It’s funny how much things can change over time, and what things stay the same. To look at 99th Monkey now, you would have no idea that my initial idea for the business was to make one product and one product only: cocoa-nutty butter.
That is my version of chocolate peanut butter and it was the whole reason I started this business. I loved that recipe. I still do. However it was not as popular as I thought it would be. In fact, I don’t even sell it anymore. But I do still make it for myself to eat at home.
While I no longer make that particular product, the ethos that drove me to create a business around it remains. The idea was simple – I wanted to do something that nobody else was doing. Over time, as I added peanut butter and almond butter to my repertoire, that ethos expanded to include the following caveat – if what I was making wasn’t entirely original, then it had to be better than anything else like it. This quality is not just limited to the flavour – it also had to be uncompromised in the nature and provenance of its ingredients (the healthy/sustainable/ethical factor).
That is why I was so excited about being able to source my peanuts from the only organic peanut farmers in Australia. How many times have you looked at a food product and been happy that it’s organic, but disappointed that it’s been imported from halfway across the world? Or happy that it’s made here in Australia from local ingredients, then bamboozled by the long list of ingredients and numbers that look like it’s more science experiment than food? That happens to me all the time, so I wanted to make sure what I put out there into the market place for other people to consume was different. I wanted what I put in it to be so simple in terms of where it comes from and its nutritional value that it would be a no brainer for people who care about the food they eat.
However, being so particular about where I get my ingredients from does gives rise to its own set of challenges. For example, some time in April I will run out of those organic Aussie peanuts until the next crop is ready to go in October. This will be the third year running that I have faced that challenge, and this time around I have had to think hard about my alternatives.
All of the other organic peanut butters in Australia are made using nuts imported from either China or Argentina. I’m not prepared to do the same for two reasons. First, I’m not keen on importing ingredients from so far away when I’m sure they can be sourced from somewhere much closer. Second, why would I just want to do the same as everyone else?
So all of this has driven me back to an idea I had before I had even sold my first jar of chocolate peanut butter. In late 2012, I visited East Timor and while I was there I learned that not only do they grow a lot of peanuts, but everything grown there is organic as the people have never had enough money to be viewed as a worthwhile market by the big chemical companies. I even visited a community that grew peanuts in the region of Baucau, and I was struck by the idea of one day importing their peanuts into Australia.
Timor is still a massively underdeveloped country, and a huge majority of the population are still subsistence farmers with little or no participation in the broader economy. This is a big challenge for the nation as it develops, and it is one of the things that prevents so many people from those farming communities from accessing the basic things like a year-round supply of food and clean water, not to mention education and health care, that they need to improve their lives.
So with all of those things in mind, I have been quietly building a plan to establish a direct trade relationship with peanut farmers in East Timor – bringing them a fair price for their products and contributing to the development of their communities, while also ensuring a year-round supply of organic peanut butter for 99th Monkey fans. And believe me, these peanuts do not represent a compromise in terms of flavour. I received a sample of them late last year, thanks to my friends at Wild Timor Coffee who carried them back for me, and they are delicious!
I am now just waiting until the crop is ready in May and then I plan to head over there to make a final agreement with the farmers and get those peanuts back here. They aren’t certified organic (nothing in Timor is at the moment, but I am looking at ways to get them certified in the future), but I believe that this is an exciting way to make a great product that really does have a positive impact on the lives of all who play a part in making it. Who says peanut butter can’t change the world?
Which brings me back to what I said at the beginning of this post – it really is funny to see what’s changed and what stays the same. In a way, my plan to import Timorese peanuts is a big departure from the way I have done things through the life of my business (at present I only use Australian nuts). But in another way, I am staying true to an idea that has been with me from the very beginning of this adventure. I guess for me the lesson is that you never know where business is going to take you, but so long as you can stay true to the principles that led you into it in the first place, then you’re probably on the right path.
Until next time, may all of your ideas be irrepressible!