Interviews

Dairy alternatives advocate Alex Wankel is combating climate change from the ground up

6 min read

08 March 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Kai Pacha Foods founder Alex Wankel is here to tell us about the secret of Peruvian grains, and how they can actually improve our environment, as well as provide us with delicious dairy-free alternatives.

We as a global society are at the forefront of a series of massive shifts. From climate issues to changes in popular lifestyle choices and even in the way that business is done. But there’s one entrepreneur who’s facing these challenges head-on. His name is Alexander Wankel, and he is the Founder and CEO of Kai Pacha Foods, a business that provides milk alternatives products to customers. But that’s not where it stops.

Wankel is economically empowering smallholders in rural Peru through his business model, who cultivate native forms of quinoa using traditional (and climate-friendly) agrarian methods.

Real Business, (RB): Where did the idea for producing plant-based dairy alternatives come from?

AW: I lived in Peru for six years before I moved to the UK to study at university. Back in Peru, I had worked with smallholders already, I was really interested in supporting ethical value chains with small businesses that produced artisan goods. Whilst immersing myself in the process of protein-rich quinoa cultivation I saw how the product had so much potential. It’s actually climate-resilient in the way it’s grown, it needs minimal amounts of water and can grow in pretty harsh conditions.

It’s also exactly the kind of product we need to be producing at a time where due to climate change, weather changes constantly. Also, it reminds us that we should be conscious of how much water is needed to grow foodstuffs. If you’re cultivating a healthy foodstuff but it’s using large amounts of water to do it, the land suffers, and it’s no longer an impactful process or product.

Quinoa has a variety of potential applications for new food products, from milk alternatives to pure protein products.

I could see how the growing market held an almost insatiable value for health and climate-conscious customers. So I starting planning, then I started selling the plant milk in 2017. But at the time it was selling on a small scale, and particularly in farmers market in Lima. I did this because I wanted to get the products out to real consumers, only by doing that could I be sure about the sourcing of the product, and whether I needed to improve or optimise it further.

RB: Why did you focus on the rural Peruvian economy?

AW: My core motivation for starting the business was to empower local producers. I also have a massive appreciation for Indian culture, my mum’s side of the family is Peruvian, so I studied anthropology and moved there to be involved in youth impact projects in the region. The Indian community is critically poor, over half of the rural Indian pop lives in poverty. They’re faced with very unequal access to resources. However they have a wealth of resources close to home, such as native quinoa, that can be used to stimulate both innovation in the community, and their social inclusion with the rest of the country.

The potential for global impact is vast. One day, I hope other smallholders can start to cultivate the grain in other locations. Thinking about water scarcity and climate stress is becoming very important, and quinoa is a plant that can grow despite these tough new conditions.

RB: What are the funding conditions like for social enterprises right now?

AW: Crowdfunding is a great option because you don’t dilute the power of your stake in the business, as you could run the risk of doing with capital investment. For social enterprises, clarity of mission is so important that if you’re going to risk losing that, what does your business stand for and how can you market it going forward? Primarily it’s about being critical of the types of investors you’re courting and not saying yes to everyone.

RB: Is there any chance that the alternative-to-dairy market will ever slow down?

AW: No, I think it is all part of a fundamental shift that the consumer market is experiencing. People are being forced to be aware of the impact that consumer choices, like buying dairy products, have on the environment.  In the near future, we’ll be experiencing increasing frequencies of extreme climatic events. With this in mind, awareness is only going to increase around the dangerous impact of dairy and beef consumption. But it has to become more expensive first to put all consumers off. If environmental costs were factored into the production of these foods, we would see products become more expensive than they currently are. Consumers will then realise that plant-based options are cheaper as well as better for the environment.