economic Case for Loving This Spiky, Tropical Fruit

by Mark Hay

March 23, 2015
Original image by Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons

A while back, I first wrote about the spiky, green football that is the breadfruit. It was perhaps the most enthusiastic endorsement of a piece of fruit I’ll ever pen in my life. Several groups had been promoting the low-maintenance, bountiful, and nutritious produce as a partial solution to hunger in the world’s poor, rural, and growing tropics. Unfortunately, breadfruit carried a reputation for blandness, and getting new groups to adopt it had been a challenge. But that initial blandness also makes breadfruit an excellent blank slate as it can be adapted into a variety of different foods. I suggested that once the fruit’s modern culinary potential had been further explored, some organizations would start to work beyond breadfruit’s basic ability to feed the hungry. By finding new ways to preserve, package, and sell this fertile, yet highly perishable produce, an emerging breadfruit industry could create new jobs and businesses around the world. 

At the time, it seemed that the move from breadfruit’s role in hunger alleviation to fruit-as-development aid would take years. But I am happy to report that the future is now, and it is in the Caribbean.

Fried Breadfruit. Photo by SajjadF via Wikimedia Commons

Since its founding in 2008, the Trees That Feed Foundation has worked with communities in Haiti and Jamaica to promote the use of breadfruit trees and provide extra income to farmers selling excess produce. (They’ve been helped along by the fact that Jamaica especially has a long history of breadfruit consumption) As of October 2014, they planted their 50,000th breadfruit tree at a school in St. Michel de l’Attalaye, Haiti. But rather than just plant more trees, the TTFF want to start pooling and monetizing excess breadfruit. They distribute home processing kits, and organize small farmers into preserved breadfruit manufacturing and sales blocks to push their wares.

The TTFF isn’t the first group to jumpstart local economies by leveraging pre-existing agricultural excess. For example, an This American Life episode based in Haiti discussed all the logistical problems donors and entrepreneurs encountered when trying to help locals preserve and market their mangoes. So to figure out what makes breadfruit and the TTFF so special, I caught up with Mike McLaughlin, co-founder of the TTFF, to hear about the economic potential of breadfruit.

How can breadfruit create new markets and industries in small, poor, and often rural communities of farmers?

In peak bearing season, there’s a glut [of breadfruit] that can’t be preserved. But you have products that can be sold all year [like flour made of dried, ground breadfruit]. So we’re trying to get small groups, whether farmers, co-ops, or small commercial enterprises [started in these businesses]. We want them to be profitable.

How do you make it possible for these communities to produce such value-added products?

Breadfruit has a lot of moisture, so it’s got to be dried. [Our supply kits include] a peeler to take the skin off the breadfruit…there’s peeler equipment that works like an apple or an orange peeler—just larger for breadfruit. The second [item] is just sharp, quality knives to cut the breadfruit into chunks. Then the breadfruit goes into a shredder…The next stage is drying. We provide sheets or plastic mesh containers that can be used to hold the shredded breadfruit. The next stage is grinding into flour. We found an inexpensive commercial mill for less than $300 that has a big capacity and can produce breadfruit flour. We also provide food-safe packaging…and labels, gloves, and a scale so they can weigh their flour accurately. We put all that together and call it ‘Factory in a Box,’ although in reality it might take two or three boxes to ship it. But that’s what we call it.

We [have distributed these boxes to] two groups, one group in Haiti and one in Jamaica. They’re very successful. They’re producing several hundred pounds of breadfruit flour per month. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s incredibly huge compared to what was happening before, which was tiny bits of [flour] production from artisans here and there.

Photo by Kanu Hawaii via Flickr

So who’s buying the flour, and how is it getting to them?

There were a lot of logistical challenges. We’ve tackled them one at a time.

In Haiti, we’ve challenged the local entrepreneurs to get their flour into Port-au-Prince, and then we have volunteers who distribute it to 10 places. There are several schools, orphanages, and a couple of hospitals that are getting breadfruit flour. We’re paying for the flour initially to stimulate the market. But we know that the demand is there. The recipients of the breadfruit flour are very happy to have it, and the logistics of transportation, which we thought would be next to impossible, have been addressed.

Jamaica is further along in the development of a market chain. We’re helping them to get samples of flour into many different restaurants and hotels and bakeries. We’ve shipped nine or 10 tons of breadfruit flour to two major hotels on the north coast. We know a couple of chefs there—one reference leads to another. I am much more confident than I was even six months ago that restaurants and hotels will pick this up. We encourage the producers to make sure that they produce a high quality, consistently steady supply that is well packaged, and build a track record that they can do this over a period of a year or two. Then they’ll be ready for bigger markets.

How will Haiti establish a market if you’re buying their flour?

It’s partly happening already. We told them that to get them going we would buy 200 pounds of flour every month for two years. But they started billing us for 300 pounds a month, 600 pounds a month. So last December we said, ‘Guys, we love you, but we can’t buy this much flour. You’re going to have to find other customers.’ And they have found enough other groups that are…buying their flour now. The next stage would be to sell it at a market price. We actually put them in touch with a bakery that wants to produce…think Cheetos made from breadfruit. There’s a guy in the U.K. who will buy a large quantity and repackage it, turning it into a premade cake mix where you just add milk to produce a pancake or some other food in your home.

So we see great potential, but we acknowledge the logistical difficulties. The way we’re trying to acknowledge these difficulties is not to build a factory that can produce a railroad boxcar full of flour on the first day. We’re going in stages. We did research in our kitchen. We got a group of three or four women to do research for us…and we’re [slowly] scaling up so if we make a mistake, we can correct it while the scale is small.

In the early days, for example, while we produced breadfruit flour, it had a fairly strong aroma. I did not find it personally objectionable, but if you’re used to wheat flour that has no odor at all, you would say, ‘Oh this smells a little fruity or grassy.’ So there was…more potential for people to reject breadfruit flour. Now we know when to pick the breadfruit, how quickly to dry it, how to process it, how to package it, so that now the flour has next to no aroma. It has a breadfruit flavor, which is what we want. But it’s a perfect example of how by ramping up and not going full speed the first day we found a problem and were able to fix it with a little help from our friends. And that’s one of the things we’re doing differently from what’s been done before.

A breadfruit among its friends. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr

How transformative will the new breadfruit-producing market be in these communities?

It will be significant. What we’re telling producers to do is not to plant breadfruit trees everywhere, but…to network throughout their local community with everybody that can plant or has a few breadfruit trees and then have those people deliver the fruit to them. It’s a good model that has an impact throughout the community. If you’re a poor, small farm owner with half a dozen breadfruit trees and a few hundred fruit to sell, that’s going to be a few hundred dollars. And if a local, small farmer in Jamaica makes a few hundred extra dollars in a month, that’s going to be huge. If you take that multiplied by however many small farmers there are in the area, that’s going to have a significant impact on the community.

Commercial processors, they can do well. They’ll be higher in staff. The trucks and transportation have to be paid for. There are materials to be bought—plastic and labels. So there’s absolutely a ripple effect.

There is price sensitivity though. Wheat flour is cheap. It’s produced by large, efficient companies in North America. But it’s not a local food, so breadfruit will probably substitute for part of that.

You work with other fruit-bearing trees, right? Couldn’t you do this kind of industry building with other fruits or nuts? If not, why is breadfruit special?

Correct. So mangoes, or guava, or figs, or even meringue—we don’t see quite the same potential with them. Well, mangoes we see quite a big potential. We are introducing a number of new mangoes that we think are well adapted to Jamaica and encouraging commercial groups to plant in large quantities with the idea of producing mango juice—a very valued commodity. It’s a component of not just mango juice, but lots of other fruit juices for its high nutrition content.

And in Haiti we’re giving them cashew trees. There’s a decently sized cashew industry in Haiti already. [They] grow in some places that breadfruit won’t, so we’re happy to have diversity.

But [with these other fruits] the economics would change drastically depending on scale… So mangoes, if someone is working in their kitchen to create mango juice, we can’t extrapolate the time and motion to something that’s commercially successful…with breadfruit, the economics don’t change that drastically based on scale. The basic steps that we have to go through—the shredding, drying, grinding, packaging—it’s really the same at the small and large scale.

Well, here’s to the success of small breadfruit producers!  

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The Economic Case for Loving This Spiky, Tropical Fruit