Amazon flavors find their way to markets at big Brazilian cities through socio-environmental impact businesses

Bacuri is an Amazonian fruit with a delicate smell of flowers and a white soft pulp. During the 20th century it was the most used Brazilian ingredient for desserts in banquets offered to foreign authorities by Brazilian diplomats. But in 2009, when the forest engineer Hortência Osaqui decided to turn her father’s dream into reality, hoping to transform Bacuri trees in Northwest Pará State, “no one knew it, anymore”. The fruit, sold as an expensive delicacy for exquisite sweets and ice creams, was all but forgotten.  

The story of how her Bacuri Farm was transformed into a successful small agribusiness and of the commercial potential of the exotic Amazon fruits was told by Osaqui during the FIINSA, in Manaus. The panel also included the nutritionist and functional chef, Samila Seki, who is the owner of Samiseki, a small business that produces “farofa”(mix that has toasted cassava flour crumbs as a base).

Osaqui built an agribusiness and created her first artisanal jams, liquors and pulp factory organically certified with a government seal in the Amazon. Using an agroforestry system, her family produces not only bacuri products, but also açaí, buriti, murici and jambo.  Until recently, management of Bacuri was considered impossible.

Her next step is to conquer new markets. In the last few years she has been to national and international fairs. “They say they want the Amazon, but they do not know it or its flavors. They are not used to it,” she says. Her first opportunities were presented by the Family Agricultural Special Secretariat to the Ministry of Agriculture, which has been helping with access to credit for development of gastronomy and local tourism.

“We are in this [business] without losing our identity, which for us is the most important aspect”, stresses Osaqui.  She is proud to have a success story to tell in a market she labels as “a scam” and is keen to explain how it works: “I would call the wholesale market (Ceasa) and they would give me a price and ask me to deliver. But when I would get there and unload, they kept me waiting and waiting to finally pay much less than agreed on a take it or leave it basis. When I arrived there for the second time, I just decided to take my produce back to the farm, but not before telling the buyer that I had an excellent quality produce and deserved a fair trade”. Wholesales forbid farmers to deliver their fruits in sacks for oranges (which let the fruits ‘breath’ and increases their shelf life). She bought those, repackaged and went back to the city. “I was in a traffic light in Belém and was approached by a man who asked me the price for the bacuri. He had a fruit shop and that was my first sale”.

She adds that  many people approached her through the years with a “you don’t have to worry, madam” attitude. “They wanted to buy all my produce, but to use their own labels. I would answer: I do not have  the capacity, the money or your structure. But I will get there on my own”. She now has her own trademark and is proud of being a growing family business.

To collect the fruits, she uses local workers. As the bacuri tree is very tall and can reach up to 40 metres, harvesters pick them up when they fall, for a few months each year. The factory has only a few workers, who are either family or neighbors.

“Amazon fruits are unique and now we are giving them visibility”, celebrates Osaqui. In fact, she is picking up on the effort started at the beginning of the last century by the Rio Branco baron, when he acted as patron of the Brazilian diplomacy being responsible for  negotiating and settlling borders disputes with Bolívia and France (French Guiana). The soft power of the exotic Amazon product has long been recognized, alongside samba and football to Brazil’s brand. In fact, Queen Elizabeth II visited Brazil in 1968, tried the bacuri ice cream and praised it. She was sent boxes of it straight to Buckingham Palace soon after.

Almost 10 years later, the Bacuri Farm has an annual output of 3 tons of bacuri pulp, 800k of cupuaçu, 300 litres of açaí and 300 kilos of buriti, sold in the South and Southeast of the country.  Osaqui is also “flirting” with French and Italian clients. “My preparation was aimed at the international market, but I also want Brazilians to know my products”.

The farm, in the municipality of Augusto Correa, some 230 km from Pará’s capital, Belém, is now a tourist attraction. Most visitors are foreigners interested in understanding sustainable producers and their way of life in the Amazon. Nestled between a river and the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by mangroves and prairies, migrant birds and wildlife, is a plus.  Still, she would like to have more Brazilians as guests and complains that “family agriculture is invisible”, despite the fact that it’s responsible for over 70% of the food that ends up on Brazilian tables.

“We are now working with the local community, showing that we are able to get wonderful quality fruits and this is a possibility for all of us. We take tourists to the community and that make farmers feel important. Our farmers have a very low self-esteem”. Like her now late father, she believes that conquering markets can change the game and take the bacuri economy to a new leven in her region. “The bacuri economy also exists in our municipality and in Pará and is also  invisible,” states Osaqui.

Photo: Divulgação FIINSA
Photo: Divulgação FIINSA
Selling snow to an eskimo

The Executive-Director of the Amazon Center for Entrepreneurship, Raphael Medeiros, jokes that Samila Seki has done something as impossible as selling snow to an eskimo: she has a thriving business in Pará selling ready-made farofa -  a crunchy manioc-based mix that has long been part of the daily essentials, sprinkled over meals in the State.

Seki started by fighting against the perception that the traditional farofa was fattening. It was disappearing from everyday meals and she worked on functional diet recipes. The difficult part was to get the ‘ready to eat’ farofa to the shelves: “To meet all regulations and struggle with the lack of technology were my main barriers,” she recalled. “I had one, then three, then six months sell-by-date. Now I reached eight.” Difficulties also included logistics and acceptance – “the culture of eating farofa is stronger in the North than it is in Sao Paulo” – and even packaging. “The majority of people who work with food in the Amazon do not have local packaging industries to work with. Sustainable packaging is even harder to get hold of”.  

Both experiences show that small family business around Amazon cuisine are difficult to get started, “but not impossible”, says Seki.

Medeiros believes that when the two women managed to enter big cities’ markets, the high quality of their products was their competitive edge: “As our products are more expensive – with production and transport costs - you have to be pretty good to compete in the Southeast. Both ladies proved that this is possible”.