It’s Distribution, Stupid!

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Is plant-based protein the key to feed the world’s growing population or a costly and unscalable substitute for animal protein?

It’s potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto to me.  We can all agree that 1) the world’s population is growing, 2) this growing population will want more protein in their diet, 3) food waste and distribution is as much as an issue for plant-based proteins as it is for animal-based proteins.  Our main challenge isn’t producing more, but wasting less and moving food more efficiently around the globe.   

The world’s population will increase by an astounding 4 billion inhabitants between now and 2100 according to the UN.  Most of this growth is taking place in developing nations: with India projected to surpass China in the not-too-distance future.  As income rises in these countries, animal and plant-based proteins – driven by a desire for greater health, nutrition, and even status – will become a more significant part of their national diet.

This trend represents a big opportunity for Western consumer food brands.  When I met with food companies and investment funds in China last month, it quickly became evident that there is a gargantuan and coordinated effort to import consumer food brands geared toward nutrition, wellness and convenience.  The movement is afoot in India too.

Yet this opportunity is not accessible to all Western food products.  Many Asian countries lack essential cold chain infrastructure, storage and providers in a multi-stage distribution system. The last mile is especially problematic because rather than supplying products to a supermarket, Asia reaches the consumer through micro-retailers. Many of these mini-markets lack freezer or even refrigerated storage, or if they do, they may turn of the power at night to reduce their electric bill.  This is a significant challenge for food companies entering these countries on the backs of the reputation of their well-developed brands.   

 Roberta Brewster, VP of Business Development

Roberta Brewster,
VP of Business Development

Whether it is plant-based protein or animal-based protein, or any other food for that matter, in order to tap into the growing Asian food market, food companies must focus on extending shelf life to limit waste and allow for cost effective distribution.  Fresh foods limit shipping distances and require refrigeration; they spoil quickly and add substantively to food waste. Frozen foods are expensive to store for the processor, retailer and the consumer.

I am impressed by the pace of investment taking place in India, China and other countries in the region.  In many ways Asian food companies are leap frogging those of the developed world to deliver what customers want – health and wellness – to where they are, leveraging existing networks of convenience stores, food carts, online services and vending machines.  Unencumbered by necessity, they are swiftly overcoming consumer perceptions and innovating delivery. 

To feed the world, we must focus on the distribution problem.  Asia will lead us there.