Amazi Foods was started by Renee Dunn who lived in Uganda conducting her undergrad thesis research where she first came across jackfruit, a common "backyard fruit" grown by many Ugandans.
“I didn’t like it the first time I tried it,” Dunn admits. But as she became accustomed to the distinct flavor, jackfruit started to grow on Dunn to the point where she was craving it but couldn’t find the tropical fruit easily when she returned to the US.
“It’s sort of tangy, sweet, familiar to mango with hints of banana,” Dunn said.
Like a 'grownup Fruit Roll-Up'
Jackfruit as a fresh fruit is still a rare find in most grocery store produce departments. When it can be purchased, it can be intimidating to many US consumers as the tropical fruit in its whole form weighs 10 to 15 lbs and costs (wholesale) roughly 65 cents per lb, according to the August 2019 data from the market intelligence research group Tridge.
Which is why Dunn believes a packaged snack form of jackfruit can expose and familiarize more consumers to the tropical fruit.
Amazi Foods dries the jackfruit into bite-sized pieces and amps up the flavor with the addition of ginger, chile, and lime.
“I like to describe it as a ‘grownup Fruit Roll-Up’,” she said.
“We introduced our jackfruit chews in May 2018 to the market. It was right as jackfruit was sort of starting to become a thing [in the US].”
Dunn added that while many quick-service restaurants were using jackfruit as a meat substitute, the association to meat ended up doing the brand more of a disservice in terms of consumer education.
The jackfruit used as meat substitute is typically a young, green jackfruit that hasn’t yet developed its characteristic flavor, making it a neutral base for seasonings and marinades. It also naturally has a meaty texture that makes it ideal for a meat substitute, Dunn said.
“It can be confusing for people,” said Dunn who added that it will take time for the US market to grow accustomed to jackfruit as a standalone fruit.
“I’m having to educate people that jackfruit is not actually a meat. I often explain to people that the meat replacement jackfruit is the young or green jackfruit, and it doesn’t have much of its flavor or nutrients developed yet,” she said.
Amazi Foods sells 11 SKUs including plantain chips and papaya strips but will be narrowing down its portfolio to highlight its jackfruit products, Dunn said.
"We’ve noticed that our jackfruit has garnered much more inbound interest than our other lines at this point," said Dunn.
Building a stable supply chain
Dunn currently sources, harvests, and processes the jackfruit in Uganda where it has built a local network of farmers.
The company ships the finished product in bulk to the US where it is packaged and distributed to select small, specialty retailers and cafes.“There’s a lot of trust building involved,” Dunn said and she travels back to Uganda a few times a year to touch base with the home base of the company’s supply chain including a local agronomist that has developed a network of 2,000 farmers.
Up until recently, Amazi Foods was working through a contract manufacturer in Uganda but will switch production over to its own facility in the coming months.
Dunn added that there have been other challenges in having a supply chain located thousands of miles away such as factoring in farmer seasonality and import costs.
“Having to predict what our customer base will look like in six months is nearly impossible,” said Dunn.
“What it has led to is becoming more flexible in what our growth path looks like. I think we’re finally starting to hone in on the rhythm of everything and what’s going to allow us to have a predictable growth path and consistent delivery.”
Health is not just a trend but a mindset shift
Despite the extra work it takes to run a business from another continent, Dunn believes Amazi Foods is hitting the packaged snack market just at the right time as consumers want minimal ingredients, ethical supply chain management, and a product with a story.
“I think we’re seeing a big shift in consciousness when it comes to healthy food,” she said.
According to Dunn, there’s a mindset shift occurring where to be considered a “healthy food”, a brand has to not only check all the nutrition boxes but have extra value either in other areas.
“I think in an economy today where the consumer has so many choices, the more depth you can add to your products, the better,” she said.