The rural regions of northeast Brazil are some of the poorest in the country, with many municipalities experiencing poverty rates higher than 60%. About two-thirds of the region’s residents rely on agriculture to make money, but one of the biggest crops is cassava, a nutty, yam-like root vegetable, which is eaten widely as a staple across Brazil. Because it’s so abundant, and cheap, profit margins aren’t high. It’s hard to make a stable living cultivating cassava.
A social-impact experiment sought to see if that raw ingredient “could be leveraged in an entirely different way,” says Hannah June Lueptow, head of research, design and strategy at Questtonó—and, as a result, help alleviate poverty in the community. The global brand consultancy firm, based in São Paulo, collaborated with AmBev, the Brazilian subsidiary of beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, to design a new business model whereby cassava farmers would be paid to cultivate their crop to make a local beer for their region. Questtonó led the exploration of how to build a sustainable model, as well as brands that would culturally fit specific regions. “How could we translate these ingredients, and all these families that are part of this value chain, to create a cultural symbol that all people could be proud of?” asks Leo Massarelli, Questtonó’s founder and CCO.
In 2018, the partnership launched the first beer: Nossa, which means “ours,” in the state of Pernambuco, made from cassava harvested by farmers in the state, in factories located in the state. There, the cassava starch is cooked until thick, when it’s transferred to the mash tun, a large brewhouse vat where it’s mashed and mixed with the barley malt. The final recipe was the result of months of trials—and that finished product is a light, clear, golden beer, with a faint malty aroma, slight sweetness, and dry finish.
The beers that followed are similar in taste and style, but with slight tweaks. Next came the Magnífica and Legítima brands, in the states of Maranhão and Ceará. All the beers are sold exclusively in their respective states, with low markups. “It wasn’t like we were marking up the price to be sold in São Paulo,” Lueptow says. Because prices are low, the production volumes are high in order to make a profit. According to AmBev’s figures, within four months, Nossa had 22.7% of the low-priced beer market share in its region; Magnífica had a 68% higher margin than the category average.
But, it was in 2020 that, with a proven concept, Questtonó and AmBev were able to expand the parameters of the framework, now known as Roots. It’s the winner of the Latin America category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards. “There’s absolutely no reason why this replicable business model couldn’t be reproduced in entirely different markets, that have a different primary ingredient,” Lueptow says. A new brand, Esmera, moved into the central region of Brazil, in the state of Goiás. And, in Piauí, Berrió was launched, making beer not from cassava, but cashews—proving the concept that an area’s native crops could adapt to a new beer, not the other way around. That, Lueptow says, is different from more traditional models of corporations paying farmers to cultivate produce completely out of their wheelhouse. “People are starting to be more open-minded to different ingredients to achieve the same outcome, even if it is tasting slightly different,” she says.
Of course, in 2020, the pandemic exacerbated poverty, tripling in Brazil. So, in addition to the beer production—which saw stable profits even during the pandemic—AmBev also used a byproduct from the process, cassava starch, to make new products to donate to the communities in a time of need. Magnífica’s starch was used to make cassava flour and soap, 100,000 units of which was donated, in partnership with a local soap producer, Sabão Garoto. Legítima and Nossa starch was used to make 20 tons of tapioca, for 20,000 families in those regions.
So far, Questtonó reports that a total of 10,000 locals have been involved in the program, including farmers who sell their crops to AmBev, and their families, and people who work in the transportation of the ingredients. Based on the flexible nature of the model, now proven around Brazil, the partnership views Roots as expandable to other in-need regions of the world. “We could be making kombucha in the Middle East,” Lueptow says, “with ‘insert ingredient here.'”