Chris Langwallner @ WhatIF Foods
Cultivating The 'Regenerative Intersection' With The Bambara Groundnut
Chris Langwallner is the Co-Founder and CEO of WhatIF Foods. WhatIF Foods is supporting regenerative agriculture with their BAMnut Milk and BAMnut Noodles that are made with the Bambara groundnut as the key ingredient.
WhatIF Foods produces "planet-based" foods in two major categories: plant-based BAMnut Milk which is sold in 1,000+ stores throughout the US, predominantly on the East and West coasts, plus BAMnut Noodles (aka, ramens) which are primarily available online.
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Austrian Roots & Global Impact
Born and raised in a small Austrian town, Chris was heavily influenced by his grandfather. A great storyteller and community leader, Chris' grandfather always preached to "leave the world a better place than when you found it" – something that still drives every decision Chris makes today. One of Chris' big focuses for key business decisions is framing them in terms of "community wellbeing."
Twenty years ago, Chris and his wife left Austria for Great Britain, intent on learning English and furthering their careers. After a stint with a CPG multinational and another one turning a business around in Russia, they moved their young family to India to start a spice business. Today, that company is one of the biggest spices and seasonings businesses in the country.
Regenerating the Food System
A decade ago, Chris became alarmed at the degradation happening across agricultural and forestry lands and its impact on community health. After exploring multiple opportunities, he settled on the Bambara ground nut, a legume original to the Bambari tribe in Mali, Africa. Bambara is a legume that thrives in degraded soils by replenishing nitrogen levels. It is extremely drought and heat tolerant and does not require a lot of water.
Science-Led Product Research
WhatIF product development always starts with “what if” questions (hence their name). What if we keep the bean whole and not refine it? What if we take the deep fryer out of making instant noodles? What if we remove 20% of the palm oil? They throw a particular product into the lab / kitchen and explore what’s possible, creating multiple recipes to nail down what works best.
For their noodles, their “what if” approach allowed them to eliminate deep frying and palm oil from their noodles by observing and re-engineering manufacturing processes used for paper production. Their milk is made from the whole bean, preserving the entire microbiome, protein, fiber and carbohydrates.
Good Tasting and Good for the Planet
Chris spoke candidly about the challenges of sharing their brand story – between shorter attention spans and hopelessness among those who care about planetary health and community wellbeing. Rather than targeting the vegan market, they’re focusing on Gen Z. As Chris explains, theirs is the first generation to be educated in sustainability from a young age and planet-based messaging resonates with them. Chris contends that it is easier for Gen Zs to tell the difference between real impact and greenwashing.
Like so many other brands, WhatIF knows that while a regenerative story may spur a first-time purchase, taste is essential to repurchase. That’s why they use coconut oil and limit their milk to three ingredients (bambara, water and coconut oil). The milk foams beautifully and provides a creamy texture in smoothies and protein shakes.
WhatIF was also fortunate to have a CNN article “kickstart” their brand when it was first introduced to the U.S. market. Since then, they’ve gained traction with two national distributors and are now well established in 14 distribution centers nationally and over 1,000 retail outlets. They are also working toward Regenerative Organic Certification®.
WhatIF believes community wellbeing is directly correlated to soil health. Chris talked about the vicious cycle of conventional farming and how degraded soil delivers less yield, impacting farmer livelihood and food stores across Africa. Working closely with community elders, they reintroduce them to the Bambara groundnut and its ability to restore soil health.
Their subscription of farmers has grown from 250 to 6,000+ in just a few years, with thousands more on a waiting list to work with them. Working closely with the Pond Foundation, they’re providing field officers who give agronomic support and have increased on-farm income by 300%, literally eliminating poverty with as little as 2.5 acres of Bambara cultivation.
Because the Bambara is a legume and nitrogen-fixing, they’re restoring the soil and eliminating the need for costly inputs like synthetic fertilizer. They’re also upcycling the Bambara "shell" into biochar for the crops, creating a natural super-input that helps with carbon sequestration and water infiltration while increasing yields by 40%+. In addition, they're working on a production process for turning the Bambara shells into biochar that would also produce renewable energy for the local community called "Project Daring Greatly."
"So I call it the 'regenerative intersection' where soil restoration, renewable energy, carbon sequestration, and (community) well-being all meet. That is the 'regenerative intersection' of these four dimensions of work that unfolds at WhatIF Foods." - Chris
50% Market Share 4 Regen
Chris believes this goal is attainable simply because the effects of climate change have become starkly real across the globe. With 56 million Gen Zs entering the workforce by 2030, their impact will not only be felt due to their increased purchasing power as consumers but also due to their increased voting power politically. Chris believes they will help us pivot from where we are today to a better tomorrow.
“For the regen movement to succeed, we have to open our arms and welcome as many vantage points as possible. Regeneration is a global phenomenon. We need to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere globally. We have a mandate to help communities all over the world.” – Chris
You can check out the full episode with Chris from WhatIF Foods HERE.
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This ReGen Recap was produced with support from Kristina Tober