WhatIF targets ‘climate anxious Gen Z’ with bambara groundnut plant-based milk, noodles
WhatIF’s product offerings comprise instant noodles and plant-based milk from the bambara groundnut, dubbed the “BamNut” and pegged as a “hero crop, with regenerative super powers.”
There are obstacles to marketing products featuring the nearly-obscure crop, with consumers having little background as to what it is, its benefits and how it tastes, but the BamNut’s sustainability and regenerative nature make it not only suitable for environmentally-minded shoppers but for farmers as well.
The BamNut is largely grown in Africa, and its drought-tolerant complex root system helps it to flourish in poor soil conditions and with little water.
“By growing this product, it helps farmers to regenerate depleted soils and gives them an opportunity to create new income on lands that they currently can't get any income out of,” Reeves explained.
The company is presently partnering with farmers in Ghana, contracting with them directly to grow the product. WhatIF purchases the product from farmers, moves it to its factory, converts it to flour and then processes it into milk or noodles.
Reeves said WhatIF would like to expand production so the BamNut can be grown globally in locales with similar climates. In the U.S., areas such as southern California, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona - “places that are quite arid” - would be attractive.
“This could be a fantastic crop to grow because it uses very, very little water and it doesn't need high quality soil to build,” he said. “If we can build enough interest in the product, that's certainly what we'll be trying to do.”
While most popular in Africa, the exec noted the BamNut can be grown almost anywhere, with existing growth in Indonesia and Malaysia and trials happening in Australia and Spain.
“We’d be happy to see it grow in multiple locations so we have more supply of the product across different parts of the world,” Reeves said.
WhatIF looks to move “beyond the current sustainability concept” and toward a future of regeneration and planet-positive processes.
“What we believe in is regeneration, a combination of regenerative farming, but also regenerative practices where we give back more than what we take away,” Reeves explained.
That can be done by connecting with farmers to grow regenerative crops, and then creating demand for products with those crops.
“If we can bring crops to them that are regenerative, we can help them have a better income and also manage their farming.”
Further, growing the BamNut also helps to restore the soil. While the BamNut can be grown on land that can’t grow anything else, it can also make the soil suitable for growing other crops in the future, he added.
Reeves also sees creating food that captures nutrients as another aspect of moving beyond sustainability.
“So if you look at almond, for example, there's a small fraction of almond that's in almond milk,” he said. “Everything that's in the bambara groundnut we put into our milk.”
WhatIF’s BamNut milk is sold in Barista, Everyday and Airy varieties feature just three ingredients and are fortified with vitamins and minerals, while the air-fried instant noodles are sold in four varieties “densely packed with protein and fiber, and with lower fat than conventional noodles,” according to the firm.
Addressing climate change
Reeves explained that Gen Z “has been exposed to negative news about the climate since kindergarten. All they hear every day is, ‘This is the problem, that’s the problem.’”
That cohort feels overwhelmed about how to address the issue, and WhatIF is looking to help.
“What we want to do is build a brand that says, ‘Yes, we understand your dilemma,’” he said. “We’re trying to make for you a product that will make it easy for you to make a choice for the environment.”
WhatIF wants to differentiate itself with its control of the product life cycle, from the growing to the manufacturing to the education of the product.
“Our product should be naturally attractive to the health conscious or eco-conscious consumers because we have better in class credentials,” Reeves explained.
He said that BamNut milk uses 22 times less water and has more protein and more fiber than almond milk, and is very high in naturally occurring iron, “which is something that’s also going to be a big advantage for a lot of people.”
Expansion on the horizon
WhatIF rolled out its plant-based milk and instant noodle products in 100 stores in the greater New York City area in late 2022, working closely with its distributor and retail partners to conduct sampling and explain the product to consumers, resulting in a “significant uptick” in orders and purchases, according to Reeves.
The next phase is to expand to more than 600 locations in the coming months in greater New York City, in addition to a rollout at 160 Giant grocery stores in the Tristate area.
By the end of the year, Reeves expects the brand will be in “a couple thousand retail outlets,” aided by partnerships with distribution centers in Illinois, Maryland, the Pacific Northwest, California and soon in Florida and Texas.
WhatIF launched on Amazon in November, and has seen success, especially in noodles.
“People reasonably resonated well with a high-protein noodle proposition,” he said. “Things are growing quite nicely.”
The growth has been positive for the firm, but “this is such a new product in terms of the raw material, there’s a lot of education that we need to do,” Reeves explained.
WhatIF is planning to “double down” on promotional activity, including sampling and through social media channels, in addition to partnering with a brand ambassador.
“Hopefully we can start to easily build the snowball effect of people starting to get familiar with this product,” he said.
Ice cream, yogurt in the pipeline
Looking further ahead, Reeves said WhatIF looks to take a significant share of the plant-based milk space, and “become the product of choice for people who care about the environment and care about nutrition as well.
On the noodle side, the exec sees an opportunity in the U.S. to “upgrade the noodle experience” compared with “nutrition vacant” products on the market.
WhatIF can “show people that you can have a good tasting deal that’s nutritious for a reasonable price as well,” he added.
The company has additional products in the pipeline, including ice cream products and vegan yogurt as applications for its milk.
However, WhatIF isn’t quite ready to launch them yet, instead holding off until it feels the market is ready for them.
“We want to be seen as more than just another plant-based, vegan-friendly product,” he said. “We really do care about what we’re trying to do here, we take it very seriously and we’re building it from the ground up, literally.”