The Epicurious Hedgehog
The Epicurious Hedgehog is the brand of Natural Extract Industries (NEI). NEI works with 150-200 smallholder vanilla and cocoa farmers, across four regions of Tanzania. By providing training, subsidised inputs and procuring direct from the grower, they have developed a value chain that benefits everyone involved. For example, some growers earn over US$1,500 from a single harvest!
This value chain did not exist as recently as 2012, when Juan Guardado – the charismatic founder – and his co-founder, Silas Noah, started working directly with farmers to introduce vanilla. After four years of hard work to support farmers to grow and harvest vanilla, they began to extract the natural flavours from the first harvest in 2016. More recently, they have started to produce cocoa powder and nibs.
Not only do they support the farmers to grow their crops, but they also launched a traceability project so they can trace the origins of individual batches – all the way back to the farmer, many of whom are women supporting their families. As NEI support the growers, buy from them, and do the processing they can ensure social impact and environmental responsibility in the supply chain, and a quality product for the consumer. At their small processing plant, young women have been taught to operate newly installed, state-of-the-art equipment, whilst a laboratory staffed by food scientists – one of whom NEI is funding to complete her masters – makes sure every batch meets NEI’s high standards.
The Epicurious Hedgehog is a reference to a baby hedgehog Juan found shortly after moving into his home at the foot of Kilimanjaro in Moshi, Tanzania, which quickly found a place in his families’ hearts. The brand has sold successfully in local, high-end retail markets. As such, they are excited to reach discerning consumers in the UK and Europe, who value their story and their ethics. In particular, they are proud of the unique flavours each batch of cocoa has - all traceable back to the individual growers.
Whilst NEI is a social business, it knows it can only be sustainable by benefiting the hard working farmers who grow their crops. Unlike conventional agricultural commodity traders who try to push the price down, NEI is actually trying to increase the price – by looking for opportunities whereby their growers can add value. For example, by improving the fermentation of cocoa or increasing the proportion of highly sought-after vanilla pods over 16cm.