Preserving biodiversity through entrepreneurship

Skoll Scholar Alex Wankel awarded £75,000 of research funding for quinoa milk venture

2018 MBA candidate and Skoll Scholar Alex Wankel has been awarded a £75,000 research fund after winning Reading University’s inaugural ‘just IMAGINE if…’ competition for his startup, Kai Pacha, which produces an eco-friendly milk substitute made from diverse varieties of quinoa and tarwi - two highly nutritious crops sourced from Peru. The competition was held on 28 February and required entrants to pitch ideas that could help progress the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

alexander wankel just imagine if award

Kai Pacha’s products are currently sold in 12 locations in Lima, Peru, and Alex will use the research fund to scale up the enterprise for a launch into European markets.

Alex was inspired to found the startup after volunteering for Bioversity International in Peru. He worked closely with Peruvian farmers, and came to understand both their struggle against poverty and the tremendous benefits of their eco-friendly crops.

‘There’s a common misconception that the rising global demand for quinoa is bad for Peruvian farmers – that they lose out because their staple food is being purchased by international markets, so they cannot eat it themselves,’ stated Alex.

‘There was never much evidence for this. Quinoa isn’t part of the staple diet for most Peruvians – it’s popular now among some urban consumers who are generally not poor, just the same as it is in the UK or America, but quinoa consumption was dying out in Peru many years before its rise to international fame. It’s certainly not the bulk of the Peruvian diet.’

Alexander explained that at the peak of quinoa prices, smallholder farmers were able to earn an ‘unprecedented’ income, which meant they could also afford to eat a more varied diet while continuing to eat quinoa regularly. However, there is an under reported danger caused by the rising international demand for the Peruvian superfood: the threat it represents to biodiversity.

Image of Alexander Wankel with Quinoa farmer

‘There are over 3000 varieties of quinoa,’ explains Alex. ‘It is an extremely diverse plant. But that biodiversity is under strain from the rising demand, which leads farmers to only plant a small number of commercial varieties.’

Indeed, Kai Pacha’s own website states that ‘Less than 1% of known varieties are commercialised while the other 99% are disappearing.’

This is a dangerous situation, explains Alex, because if only a small number of varieties are being used, the supply of quinoa is far more susceptible to shortages through disease or extreme weather conditions.

However, you might ask, why do we need quinoa milk when there are many other milk substitutes already in existence?

‘Quinoa is extremely environmentally friendly,’ replies Alex. ‘The Andes mountains have forced it to adapt to a great variety of conditions, and it can be grown with just 200 millimetres of rainwater per year. By contrast, almonds need about 30 times the amount of water compared to quinoa. It’s also a better source of protein than other milk alternatives.’

Alex chose to study the Oxford MBA because of its focus on social impact and entrepreneurship. He describes the entrepreneurship project, an elective module within the MBA programme, as particularly useful for Kai Pacha: ‘I’ve formed a group of five of my classmates and we're going to build a business plan for launching Kia Pacha in the UK. It’s a great way to apply the skills we’ve learnt throughout the year,’ he said.

Read more about Kai Pacha.

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