Not many people walk around an orphanage in Africa and say, “Hey, that kid would be a great factory worker some day!”
But not many people go nuts – literally. Four years ago I was a high-flying executive, but then I sold it all and moved to Mozambique. I had worked at a number of food companies, including Hershey’s Chocolate.
It was through a cocoa purchasing trip that I made my first visit to Africa. While surveying cocoa yields in Ghana I was confronted with striking poverty. Children were walking miles for water, living in huts, and unable to attend school. Amidst what seems like unresolvable poverty, there seemed to be tremendous agricultural potential.
A few years later in Tanzania I was asked by the government to come help them. I did it for free. The fields and local markets of the villages were full of fresh produce, but only in season. Consultants were advising the government to export fresh produce to Europe, but I examined the situation and thought the crops would surely spoil in transport. I believed that African agricultural potential would best be achieved through food preservation.
Realizing we could help, the entire Larson family sold it all and moved to Mozambique, the former world leader in cashew production. We purchased a building and renovated it to world-class standards to become the factory for Sunshine Nut Company. We hired 30 young men and women, the majority of whom grew up as orphans or vulnerable children.
By locating near the orchards we are able to go from “tree to pouch” in a very short time. This results in an incredibly fresh cashew. Many cashews go through middlemen and warehouses and can take up to two years to make it to market. We are redefining the way a fresh cashew should taste.
A former Porsche-driving suburbanite, I now drive a beat up 90s minivan, fondly named “The Love Van”, through the bush of Africa – often to survey potential expansion sites.
On our last trip to one of the growing regions we met with some supportive leaders of the Mozambican government. They asked us how much land we needed, as if there was no limit to what we could ask for. When I told them we just need an acre or two for each factory, they were a bit stunned. We want to work with the farmers, not work them off their land.
Our big plans are mini-sized. In an era when multinationals are coming in and parceling up land for big plantations which dislocate villages, Sunshine Nut Company is pursuing a different approach.
The plan is to build many mini-factories where no one else would. By locating in rural areas we can bring opportunity right to the poorest growing regions. Every mini-factory will have a community room where we can offer medical care and microfinance, educate growers on best practices, deliver educational support for local teachers, and provide other hand-ups which promote growth from within.
In 1975 Mozambique was the world leader in cashew production. Upon gaining independence, a civil war started, investors pulled out, and World Bank policies decimated the industry. The country slipped to the third-poorest in the world. The annual cash income for a rural farming family is as low as $31 per year. In a nation where 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers, cashews can provide opportunity.
Each cashew requires hand shelling and peeling. It is a labor-intensive project which can bring employment to thousands, if done in-country. With 50 employees at our roasting plant, we employ about 1000 people to shell and peel, and provide fair pricing to 50,000 smallholder farmers.
On a typical day, I head off to the factory while my wife Terri, a former schoolteacher, goes to the children’s centers that the company supports. She is the Director of Social Impact for the company and oversees the raising and dispensing of funds for the 501(c)(3) Sunshine Approach Foundation. But at the centers, she is simply Mama Terri – stopping here and there to kiss a forehead or hold a little one.
Sunshine Nut Company aims to give back 90 percent of the distributed profits – 30 percent to the cashew growing communities, 30 percent to orphan care centers, and 30 percent to create new transformational food companies. Already the company has planted 2,000 cashew trees as gestures of kindness and formed many partnerships with children’s centers. We paired orphans with a widow, and they are now living together as a family, in what they are calling their first Sunshine House. We plan to replicate this family living opportunity for more orphaned children.
I drew inspiration from Milton Hershey, the philanthropist and founder of Hershey’s, my former employer. Outside the Milton Hershey School – a boarding school for orphans – there is a quote: “If we had helped a hundred children it would have all been worthwhile”. One of the hundreds of children the school helped is my father in-law, a 1955 graduate.
We don’t want you to buy our product out of pity for the poor and orphaned in Africa. We want you to buy our product because it is a quality product, sold at a fair price, that you enjoy eating. We don’t want to just compete, we want to win. Our supporters are hardcore. We launched in the US last October and have since landed retailers like Stop & Shop, Giant, Whole Foods, Martin’s, and a number of natural foods stores from coast to coast. We want to be the leading cashew brand – synonymous with hope, opportunity, and transformation.
As for the kids at the orphanage being future factory workers – that’s a serious goal that will transform their lives for the better. But only one that is made possible by fans and supporters.
Here’s my recent TEDx talk about our work in Africa: