An interview with Good Foodies

Alex was interviewed this week on the Good Foodies podcast about all things Azure: Simply Pinole and Peak Pinole energy bars, ultra running, blue cord and building a sustainable supply chain in Mexico.

Alex Littaye is on a mission to bring an ancient ingredient from Mexico to the UK in the form of an energy bar for ultra runners. Learn how her PHD studies at Oxford lead to her living on an active volcano and how working with local communities and tribes became the basis of her entire brand story. 
— Guy Routledge,

The following is an episode transcript of the podcast interview:

Guy: [00:00:00] You're listening to Good Foodies and this is episode 11. Today we've got a story about energy bars, ultra running, blue corn and building a sustainable supply chain in Mexico. You'll also hear about living on an active volcano and crowdfunding a food startup. So stay tuned.

Kylie: [00:00:28] This is the Good Foodies podcast, a weekly show about people, brands and businesses, doing good in the world of food.

Guy: [00:00:28] Hello and welcome to the show. My name's Guy Routledge from Sapling Digital and The Food Rush and I'm joined in the studio today by my co-host Kylie Ackers. Kylie welcome to the show. 

Kylie: [00:00:39] Hi!

Guy: [00:00:39] As usual I'm going to start with a question for you. When was the last time you went for a run?

Kylie: [00:00:45] Ohh, I'd like to be able to say yesterday. However 

Guy: [00:00:49] It wasn't yesterday.

Kylie: [00:00:49] No, it's been awhile. I mean to be fair, I'm a fair weather runner, which pretty much means I don't run in the winter.

Guy: [00:00:55] Oh I didn't realise there was a term for that.

Kylie: [00:00:57] Yeah, fair weather. You can be a fair weather cyclist, a fair weather runner.

Guy: [00:01:01] I am definitely one of those.

Kylie: [00:01:03] For sure, it's been ... last year.

Guy: [00:01:07] Too long shall we say, let's say too long. 

Guy: [00:01:09] And so if you can cast your mind back to the last time that you did go for a run, which was you know a few years ago, whatever. How far did you run, in meters? No maybe kilometres. 

Kylie: [00:01:23] Three four five.

Guy: [00:01:25] Three four five yeah. A fairly standard distance.

Kylie: [00:01:27] Enough to get a sweat on.

Guy: [00:01:29] Lovely image, thank you very much. So our guest today is Alexandra Littaye or Alex for short. And she has some amazing stories, she is working with a really interesting niche, and I'm sure we'll talk a little bit more about niche later on. She's working with a bunch of ultra marathon runners to create a product specifically for their needs. So these endurance runners they run like, what is a marathon? It's like ..

Kylie: [00:01:58] 42 kilometers

Guy: [00:01:59] 42 kilometers, 25 miles or something like that. And so these guys are ultra marathon runners, they run crazy distances like over over multiple days. 

Kylie: [00:02:10] What? Running for days?

Guy: [00:02:11] Yeah.

Kylie: [00:02:13] Life is too short.

Guy: [00:02:13] It's not for me. I'm a fair weather non-runner.

Kylie: [00:02:17] A fair distance runner. 

Guy: [00:02:19] Yeah, and a fair distance is like a couple of kms. Yes. So these guys are running huge distances sometimes over multiple days. And not only that, the product is made with this really obscure ingredient that comes all the way from Mexico. Alex has got some really interesting things to tell us all about that. And so I got together with Alex for a chat and she told me the story of how she first came across this ingredient called pinole at the Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy.

The Interview

Alex: [00:02:53] I fell by complete hazard on this you beautiful very unusual blue corn and I looked at the stall and I was invited to taste this very strange smoky powder which I thought was delicious. And then I heard the story of the farmer who was offering this powder and how he lived in one of the worst hit villages in the world by youth migration, and how he was trying to preserve these seeds for the next generation and actually offer the powder that is made from the blue corn to the US. And I thought that was a very cool story, so I packed my bags nine months later and landed on an active volcano where they actually grow the seed and make this powder.

Alex: [00:03:39] So that is how I started there, I was doing a PhD at Oxford looking at farmers and their narratives. And I unpacked a lot of what was going on within this village and their communication with migrant workers back in the US and basically what they tried to do is sell this flour that is made of blue corn that is roasted. It's a traditional ancient Aztec recipe that they're using. And they were trying to plug it in the gluten free market that at the time was exploding, and is still exploding in the US, but lack of leadership and coordination meant that the project fell through. And whilst I was looking at this and researching it and investigating, I thought, wow that is a brilliant idea maybe I should do that. And that was the beginning of the start.

Guy: [00:04:27] The beginning of your really really interesting story. And so we're talking about blue corn and is that exactly what it sounds like. Is it like regular maize but blue in colour. 

Alex: [00:04:37] So every different strand of corn has slightly different properties and Mexico has 59 unique land races of corn. So it's kind of the mothership, the arc so to speak, of this insane diversity. You have red corn, and purple corn, and black corn, white corn multi-colour corn - that if you type in rainbow corn on your laptop you're going to be met with some spectacular different variations. The blue corn that I work with, there are different actual strands of corn, but the one that I work with is at the very top of the food chain so to speak of concentrations of antioxidants. So anything that is blue and food is actually good for you. The dye that makes food blue, like blueberries for example, is also what will give it that incredible boost in antioxidants. Blue corn happens to have the very highest concentration of that dye and therefore those antioxidants. And these antioxidants have been proven to be linked to fighting Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. It helps lower the GI of the food itself so it can be suitable for diabetics, depending on what you do with it. It's got anti-cancer properties which is phenomenal. So one of the things I'm really looking forward to is doing in-depth analysis with various tests and people to see what is the effect of the powder that we use from this corn on their health. So that is yet to come. That's very very exciting.

Guy: [00:06:23] Yeah very exciting. And your brand is called Azure Foods and I guess Azure relating to the blue in the corn and the product is called pinole. Is that right?

Alex: [00:06:33] Exactly. So the product that I am focused on is this flour or this powder, which is made of this blue corn. It is actually quite a common, not quite common, but it is used and made in Mexico and as well as the rest of Latin America. So I am not the only person who is selling blue corn and I'm not the only person who is selling pinole, but Azure Foods is the first company in Europe to actually import pinole. And we are the very first company in the world to have developed pinole energy bars for athletes, and we're specifically targeting ultra endurance athletes. So in that sense we are cutting edge but we are cutting edge using a food that has been around for over five centuries.

Guy: [00:07:23] Can you tell me a little bit about the farming process and the work that you're doing over there to make sure that you can be producing this product in a sustainable way. 

Alex: [00:07:33] Absolutely. So the first thing that I should say is I work with Indigenous communities in Mexico and very specifically in one single state called Puebla, and even more specifically on one volcano called Popocatépetl which is an active volcano in Mexico.

Guy: [00:07:50] I'm glad I didn't have to say that! 

Alex: [00:07:52] It took me four years. So these indigenous communities grow with traditional farming techniques and these farming techniques basically rely on intercropping. So they grow in symbiosis, corn with beans and squash. And what this means, is they don't need to add artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in order to keep the yields going. The land is rich, the land is also host to a whole bunch of agrobiodiversity apart from these actual crops, so they invite the bees and the birds, if you want to say it in a simplistic manner. And at the same time it allows them to grow various different types of bean and corn which means that within that very plot of land you'll have a hotbed of continuation of agrobiodiversity. 

Alex: [00:08:45] It's a contrast if you will, to the pictures you see of huge huge huge huge huge commercial outlets of just corn. You know that those fields of corn you see for example in the US where all you see is corn. If you look at a picture in Mexico it's completely different. It looks like chaos and mess but it's actually a beautiful symposium of food production. So, we are growing different seeds on one plot of land in a way that furthers agrobiodiversity and is actually environmentally beneficial to the land, and to the fauna around it. Now the other one is that because we work with indigenous communities I am extremely careful with what I actually pay. I refuse to buy directly blue corn because that will lead to a certain skewing and distortion of local prices. These communities rely, practically 40 to 50 percent in terms of their energy input, on corn. If I buy directly blue corn I am messing with that local system. But if I purchased pinole which is something that they use maybe once a year for their traditional festivities, then I am paying for an added value product which means that I can actually pay a much higher price for that without distorting the local prices of the corn itself. It sounds a bit complicated. I'm trying to avoid replicating the quinoa situation, where quinoa suddenly exploded in terms of its reputation as a superfood. And what happened was these farmers of quinoa could no longer even pay for the product they were growing. And that for me is a lesson that we need to learn from and we need to be very careful with, and I do not want to replicate that. And then the final thing I wanted to say was the mission of Azure goes much further than just buying pinole off these indigenous communities. So my mission is to actually get the machines, or the infrastructure, that leads from blue corn all the way to an energy bar and put that infrastructure in the hands of our primary farmers. And that way our farmers don't just grow blue corn, but ultimately they will make the energy bar and the finalised product that I purchase. The machines and the infrastructure will be owned by these communities, and Azure Foods only purchases that final product. That way the vast majority of the capital, the skills, the infrastructure, the means of production will stay within those communities. And that's how I think that you can really make an impact and change certain trends in rural poverty. 

Guy: [00:11:35] That is amazing because the conventional wisdom with most businesses is, try and keep the cost as low as possible, make as much margin as possible, and  intensify the whole process so that you can churn it out. But you're taking a completely different approach where you're trying to support the local communities and give them, almost empower them with tools, and resources, and skills that they need to be able to create the product for you. But I guess it also means that they can ... would they be able to use the same tools and machinery and skills to create stuff for other people, to kind of widen their commercial opportunity?

Alex: [00:12:13] Exactly. I think you said it so much better than I did actually. But no, that's exactly right. So the other thing that I am careful and cautious of is this, neo-colonial narrative where, white girl studied at Oxford, comes and tries to support community, but at the end of the day the community has no freedom on how their income is generated. I believe that if I give this infrastructure and the skills to the community then they can actually decide if they want to keep working with me, or if they want to diversify further their portfolio of what they're producing and potentially produce for other companies, for their own local markets. I believe in supporting people in their entrepreneurial mission or desires. And one of the things that I have noticed is that one of the cooperatives in the village is currently making pinole icecream. That's just amazing for me, that they had that idea and that they're pushing it and that they're trying to sell it in different places around the volcano. And I hope that Azure can be part of that story of their entrepreneurship and them finding ways of bringing the income in. What I would like is for us to have this ground of possibility, that is tapped in, and that enables the younger generations that are coming up to adulthood to stay in the village. There's a lot of stigma around farming sometimes in Mexico and I think that there is a certain dignity that comes with being proud of a product. And I know that things like ice-cream or energy bars and whatever other product we decide to make, gives those young people a certain pride in the very ground that they were born on. "I'm proud of my blue corn, I'm proud that I can make these products and I'm proud that they're sold all over the world". And hopefully we will reverse the migrational drain that's been going on for decades now.

Guy: [00:14:25] It's amazing and such a powerful mission, as you used that term, to have that. I assume that it's also very challenging to do something like this. Can you speak to some of the challenges you faced in not only doing this amazing thing but but doing it as a very new startup.

Alex: [00:14:45] I don't know how much time you have. Yes.

Guy: [00:14:48] We'll have to get you back on for a future show to talk about all of the challenges perhaps. 

Alex: [00:14:52] Exactly. So the first challenge is that when you're working with indigenous farmers, their methods of growing the blue corn producing the pinole will be traditional which means that these techniques will not necessarily fit within EU regulations. My biggest concern right now is helping them get to the point where they're producing it at a standard that meets EU regulations. So that's number one. Number two is actually importing the product. Right now, it took me a long time to get an importing license into the EU. A lot of questions were, "what is this weird powder?", "are you going to contaminate, basically the food system?". And then finally, the biggest issue that I have is actually making blue corn bars. It's easy to find the machines in Mexico, but again if you're looking at producing something that is this processed then you need the actual workshop or the actual factory to adhere to EU regulations. And that involves a lot more infrastructure and investment than just making the pinole itself. So right now we're focused on selling the pinole in the EU, and we might have to produce the energy bars in Europe whilst we are setting all the infrastructure back in Mexico. And that's going to potentially take a lot of time. This year is a year of election in Mexico, which means that there has been a huge pause for all grants being handed down for agricultural projects and other projects. So no matter what happens, no matter how good my story, no matter how much demand I actually manage to create, I can't tap into that investment and into that governmental support that I will need to move forward with. So we're just waiting right now. 

Guy: [00:16:54] Wow, so just a couple of challenges.

Alex: [00:16:57] Yeah, just a couple.

Guy: [00:16:58] Yeah I mean there's so much complexity to this because you're talking about a new product. It's coming all the way from Mexico. I mean I almost have these images in my head of you having to smuggle powder into the country to do your testing and something like that.

Alex: [00:17:13] I don't know if I should say this on radio, but I did. It's kind of allowed if you say that it's for personal consumption. You're not allowed to sell that powder though. So I haven't sold that powder and I haven't sold any bars. But I have given a lot of tests and all the samples that I've created to various people and that was from pinole that I carried happily. So last trip I did I carried back 38 kilos of pinole on my back as well. 

Guy: [00:17:40] You can let me know later if you want me to cut this bit out, but I'm sure it is completely above board if it's just for personal use. And you know you have to be able to test these things if you want to make a safe product. And you've been very clear about how there are challenges because you want to, and need to, meet the EU regulations. I'm sure no-one's going to come and slap on the wrist too hard for trying to make a difference in the world. I think it's a noble cause. 

Alex: [00:18:05] Thank you. Thank you very much.

Guy: [00:18:07] You mentioned to me a while back you had a recent trip to somewhere called the Copper Canyons in Mexico. Can you talk to me a little bit about that, it sounds very intriguing.

Alex: [00:18:17] Yeah. So the Copper Canyons are part of the chain of mountains that actually go from the US all the way down to the very bottom of Chile. And the Copper Canyons are this kind of impregnable place where a tribe, so the legend says, escaped from the conquistadors. It's impossible to navigate, there is no point in you having either a mule or a horse. And the only mode of transport you have is by feet. So these tribes who live there have developed a mode of transport, which is running and they never ever ever adopted the shoe. So they have been running for generations and generations and generations on sandals and they are considered by some as the best natural ultra runners in the world. So Kenyans are considered as some of the fastest human beings in the world, and the Tarahumara, or there's another name for them which is Raramuri, are considered as some of the best ultra runners in the world. And I was very seduced by this story especially since these tribes use as fuel pinole. So they all carry a little patch of pinole that they will then mix with water, either warm or cold water, to keep them going. And I thought I need to go and check this out. So I went to their annual race which is called Caballo Blanco, which means white man [AL Edit: white horse], and it's a race of 80 kilometres in the canyons that about a thousand Tarahumara come to participate in. If they can fulfill this eight these 80 kilometres they will get I believe 40 kilos of corn in exchange. And that has been extremely important for these tribes because they, in the past decade or so, they've experienced extreme drought, so they've had problems of hunger and famine. That's one of the reasons why the race was actually established in the first place. I went there and it took eight hours in the car going all the way down these Copper Canyons, and it was life changing. It's very rare to have those travelling experiences where you go, there was a before and after. There's definitely, in my life, a before and an after the Copper Canyons. I got to obviously witness the athletic prowess of these people, I mean seeing a grandmother with a stick run 80 kilometres in a polyester dress and in sandals is a sight to behold. I sent that to my father and said he had no excuse not to walk at least one block every day. And also one of the opportunities I got was to hike with a group of American survivalist right afterwards who went into the Copper Canyons with several Tarahumara to experience the wilderness. I had nothing else but my laptop, I had two phones one was English one was Mexican, and a solar battery. That is all I took with me on the survival trip. It was phenomenal because it was unexpected, I wasn't ready which meant that I was entirely dependent on the generosity of others and that is one of the best places to be in your life every now and then. Again, witness to the fortitude of the Tarahumara. There's this young girl, who was 16 and she had basically hiked all the way down to participate in this race - that height took her about 24 hours maybe 36 hours. She had done that, she arrived in Urique, she slept, the next day she ran 80 kilometres and then the day after that she's carrying a bunch of stuff of our group, basically all our food, up back the mountains so that she can go back home. And she happened to have a hairline fracture on her foot and she never complained.

Guy: [00:22:04] No way!

Alex: [00:22:05] I know I know. And it was, you witnessed that and you don't know it until it's actually happening and it's just one of those … 

Alex: [00:22:14] You keep hearing about legends but until you're actually there living it side by side with these people, can you actually comprehend that they are super they're superheroes, they're Supermen.

Guy: [00:22:24] It's amazing. And is this some of the inspiration for the link between your product and targeting athletes and these ultra runners. 

Alex: [00:22:36] Yes. So that's kind of going back to what I learned when I did the Kickstarter. I thought that everybody would care about a new product from a very unusual looking food, which was blue corn, and that people would care about a new vegan gluten-free sugar-refined-free bar. And turns out that's not true.

Guy: [00:22:58] Yeah. It's really interesting that you picked that up so fast, that people don't care about the products, they care about the stories. And if nothing is clear from this interview so far, you're full of stories and have so many interesting things to talk about. And that is what makes a really strong brand I think.

Alex: [00:23:14] Yeah, I mean if anything I have one too many stories so I need to pick wisely which ones to choose. But what happened was that during the Kickstarter I thought we would be a great success and we weren't. And I was very lucky because I had huge support around me from friends, family and others so that enabled me to actually fulfil the Kickstarter, but, I thought that we would generate interest in people who were completely new to the story and turns out we didn't. There's obviously a lot of mistakes that I made in terms of social media and promotion and I'm almost glad that I made them at that time because when I'm ready to launch the product I'll have a couple lessons that I can learn from. But what happened - so I had a Kickstarter, it wasn't anywhere near successful. I sat down, I had a complete meltdown, and then I picked myself up and I said, Ok what do we do from now? And I do believe that we have a great energy bar, but going back to the original story which is of these Tarahumara and the fact that they fuel themselves with this amazing product, I went, we need to tap into those who actually know of this product and who care and who potentially might really benefit from eating this. And those are ultra endurance athletes. So I was very very lucky and I met these, I call them the four musketeers, they're four ultra runners in the UK. They're a group of friends and they're fantastic. And I shared the story and they ran with it. Well ..

Guy: [00:24:47] Literally.

Alex: [00:24:48] Yeah. And they loved it and they shared my bars and they thought they were great. One of them is a nutritionalist, he's already come out with four new flavours that are extremely good, and as he pointed out there are no functional bars out there for ultra athletes. Most of what you see is concerned with macronutrients. This is high in protein, or this is low in carbs, but when you're actually looking at it what can that bar or that food do for you? And very rarely will you have anything at all. So when it comes to ultra runners there's a bunch of things that you could address and these benefits can actually trickle down to anyone. So one of them is anti-inflammatory. When you're running for 10 hours at one point your joints start hurting. Well why don't you eat something that helps you keep that inflammation down, that also happens to be a bar that's really good if you have joint problems whether you're an ultra runner or not. Other things are immune system boost - a lot of ultra runners at the end of the race, if you're running 36 hours straight, well have a system that's incredibly stressed and most of the time you'll catch a cold right after you finish. So why don't we boost that immune system right before you finish that race to help you fight whatever virus or bacteria is out there. And that's also a bar that you could easily see being incredibly popular for people who are not ultra runners. So we're focusing on the ultra athlete in order to come up with a product that is absolutely exceptional, that happens to not exist currently in the market and that may benefit a much wider community than the ultra runners. 

Guy: [00:26:20] Brilliant. And just to piece together the timeline a little bit just for the benefit of anyone listening. You ran a Kickstarter campaign which I believe was successful, you met your target. Is that right? 

Alex: [00:26:31] Yes I did.

Guy: [00:26:32] So you reached the target and the Kickstarter campaign was to launch the bars, the pinole bars or the peak pinole bars, as you renamed them didn't you.

Alex: [00:26:43] Yes I did. I wish somebody had kind of stopped me when I came up with ... so the original name was Jubáami, spelt with two a's and one of those a's has an accent. And I think that still today I'm not quite sure which a has the accent, the first or the second. It means "ultimate" in the language of the Tarahumara, but just anyone with a tiny amount of sense should have sat me down mean, and been like "Honey this isn't gonna work this is way too complicated, come up with another name". So that was mistake number one and I'm glad I made it. So we rebranded it, Peak Pinole. So the Kickstarter started in October, ran through November. We successfully raised in November, I had the meltdown end of November beginning of December, December I met the ultra runners, realised that I had finally found the niche market that I could really target and also develop products for, and with. In January I was in Mexico trying to sort out the supply chain and then I've been working on that ever since. And in March, that's when I went to the Copper Canyons, and I decided to create the Peak Pinole team. And the aim of that team is for anybody who wants to run either a marathon or 80 kilometres you're allowed to do both, and it's for next year run in March 2019. We are all going to go into the Copper Canyon's, there'll be obviously an organised transport for the team and organised accommodation, and we are aiming to raise funds for the Tarahumara. We have yet to decide exactly how those funds are going to be distributed throughout the communities, we have to be very careful, we don't want to generate more chaos than benefits. So we're working really closely on that and we're going to be going back to the Copper Canyons this summer to speak to them and see how best to utilise those funds. And then we're going to be fundraising for the people and building a team and hopefully there's going to be a lovely group of Peak Pinole team athletes joining us next year.

Guy: [00:28:50] Wow, I don't know how to take all this in, it's quite incredible. We first met, I think Autumn last year, just before you were doing the Kickstarter campaign. We gave you a bit of support on that side of things, but the story has progressed so quickly, so fast, and so far, in just those few months and and it sounds like you've learned so much in such a short space of time. One thing that you mentioned that really stood out to me, is how you've gone hyper focused with a niche. I think sometimes people are very scared to do that because they think that they are alienating such a massive part of the market. But I think in most cases going niche is really the best marketing solution. 

Alex: [00:29:38] I completely agree with that. I also have to say that making a product for a generalised profile or generalised customer is nowhere near as motivating as when you actually personally know the people that you want to engage. And I am head over heels by the fact that the ultra running community that I have met are some of the funnest, and nicest, and most generous, and captivating people I know. They're completely different than your marathoners or your joggers or anything else. They're all insane which is great, because I think I'm slightly insane. 

Guy: [00:30:20] I think you have to be to start a business, let alone a food business.

Alex: [00:30:23] Yeah. They have these amazing desires to go and run for, literally dozens of hours, but because they do that they will go into these fantastic areas, so a lot of the runs happen to be in beautiful landscape. So for example, the UTMB which is in the Mont Blanc in France is amazing. Obviously the Caballo Blanco is incredible and the Copper Canyons, and you have a bunch of other things. So they'll go in search for nature and they'll go run in nature, and they obviously love to run together which again is quite powerful because they understand the power of being in a tribe and then running together. And finally they have to be attuned to their body, their body is their engine. And if you mess up the fuel of that engine, that run is going to go very badly. So they are already quite highly educated about what they eat, and they are also natural environmentalist because they run a lot of time in nature, or at least in trails,  plastic is something that they abhor. And we are completely dedicated in my company right now to actually come out with a compostable or recyclable packaging and I think we're gonna be able to afford the compostable packaging right away. So that we will be one of the very rare energy bars out there where if you throw or you happen to discard the packaging, know that in six months time that's not going to pollute the environment and it will be gone. 

Guy: [00:31:53] That's brilliant. Are you speaking to the guys at TIPA about the packaging?

Alex: [00:31:57] Yes. Yes I am. Yes I am. 

Guy: [00:31:59] Wonderful! We've done a bit of work with the guys over at Snact and I know that they have been on the show before and also do this compostable packaging for their banana bars. And I think for their other products as well. So maybe I should introduce you guys and you can have a chat about all things compostable packaging.

Alex: [00:32:19] So actually, I do know the Snact peeps and they're the ones who inspired the desire to not use plastic and to go compostable. I have a huge debt towards them because I think they're paving the way and I'm just following in the footsteps of what they've already created. All hands completely down to a Snact, and thank you so much for showing that you can do it and for doing it. Oh no no no I am completely indebted towards Snact. 

Guy: [00:32:48] This is amazing, this is making absolutely perfect radio, I don't think we could have planned any better. Unfortunately we are running out of time, and so just to wrap things up, you've given us so many stories and so many lessons to take away already. But I'd just like to wrap up with, what is your one piece of advice for somebody getting started in this line of work, whether they're importing products from Mexico, or going compostable packaging, what would be some advice you would give to somebody else starting out at this time? 

Alex: [00:33:25] You have to know your customer and who you're targeting and the only way that you can do that is not by speaking to them, not just by speaking to them, but by getting a product in their hands and asking them to use it like they normally would. That's the way that I learn. When people use it they will come back with the kind of feedback that they would not if they were just speaking to you about it, or if they just tasted it in a situation that was completely artificial. For example standing in front of you, where your stall is. It's very important to get that product into their hands and develop it whilst listening very carefully to the audience you are targeting. And that will help you develop it further. As you're making it you'll realise all the hiccups and trials and tribulations of actually producing a product. And then as you're producing it with your target audience, that target audience will more and more be invested in your story, because they are co-producing that product with you. If you can think of your target audience as co-producers then I think you've won the battle.

Guy: [00:34:36] Alex Littaye from Azure Foods, and you can find out more about them and buy their blue corn pinole powder at That's Still to come today our Resource of the Week. But up next is our Lessons Learned. 

Guy: [00:35:01] So we're back in the studio and it's time for our Lessons learned segment. Just as a bit of a side note while we were listening back to the interview with Alex, I started googling for some images of rainbow corn and oh my goodness there's some brilliant stuff out there. If you ever want to get lost in a Google rabbit trail go and have a look at some of these, we'll link some up in the show notes as well at Kylie, what do you think?

Kylie: [00:35:25] The images, or about the pinole bar?

Guy: [00:35:27] Well, we could probably talk for hours about both.

Kylie: [00:35:28] The images are pretty.

Guy: [00:35:31] Let's keep it on topic. So, anything that you took away from the interview with Alex? Some amazing stuff in there.

Kylie: [00:35:37] Yeah, she's clearly passionate about what she's doing and I have a whole page of notes here. One of the things that I align heavily with is her real desire to build a business around sustainable principles. And she's demonstrating that in two ways, both in looking at the farming and trying to stay with their traditional way of farming which has this symbiosis and not go off on to mass produced methods - where you know you're going to effectively rape the earth by just putting rows and rows of corn. I really love that that she's you know she's taking the time, and obviously she has PhD in this kind of stuff, but it really shows her desire to want to do it the right way and do it environmentally correctly. 

Guy: [00:36:24] Yeah and you can really hear the passion in her voice when she's speaking, so passionate, so knowledgeable and really doing some great things. But also so open as well about the things that she did which didn't work and that she's learned from as well, which is brilliant.

Kylie: [00:36:38] But the second thing on that sustainability front was her desire to do well by the community that she's working with. And we often talk about fair trade, and most people think that that means a fairly traded product, which means paying a good price or the right price for a raw good. So it would normally be tea or coffee or and then in this case corn. But Alex has gone further than that and said I don't want to pay for the raw product because that starts to distort the prices of that product. And she's looked at it holistically and said, what does it mean for the community who are growing that corn and what is the best way to pay them for the products that they have. And she's wanting to empower them so that they are then in control of more of the end product, and more opportunity so that they can go to other brands, or other people, to the local community and create their own products and market them.

Guy: [00:37:35] Yeah, I mean the fact that she's not just trying to give them a fair price for something that they've produced, but  as you said empower them with the resources, and the infrastructure and the machinery as well. I mean it's a huge commitment on her side to want to have such a sustainable and ethical business through and through. It's such an amazing way to approach things.

Kylie: [00:37:57] I've noticed that she tries to avoid using the word 'help' which I think is brilliant. I've done a lot of travel in Africa and worked for humanitarian organisations, and I spent a bit of time in some of the countries where humanitarian aid, way back when had, was received and that was all about the you know the Western countries trying to "help" these smaller communities. That help often comes in the form of an asset like a water pump, but then they don't empower the local community about how to fix that water pump when it breaks, and when it breaks then they're not helping anymore. The help is stopped. I think by her looking more at what it means for the community and how they can take that and pass it on to their future generations - and she talks about making you know the young kids proud of something that their identity is built upon - is it just speaks so much to how much thought Alex has put in to what she's doing.

Guy: [00:38:58] Yeah absolutely. Kind of moving things along a little bit. I think one of the big things that I remember from the interview is how she's gone for this hyper-targeted niche of these ultra runners. When we first started Sapling and The Rood Rush, I always knew that, I've loved food for so many years I always knew I wanted to do something in food and work with food people. I was always a little hesitant like, oh you know where we're cutting out so many other potential streams of work or streams of business. And then when we said, "Right we're going to go even more targeted and only work with food brands who are doing something good or positive or ethical or sustainable". I was like, "well that really speaks to us but we're cutting out so many people. Is this going to work?" And and I think Alex has done exactly the same kind of thing she's been brave and gone really really niched down and focused.

Kylie: [00:39:48] And I think that she has said it before, it helps her then to be able to communicate her message and to talk about the benefits and the product, because she knows this person that she's trying to sell to you, and she knows these runners, she knows what they're looking for in terms of energy and their immune system. It makes it much easier for her to communicate that through her brand if she understands their needs. As she said, she made that mistake originally of being, "I'm going to have a vision low GI blah blah blah ...” 

Guy: [00:40:24] high protein.

Kylie: [00:40:25] Yeah, people don't really care about that, it doesn't really speak to them. That's a by-product of the product almost, it's not a "I have this problem, I need to solve it", which is what a long distance runner clearly they have this problem - my bones start to wake and when muscles start to ache after 10 hours, I need to be sure that whatever I'm putting into my body is going to address that problem.

Guy: [00:40:49] As we were listening you mentioned something about the idea of the co-creation.

Kylie: [00:40:54] Oh no, says she uses this term "co-producer", and I think that's brilliant. She is saying, you don't come up with  great idea and then you take something to market. You start with an idea, and then you involve the very people who the product is for, and listen to them. And what do they need and why do they want it, and then I guess you iterate on that many times.

Guy: [00:41:15] Yeah. Brilliant. Such a huge lesson there for anyone listening, is not just creating something in a vacuum, or in a silo, or whatever you want to call it, but working with your target customer to produce something which of course means you need to know who your target customer is. 

Kylie: [00:41:29] Yeah. And she actually said something very similar to what Tessa Steuart has said in the past is: you have to know your customer, and you have to then ask them about your product - you have to really get it in front of them and listen to what they say.

Guy: [00:41:42] And of course something that we're hugely passionate about here at Sapling. And if anyone wants to find out more about some of that stuff that we do and how we can help people really get an understanding of their target customer, go and check out the website those details of our 'Find My Tribe' service over there for you to take a look.

Guy: [00:41:59] So before we move on to our Resource of the Week. Any  last thoughts Kylie.

Kylie: [00:42:06] I have one, which Alex mentioned right at the beginning of the interview, I've heard this a few times. It was that she took someone else's idea - someone had tried to do this in the States and they hadn't done very well for whatever reason.

Guy: [00:42:22] Or she just didn't like the way that they did it.

Kylie: [00:42:24] Oh no, she said that the project failed.

Guy: [00:42:27] Ah, yes.

Kylie: [00:42:28] So she took that idea and said, you know what I'm going to take that and I'm going to make it work in the UK. And I love that, there are no new ideas or very few new ideas. It often comes down to the execution. And so if she can target a very specific customer, and be very clear about that and get their needs addressed, of course she's going to have success. And that doesn't mean that someone else, like she says she's not the only person doing pinole products, but she's only the person in the UK targeting elite athlete or endurance athletes I should say. So there's no reason that someone else couldn't decide, well I want to do pinole bars and I want to do for the yummy mummy yoga crowd. Because there are no new ideas really in the world.

Guy: [00:43:16] Yeah absolutely right, and I think that's also similar to something that Kimberly Herd from Tabl said, she was like ideas are 10% and execution is 90%. I'm probably misquoting slightly, but that concept that the idea is only part of it is so so true. And so if you think that you have lots of competitors then don't worry about it because it's all really in the execution, rather than the idea itself.

Guy: [00:43:39] Brilliant. Right. I think we should move on to our Resource of the Week.

Guy: [00:43:47] Right. So are resource of the week this week is an online tool called Trello. And this is one of your favorites isn't it Kylie?

Kylie: [00:43:56] It is. I'm not much of a geek but Trello is one of my favourite process in organisation tools.

Guy: [00:44:03] You do love a bit of organization and process and systems and stuff don't you.

Kylie: [00:44:06] Yeah. That would be my ...

Guy: [00:44:09] forte.

Kylie: [00:44:09] Yes, my forte, I was going to use a rude word, but that's a better word.

Guy: [00:44:14] Let's stick with forte shall we. This is a clean show I'll have you know. So Kylie tell us, first of all, what is Trello?

Guy: [00:44:22] Trello is a task manager for all the things that you need to do.

Guy: [00:44:27] So, like a to-do list but it's ...

Kylie: [00:44:29] It's much more than a to-do list. It's a to-do list but with a a sequence of events I guess that you would pass that task through.

Guy: [00:44:38] Yeah. And the way that they organise it, it's like project management, but it's a very simple tool, very intuitive. 

Kylie: [00:44:46] Don't say project management, because everyone doesn't like project managers. It's much simpler than a project manager and this actually gets the work done.

Guy: [00:44:53] Yeah that's very true. And so they have this concept of cards, which is like an an individual piece of work that you might want to do or a task, and then there are lists to organise your process. And so you might have a particular task that goes through five different steps of a process. So from beginning to finished and to give you a tangible example we use it for all of our content production, for our editorial calendar, and our podcast production calendar, so that we can manage that process and always know what the status of everything, like where is it in all the various different stages of the process.

Kylie: [00:45:31] Yeah, but you could also use it for things like a staff on-boarding or staff off-boarding. Anything that that you take from a beginning to an end. And one of the things I love about it is at each stage of your process you can have associated checklists, to make sure that you do all the things that you need to do within that stage of the process.

Guy: [00:45:53] Yeah and it's got all sorts of other features for  assigning different tasks or cards to different people. You can have commenting, you can attach files, just like you attaching a document to an email or something like that. It's just a great way to keep all the work together in one place. 

Kylie: [00:46:08] So let me give a really concrete example: for our editorial calendar, we would start on the left hand side column with a brief being written, the next column would be assigning it to a writer, the next column would be draft is being written, the next column would be it's gone in for edit, the next part would be you know it goes into wordpress, the next part might be adding images, the next part might be doing the SEO, and then the final part would be actually publishing it on the website. 

Guy: [00:46:41] And then also the promotion as well you could manage in Trello. You could have an entire system for managing your social media promotion, or your email marketing, or all sorts of different things. It's a really versatile tool and it's quite easy to customise.

Kylie: [00:46:54] And, it's FREE.

Guy: [00:46:55] Maybe we should've started with that. Yeah. It's a completely free tool. I think they do have paid options as well but you can definitely get started with the free one. We've been using it for years and have never given them a cent. 

Guy: [00:47:07] And the reason that I chose Trello as the resource for this episode is actually because of something that Alex our guest said offline after the interview had finished. She said that they're actually creating an entirely separate blog or website to go alongside their brand website, which is a blog about ultra endurance. So they're going to go down this huge content marketing exercise to create something standalone and unique and valuable to anyone who is in that community. And then they're kind of associating their brand with that concept and so they'll use it as a way to talk about their products, and to perhaps do a little bit of advertising, or just build that bridge between they're a company that makes peak pinole bars and a company that is serving that ultra running community. And so because Trello is such a great thing for managing content I thought it would be a good one to to bring in here. Kylie any final thoughts any last minute bits and pieces or are we done for the day?

Kylie: [00:48:11] We're almost done. But if you have any questions about Trello, there is nothing that I would rather do, than talk about Trello, so do hit us up if you have any questions or are struggling to use it.

Guy: [00:48:24] Well that says a lot about the kind of fun that we have in our house doesn't it. So that wraps is up for today. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you so much for listening. We really do appreciate it. 

Guy: [00:48:36] If you are enjoying the show we'd love it if you'd leave us a review on iTunes. It's a great way to help new people find the show and to support some of the great work that our guests are doing as well. So if you had head to that will redirect you over there and you can leave your review.

Guy: [00:48:56] If you want any of the notes, or the links, or to read the transcript for today's episode, or if you want to go and check out some of those amazing pictures of rainbow corn, head to the show notes that's at You can find the episode there along with all of the others in the archive.

Guy: [00:49:14] Next week we're gonna be chatting to Neil Whippey from Eat Grub about edible insects and block chain. So make sure you tune in next time to to hear that, a really interesting and diverse mix of topics and definitely some good lessons to be learned over there as well. So thanks so much for joining us today. We'll see you next time. Cheers.

Kylie: [00:49:34] Bye.