There are 300,000 edible plant species but in 2018, just four crops made up half of global production, and three — rice, maize, and wheat — accounted for 86% of all exports.
Christoph Langwallner, co-founder and CEO of WhatIF Foods, wants to change that. His startup is on a mission to diversify the food system with an environmentally-friendly crop that Langwallner says can restore degraded land, cut water consumption, improve our diet and increase food security: the Bambara groundnut.
Hardy and drought-resistant, the Bambara groundnut is a type of legume — the same food family as peanuts, peas, and beans — that originates from West Africa, but is now cultivated across the continent and in Asia.
As a legume, it enriches the soil with nitrogen, which helps to fertilize other crops. It’s also a “complete food” that’s high in protein, carbohydrates, and fiber, providing essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. A traditional ingredient in indigenous African cuisine, the crop has largely been traded and consumed locally – until now.
WhatIF Foods, based in Singapore, processes the 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 the Bambara groundnut part of the system.”
Langwallner, who has worked with food tech firms in the past, says he saw an opportunity to introduce the unfamiliar groundnut through a familiar product: instant noodles. In 2020, more than 116 billion portions of the fast food were consumed.
WhatIF launched its noodles in Singapore in 2020, replacing the deep frying process used in conventional instant noodle production with a healthier method similar to air frying.
This proprietary technique reduces the fat content of WhatIF’s 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 up to $2.50 per portion, WhatIF’s noodles are more expensive than products from industry stalwarts like Nissin and Indomie — but Langwallner is betting on a willingness from eco-conscious consumers, particularly the millennial and Gen-Z market, to pay more for a sustainable product.
Despite being highly nutritious and good for the soil, Bambara groundnuts are grown on a very small scale: annual production in Africa is reported to be just 0.3 million tons — a negligible amount compared to 776.6 million metric tons of wheat produced globally last year.
That’s because the Bambara groundnut is not grown as a primary crop says Victoria Jideani, a food science professor at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa. Farmers grow it to help fertilize the soil, and the resulting produce is eaten and sold locally, she says.
But creating an international market for the crop could provide new incentives for farmers — and bolster food security for future generations as climate change threatens the production of certain crops, says Jideani.
According to the United Nations, 23 hectares of arable land are lost to drought and desertification every minute, and studies have found that aridity affects 40% of agricultural soil. Many areas of arable lands, where mainstay crops like maize have grown previously, are “no longer thriving” says Jideani. It’s a major problem in Africa, where up to 65% of cropland is degraded.
But the Bambara groundnut is drought-tolerant and able to grow in poor soil in semi-arid regions while replenishing degraded land, offering an alternative crop that could help restore this land, says Jideani.
Companies like WhatIF could create global demand for this “underutilized” crop, says Jideani. “The interaction we have had with (the farmers) indicates that they are looking for a market,” she says.
And Langwaller is not alone in exploring the crop’s potential: Jideani and her team are experimenting with Bambara groundnut-based products including crackers, cakes and tofu.
Jideani says she would like to see governments incentivize Bambara groundnut production. “Any crop that presents itself as a solution for the future should be grabbed with two hands,” she says.
“A totally different approach”
So far, Langwallner and co-founder Peter Cheetham, a biochemical engineer, have put in 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 scale.
The company is working towards iwts first milestone: sourcing 1,000 metric tons of Bambara groundnuts from West Africa, which Langwallner says would restore up to 1,000 hectares of land, by the end of 2023. It is working directly with 1,600 farmers in Ghana, and building relationships with farmers in Nigeria and Malaysia, as it prepares for future expansion. Langwallner declined to share the sales numbers with CNN Business.
WhatIF’s products are made in its factories in Malaysia and Australia, and sold in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. This month, they are being rolled out in the US in online stores. The company is also working through regulatory approval in the EU, which it expects to complete later this year.
In the future, WhatIF wants to “localize production” by building factories closer to its supply of groundnuts, or closer to consumers, says Langwallner. And the company is expanding its product range. It recently launched BamNut milk, and is exploring development of other plant-based dairy products such as yogurt and cheese.
By taking a “totally different approach,” Langwallner hopes that Bambara groundnuts will help farmers around the world revitalize degraded lands, and diversify our nutrition for a more secure future.