founder

Some discoveries emerge only after meticulous laboratory work. Others — such as saccharin, penicillin and superglue — come about when their creators stumble across something they weren’t looking for. The green banana flour produced by Natural Evolution falls squarely into the second category, as managing director Krista Watkins MAICD freely admits, “We discovered it purely by accident.”

The “ah-ha” moment happened 10 years ago. Watkins and her husband, Rob, were growing lady finger bananas in Walkamin, an hour’s drive inland from Cairns in Far North Queensland. The duo were reeling from tropical cyclones Larry and Yasi — and battling a marketplace where it was sometimes cheaper to let produce rot on the ground than send it for sale.

“One afternoon, Rob drove over a pile of discarded bananas that had been sitting in the sun,” explains Watkins. “He jumped off the forklift to investigate the crunching sound and the cloud of powder that had wafted through the air.”

Taking his lead from the wild pigs and cattle that were known to knock down fences to gain access to discarded green bananas, Rob dipped a finger into the smashed, powdery pile of fruit and tasted it. Then he grabbed a few handfuls and raced home. “He said, ‘You’ve got to taste it,’” says Watkins.

Though initially reluctant, she was surprised to find it tasted earthy, wholesome and delicious — more like flour than bananas. Aware of growing consumer demand for gluten-free, sustainable and nutritionally dense alternatives to wheat flour, the couple backed their hunch. During the next six years, they set about creating the world’s first (and only) automatic green banana processing facility to turn unsaleable or excess fruit into flour. “It’s not like we could go somewhere to buy a processing line, because it wasn’t there,” says Watkins. “We had to get clever and do it ourselves.”

In doing so, they developed the award-winning NutroLock technology, which preserves up to 50 times more nutrients than conventional food-processing techniques. This technology has since been successfully used to preserve other fruits and vegetables, including sweet potato and broccoli.

The Natural Evolution laboratory has made interesting discoveries along the way. For example, it identified that lady fingers are the richest known source of resistant starch, which feeds good bacteria in the gut. They are also high in 5HTP, which is a precursor for the feel-good chemical, serotonin.

The product is nourishing in other ways. Keen to revive the concept of farmers’ cooperatives, Watkins invites those with excess produce to send it in to be transformed into a commercially viable product.

“Currently, we’re throwing away 40 per cent of everything we grow,” says Watkins. “If a farmer grows 100 per cent, we should use 100 per cent — and we can.”

She hopes this will benefit other farmers who don’t have the time or money to diversify their offerings. “They’re so damned busy producing that top-grade product, they don’t have time to think about it — and it can be a risk to go out and try something new,” she adds.

Banana business

The couple faced a steep learning curve when it came to setting up the family company to ensure it had a strong foundation and could continue to grow and thrive. They established an eight-member board, which meets annually. Board members are people with who Watkins and her husband have had previous industry dealings. They come from a range of backgrounds, including legal, accountancy, food technology, farming and business.

However, Watkins and her husband remain the key driving force behind Natural Evolution. “There’s certainly a lot of passion in the business, it’s like our third child,” she says. “We love it, we want to ensure its growing success and provide everything we can as it matures into a global operation one day.”

Watkins intends to upskill with the Company Directors Course. “I [want to] continue to be an active and informed member of the company and board as the business grows,” she says.

Her innovative, roll-up-your-sleeves approach led to her being named the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award National Winner. The award acknowledges and supports the critical role women play in rural and regional businesses, industries and communities. Watkins is using the combined $20,000 in bursaries she was awarded to discover by-products for sweet potatoes.

Currently, we’re throwing away 40 per cent of everything we grow. If a farmer grows 100 per cent, we should use 100 per cent — and we can.

Sustainability

Watkins is determined to reduce food waste at the farm gate, which currently accounts for 10 per cent of Australia’s gross food production, valued at $4b, according to the National Farmers Federation. In North Queensland alone, Watkins says, 500 metric tonnes of green bananas are wasted each week because they’re the wrong size or shape, or because of market oversupply.

To keep up with demand, Natural Evolution is building a factory eight times the size of its current one. Watkins anticipates it will be fully operational towards the end of 2020. The factory will also incorporate a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) so school-leavers and career-changers can gain new skills.

The desire to create a sustainable economic and environmental way of doing business from paddock to plate is one of Natural Evolution’s core goals, says Watkins. “[The business] provided the perfect opportunity to make a difference and map out our own lives rather than doing what our parents or family would expect us to do.”

Watkins’ parents were cattle farmers who urged her to find a career that didn’t involve eking out a living from the land. The first of her family to attend university, she gained teaching qualifications and was building a career within Education Queensland when she and Rob made that first breakthrough discovery involving green bananas. Watkins says her parents are incredibly proud to see their daughter drive this quiet revolution in farming.

Being first to market has given Natural Evolution a huge advantage, however, the company is now battling competition. According to Watkins, some imported banana flours can be cut with additional substances, such as the whitening agent ascorbic acid, or are potentially laden with bacteria due to unsanitary drying processes. Uganda is one of the world’s leading producers and Chile has developed an alternative production method using overripe banana waste.

Calling for improved regulatory standards, Watkins claims other Australian growers and producers are facing similar problems.

“It’s happening every day, in every industry,” she says, pointing to National Measurement Institute (NMI) studies that have found some imported rice, for example, unfit for human consumption. “Life’s too short to eat dead food — you want food with function.”

Finding business partners who share her values has proven an additional challenge. “There’s a big difference between someone who says, ‘I want to grow this business globally’ versus ‘I want to dominate the world’,” says Watkins.

In the early stages, when Natural Evolution was seeking growth capital, she noted some prospective partners were only interested in taking the firm’s technology and selling it to the highest bidder. So she called a halt to the process.

“They weren’t trying to improve the lives of farmers and of people,” she says, adding that it taught her to follow her intuition. “The best advice I ever received was that you don’t have to take other people’s advice.”

Admitting she still loves to “get my hands in the dirt”, Watkins wants to help other farmers and food producers follow their passions and change the world, one bite at a time.

“There will always be competition, so find your niche and be the very best at it. Work to your strengths and know every mistake is an opportunity to learn and be better.”