When Bill Gates called flashy food start-up Hampton Creek the "future of food," he was presumably referring to products such as the company's much-hyped vegan mayonnaise. The mayo, the company argues, shows it's possible to produce plant-based foods Americans love at prices they can afford, without relying on the egg, meat and dairy products that take such a toll on the environment.
But Hampton Creek, recently renamed Just, has far grander ambitions than turning the U.S. food market on its head. This month it's going public with a product it describes as its solution to addressing West African malnutrition.
The product, a fortified cassava porridge dubbed Power Gari, is cheap to produce, popular with consumers and tailored to the exact dietary needs of the market where it's sold, the company says. Just believes its product will increase Africans' intake of key vitamins and minerals by including them in a product that tastes good and is sold at retail in slick branded bags, unlike the fortified foods currently offered by development organizations.
In limited trials in Liberia, where Just has been quietly developing Power Gari for the last two years, the porridge has earned the approval of local schools and nonprofits, which say it delivers good nutrition and is popular with kids.
But the company's claims have also raised eyebrows among development experts, who say other, larger food companies have attempted almost identical projects, without success. Many questioned the originality of Just's approach and expressed doubt that an American tech firm could succeed when so many others have failed.
It's a debate that has haunted Just from its launch, when the company first began promising that Silicon Valley techniques could shake the foundations of an outmoded food system. Critics continue to question whether Just has actually launched any revolutionary products — or simply marketed itself better than the competition.
None of this has dissuaded the company's founder, Joshua Tetrick, who predicts Power Gari will be on sale in 15 African countries within two years.
"I want to make Liberia a big success — success defined by solving the micronutrition problem there and making sure kids have dignity in what they eat," he said. "But we certainly didn't start this just for Liberia.... This needs to be a model that we get right and we take everywhere."
Power Gari isn't much to look at: a faintly sour, starchy mush the color and consistency of soft polenta. The porridge is made from cassava, red palm oil, sugar, salt, a soy protein concentrate and a vitamin/mineral mix, most of which are sourced in Liberia.
More importantly, from a nutritional standpoint, Power Gari contains high concentrations of vitamins A, D, C, B6 and B12, plus iron, zinc and 12 grams of protein.
Those are valuable assets in a country where roughly one-third of children younger than 5 are stunted and almost two-thirds have anemia, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. The local diet is heavy on rice, cooking oils, and dried meat and fish. Generally speaking, fortified foods have become a common way for governments and nonprofits to address deficiencies.
"If fortified foods are not available, helping them get into the market affordably is a valuable role for the private sector," said Challiss McDonough, a senior spokeswoman for the World Food Program.
Just may seem like an odd private firm for the job. Since Tetrick and a childhood friend founded the company in 2011, it has become known for its plant-based mayos, dressings and cookie doughs, which are sold at retail and widely used in food service.
The company has attracted $310 million in investments from some of Silicon Valley's largest venture capital firms, including Khosla Ventures and the Founders Fund. It has also been plagued by several well-publicized scandals and a string of internal intrigues, the latest of which culminated in the resignation of the entire board — minus Tetrick — last summer.
But Tetrick and his colleagues have said their skeptics fail to understand the company's full potential, which includes changing the diets of billions in the developing world, said Tetrick, for whom the Liberia project is personal.
Before founding Just, the 37-year-old entrepreneur worked in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa and spent a brief stint employed by then-Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The experience convinced him that socially minded, for-profit businesses could change the lives of poor consumers by developing specialized products for them, potentially having even a larger impact than dedicated development organizations.
"Folks who live on under $2 a day shouldn't be looked at as victims or people who just deserve our worst food or our charity," Tetrick said. "Because when we shift the lens a little bit and we actually look at them as empowered consumers ... you can end up doing things that are a lot more powerful than just a typical nonprofit."
Power Gari will be the first of Just's products to test that premise. In Liberia, the company has partnered with a local producer, which pays a recurring licensing fee in exchange for the porridge recipe and logistical support and consultation.
Just has helped its producer contract with local female farmers to source cassava, for instance. And it has also helped get Power Gari into two major street markets and several schools, including the Monrovia Football Academy, a nonprofit academic and athletic institution that has sought to improve the nutrition of its students.
"The classic Liberian diet leaves out a number of vital nutrients," said Will Smith, the school’s co-founder and executive director. "When [Just] described Power Gari to us, we were immediately like, 'When can we get this?' And so far it's been awesome. The kids love it."
Given feedback like this, Tetrick is optimistic that retail and institutional sales of Power Gari are poised to explode. The company's operational lead in Liberia, Taylor Quinn, has been in touch with the local divisions of several major aid organizations that buy food for schools, including Save the Children and the World Food Program.
By the end of the year, Tetrick said, Just will sell 7 million servings of Power Gari in Liberia, and it plans to expand to Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
"In the next year and a half, two years, I'd like to see us in 10 to 15 countries, hundreds of millions of meals being served, and partnerships with some of the biggest institutions globally to get this out," Tetrick said.
But development experts are skeptical that Just could scale its Liberian operation so quickly — or that Power Gari will make a meaningful dent in chronic malnutrition.
Major institutional players, such as the World Food Program, already serve fortified porridges, typically wheat-and-soy or corn-and-soy blends. The U.S. development agency USAID funded the production of a local, fortified cassava porridge called Super Gari in Liberia for several years, though that program has ended.
And larger companies, including DuPont, Pepsi and Danone, have tried to launch dozens of fortified foods in low-income markets, said Erik Simanis, a market-development consultant to several global corporations. Almost all failed so completely that the companies never publicized them — a casualty of the marketers' inability to persuade low-income consumers, including many who can't read, to switch to unfamiliar products with unclear health benefits.
"You don't have to scratch very deep below the surface to find the skeletons of past initiatives like this," Simanis said. "It's a great thing to put in your annual sustainability report. But there's no business logic behind it."
Even if Just were to crack this business model, nutrition experts disputed the idea that Power Gari could "solve" malnutrition. While fortified cereals can be an important source of vitamins and minerals for many populations — particularly young children, adolescents and pregnant women — they are not a new idea in Africa, said Georgia Beans, the vice president of quality and compliance at ACDI/VOCA, a U.S.-based development organization with projects in Liberia.
To further complicate matters, the worst and most irreversible health effects of malnutrition occur between birth and age 2, when children need particularly high doses of micronutrients such as vitamin A, zinc and iron. That means a product designed for the general population would not adequately address issues like stunting and wasting, said Marie Ruel, the director of the Poverty, Health and Nutrition Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
"I don't see what's miraculous about this product," Ruel said. "It's not going to be a magic bullet."
But Just is not dissuaded by skeptics — the company has always had its fair share. Quinn, who heads Just’s Liberia initiative, acknowledges that other companies have tried and failed to market similar products. And Power Gari is less a cure-all than a step in the right direction, he said.
Ultimately, however, Quinn expects Just to succeed because its new porridge tastes pretty good. That is, after all, how Just sold Walmart and Dollar General shoppers on vegan mayo.
"At the end of the day, we could fail like everyone else," he said. "But I think we're set up for success."