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

12 min read

08 March 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Do you know what effect your almond-milk latte has on the planet? Well, you might think you've made an ethical choice, but you'd be wrong. 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 changes. From climate change to changes in popular lifestyle choices and even changes in the way that business is done, these shifts will force us to permanently change the way we live and work. So shouldn’t we all be adjusting to these changes instead of burying our heads in the sand?

Well, there is at least 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, through his business, is economically empowering smallholders in rural Peru through his business model, who cultivate native forms of quinoa using traditional (and climate-friendly) agrarian methods for his ‘Milq’ products, (including a very delicious cow-free chocolate milk made with rich Cacao).

As Peru remains one of the few places in the world where native quinoa can be grown, will Wankel stimulate a business revolution in the South American country? Let’s find out more…

Where did the idea for producing plant based dairy alternatives come from?

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.

However, the main project I was working on was to secure quinoa biodiversity and make it an incentive for farmers to plant it for commercial purposes.

Whilst immersing myself in the process of protein rich quinoa cultivation and  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.

Why did you focus on the rural Peruvian economy?

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.

I have always believed in social entrepreneurship and its potential to create sustainable sources of income for communities.

The Indian community are 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.

Social enterprise can play a very important role in Peru. Right now, they’re neglectful towards small holding farmers, the state backs extractive projects like oil, and support the rise of big monocultures on the coast that leaves Indian communities behind. I’m looking to turn that narrative on its head through Kai Pacha Foods.

When critics say that smallholder agriculture can’t be scalable, it’s simply not true. What we’re doing with native quinoa and the smallholders that cultivate it can be impactful because more than half the world’s quinoa comes from Peru.

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.

You see Kai Pacha Foods as a social and commercial enterprise, what do you understand your central mission to be?

Social enterprises must have theories of change embedded in their company rhetoric. The idea is to create not just one, but a series of other positive impacts in the world. It’s like a ripple effect.

Central to mine is promoting greater bio-diversity in our food system. Planet smart sources of plant protein that support regenerative agriculture are what Kai Pacha Foods is all about.

Your company sources “rare and endangered native quinoa”, are there any ethical concerns where that’s concerned?

There’s a lot of talk about ethical concerns when extracting resources from rural communities. But where quinoa is concerned, it’s not an issue. There’s a misrepresentation that quinoa is a staple foodstuff for Peruvians, it isn’t anymore.

We’re not taking away Quinoa from Peruvians, instead, we’re tapping into the potential of a climate-friendly and commercially lucrative product that’s largely been forgotten about in mainstream Peru.

The quinoa we’re currently using is native quinoa and not the standard commercial variety. However, even if we make a slight movement to sourcing the commercial stuff, we would still ensure that it’s cultivated using the same ethical, and regenerative agricultural systems by rural farmers using ancestral techniques.

Are we aware of the impact that so-called ‘healthy’ and ‘ethical’ foodstuffs can have on the environment?

No, I don’t think we’re aware enough. If you look at Indian grains, they can grow with very little water. Therefore the grains that are grown and cultivated by smallholders have very little negative impact on the environment.

If you look at almonds, however, they consume as much as thirty times more water than Indian grains which can also grow in hostile environments. Suddenly, this makes the marketing of almond milk products less environmentally friendly, doesn’t it?

On the topic of Indian grains, are you open to working with other foodstuffs beyond quinoa?

Yes, we’re all about being expansive and experimental. For example, there’s another grain that’s native to Peru called Tarwi. It’s higher in protein than quinoa by up to 65%. It grows the same in the same places under the same conditions and can make the same types of plant milk products.

Tarwi also does wonders for the ecosystem, it puts nitrogen back into the soil which improves soil quality over time and makes it more resilient to climate change. This could the whole climate change discussion to another place, instead of talking about reactive measures, we’re talking about proactive ones.

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

There is always more than one way to fund a company. In fact, I think social enterprises have more options for gaining funding because of the very nature of their business.

You don’t have to be stuck with the traditional VC model, for early-stage social enterprises there is grant funding and sourcing smaller investments from a larger number of people rather than relying on one.

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.

Is there any chance that the alternative-to-dairy market will ever slow down? Is it simply another consumer trend?

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. We are all seeing more and more evidence of global warming which is affecting our day-to-day lives.

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.

There are some initiatives out there towards creating environmental and social accounting standards in addition to financial reporting for businesses. I hope this becomes the norm one day.

However, this isn’t likely to happen soon. Although I think it would be morally correct if big companies reported on their environmental impact…