Christoph Langwallner, co-founder and CEO of What if food, wants to change that. His startup is on a mission to diversify the food system with an eco-friendly crop that Langwallner says can restore degraded land, reduce water consumption, improve our diets and increase food security: the Bambara groundnut.
Hardy and drought-resistant, the bambara peanut is a type of legume – the same food family as peanuts, peas and beans – native to West Africa, but now grown across the continent and in Asia.
As a legume, it enriches the soil with nitrogen, which helps fertilize other crops. It is also a “complete food» which is high in protein, carbohydrates and fibre, providing essential amino acids, minerals and vitamins. A traditional ingredient in indigenous African cuisine, the harvest has been widely marketed and consumed locally – until now.
Singapore-based WhatIf Foods processes Bambara groundnut into its signature “BamNut” flour which it uses in instant noodles, soups and shakes. Langwallner hopes to create a new market for the crop and “make Bambara groundnut part of the system”.
Langwallner, who has worked with food tech companies in the past, says he saw an opportunity to introduce the unfamiliar peanut through a familiar product: instant noodles. In 2020, more than 116 billion servings of fast food were consumed.
WhatIf launched its noodles in Singapore in 2020, replacing the frying process used in the production of conventional instant noodles with a healthier method similar to air frying.
This proprietary technique reduces the fat content of WhatIf noodles and avoids the use of palm oil, an ingredient linked to deforestation and soil and water pollution, says Langwallner. The noodles also contain more fiber and protein than conventional wheat-based instant noodles.
Priced at $2.50 per serving, WhatIf’s noodles are more expensive than products from industry stalwarts like Nissin and Indomie – but Langwallner is betting on the will of environmentally conscious consumersespecially the millennial and Gen Z market, to pay more for a sustainable product.
Although it is very nutritious and good for the soil, the bambara bean is cultivated on a very small scale: the annual production in Africa would be hardly 0.3 million tons — a negligible amount compared to 776.6 million metric tons of wheat produced in the world last year.
This is because the bambara groundnut is not grown as a primary crop, says Victoria Jideani, professor of food science at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa. Farmers grow it to help fertilize the soil, and the resulting products are eaten and sold locally, she says.
But creating an international market for the harvest could provide new incentives for farmers – and bolster food security for future generations as climate change threatens production of some cropssaid Jideani.
According to the UN23 hectares of arable land are lost every minute due to drought and desertification, and studies found that aridity affects 40% of agricultural soils. Many areas of arable land, where staple crops like maize used to grow, “no longer thrive”, says Jideani. It’s a major problem in Africawhere up to 65% of cultivated land is degraded.
But the Bambara groundnut is drought resistant and able to grow in poor soils in semi-arid regions while replenishing degraded lands, providing an alternative crop that could help restore those lands, says Jideani.
Companies like WhatIf could create global demand for this “underutilized” culture, says Jideani. “The interaction we had with (the farmers) indicates that they are looking for a market,” she says.
And Langwaller is not alone in exploring the potential of culture: Jideani and her team are experimenting with Bambara pea products including crackers, cakes and tofu.
Jideani says she would like to see governments encourage Bambara groundnut production. “Any culture that presents itself as a solution for the future must be seized with both hands,” she says.
So far, Langwallner and co-founder Peter Cheetham, a biochemical engineer, have invested their own money to run the company, as well as raising funds from friends and private investors. Langwallner says they are now looking for institutional investors to help the company grow.
The company is working on its first step: sourcing 1,000 metric tonnes of Bambara groundnuts from West Africa, which Langwallner says would restore up to 1,000 hectares of land by the end of the year. end of 2023. It works directly with 1,600 farmers in Ghana and builds relationships with farmers in Nigeria and Malaysia as it prepares for future expansion. Langwallner declined to share sales numbers with CNN Business.
WhatIf’s products are manufactured in its factories in Malaysia and Australia, and sold in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. This month, they are rolling out in the US to online stores. The company is also working on regulatory approval in the EU, which it expects to obtain later this year.
Going forward, WhatIf wants to “localize production” by building factories closer to its peanut supply, or closer to consumers, says Langwallner. And the company is expanding its product line. He recently launched BamNut milkand explores the development of other plant-based dairy products such as yogurt and cheese.
By taking a “totally different approach”, Langwallner hopes Bambara groundnuts will help farmers around the world revitalize degraded lands and diversify our diets for a safer future.