Cashews with a Social Mission: From Hershey Exec to Sunshine Nuts
March 8, 2017, by Robin D. Schatz
From Forbes Magazine
Do you have to be a little nuts to give up all the trappings of corporate success, move your family to Mozambique to start a cashew company and pledge to give away 90% of your profits to help orphans and farmers?
More than a few people suggested as much to Don Larson, a former Hershey Company exec who sold his Porshe, his hot air balloon and his house with a swimming pool to buy a small factory in Matola, Mozambique to launch his social enterprise.
Larson’s Sunshine Nut Company, sells roasted cashews, grown by small farmers in Mozambique and produced entirely in-country. The company, which turned its first profit 18 months ago, sold about $2 million worth of cashews last year, and Larson is projecting $3 million to $5 million in revenue this year. The nuts can now be found in some 2,000 U.S. stores, including Whole Foods and Wegman’s.
More than 30 years ago, Mozambique led the world in cashew production. But, following independence in 1975, 16 years of civil war and bad banking policies decimated the industry. Now, Larson is trying to bring it back – this time, by empowering local communities, paying farmers fairly for their product and creating jobs with upward mobility for the country’s orphans and abandoned children in Sunshine’s factories. The company is devoting 30% of its net proceeds to support agricultural development and 30% to care for orphans and vulnerable children; another 30% will be directed to expanding to other developing regions, and, eventually, to other crops.
Sunshine Nut Company sells roasted cashews that are grown and processed in Mozambique to create jobs and a fair market for local farmers. Photo courtesy of Sunshine Nut Company.
Most social entrepreneurs like to stress their founding story, the goals they hope to accomplish, the motivations that drive everything they do. The product itself? Sometimes, it’s just good enough, but nothing special. The really savvy social entrepreneurs have learned that a sincere mission and a superior product must go hand-in-hand.
It’s taken the 52-year-old Larson a while to come to that realization. Until recently, he gave his compelling founders’ tale short shrift. His marketing was all about the product; he didn’t want people to buy his nuts because of his social mission. Larson thought sales would grow by word of mouth, just because they tasted so good and were priced competitively.
That was until his retail customers weighed in, Larson recalls. “The retailers said, ‘You’re crazy, people need to know your story. The reverse will happen, they’ll buy the product, at a competitive price, it’s amazingly tasty and incredibly fresh and they will not go down the aisle without seeing your package and putting it in their carts because of the good things you do.’”
Well, Larson paid attention. Soon, Sunshine will release its new packaging, where Sunshine’s back story and mission feature prominently In 2015, he gave a TEDx talk talk in Lancaster PA., where he referred to Sunshine as “social impact on steroids.”
Cashews coming off the roaster at Sunshine Nut Company. Photo courtesy of Sunshine.
Larson’s ultimate goal is to replicate his factory-in-a-box business model – everything he needed fit into a 40-foot shipping container. He follows the “Sunshine Approach, adhering to what he calls the “quadruple bottom line.” Most social enterprises judge their success by three measures: financial viability, social mission and environmental impact. Larson takes it one step further, by insisting on a fourth metric, creating “transformation” in local economies.
In Mozambique, besides paying farmers a fair price and offering them a market for their product, Sunshine is training and employing adult orphans to take leadership roles at its factory, and it's collaborating with local universities to teach food service and international safety standards. There are currently about 35 workers at the factory. They provide a market for some 50,000 farmers, and provide income for thousands of others, who make their livelihood from shelling the cashews by hand.
During his 13 years at Hershey, Larson wore many hats as a "turnaround guy," moving from one sector of the business to another for a year at a time to bring about innovations. During his time running worldwide cocoa sourcing, he was deeply moved by the crushing poverty he saw in many African countries. He eventually left Hershey to join a cocoa processing startup, first serving as chief operating officer, then as acting chief executive, to supply Hershey with liquid cocoa. Things were going great, until the investors called him up one day and said they didn't need him anymore. The next day, the company was acquired.
Disillusioned and demoralized, he turned down scores of job offers. He went on what he calls a "spiritual journey" into the woods to rethink his future. Remembering his experiences in Africa, he resolved to make a difference. Now, he and his wife, Terri, who runs the Sunshine Approach Foundation, live "modestly," and, he says, "We couldn't be happier."
Larson doesn't like to dwell on the bad things that have happened since he started Sunshine -- like being held up at gunpoint, along with his whole family, in front of his own home in Mozambique with an AK-47 aimed at his chest.
He'd much rather stress Sunshine's accomplishments: planting 2,000 cashew seedlings in villages throughout northern Mozambique; pairing orphans with widows and building them new houses.; starting a sewing factory to employe local women and make school uniforms for the kids who can't go to school for lack of funds to buy them. The list goes on.
All these projects, of course, could never happen if Sunshine didn't sell nuts that people want to eat. Larson says his competitors typically source their shelled nuts in India and Vietnam, then ship them in plastic packaging, which lets moisture accumulate; they don't process them for months at a time.
"They start with a stale cashew," he tells me. "I get it shelled down the road, I put it in a foil package with a high shelf life. The cashew lovers say, 'you’ve ruined me, I cant buy anybody else’s cashews.'"
Sunshine nuts come in four varieties, from plain, roasted with sunflower oil, to ones that are coated with herbs, spices or a "sprinkling of salt." For the herb-roasted flavor, Larson played chef, throwing a bunch of herbs on the table to coat the nuts. He won't reveal the recipe, other than to say rosemary and garlic play starring roles. He noticed that most of his competitors' spices ended up in the bottom of the bag, instead of on the cashews.
How does he get them to stick so well? Larson, ever the astute businessman, answers: "I'm not saying."
Robin D. Schatz is the health care editor at Crain's New York Business and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @Robin_Schatz. Read her Forbes stories here.
Read more of Don and Terri’s story from the Sunshine Nuts website:
At Sunshine Nut Co., being a little “nuts” is part of the job description. I started Sunshine Nut Co. after enjoying a successful 25-year career in the corporate food industry. In 2011, I gave it all up and moved my family to Mozambique to start Sunshine Nut Co.
It wasn’t an immediate decision. During my time as Director of Cocoa Operations at Hershey, I traveled to developing nations to source cocoa and witnessed the effects of extreme poverty firsthand. I had worked for years as the go-to “turnaround guy” at Hershey solving seemingly insurmountable problems in varying departments. This role led me to a problem that truly felt impossible – but that didn’t stop me from wanting to solve it.
In 2007, I turned down a major career move and left my corporate life for a spiritual journey to discover God’s true purpose for my life. It was in this season of listening and waiting that God spoke to me with clarity that was almost audible – saying, “Go and build food factories in developing nations to bring lasting economic transformation.” Through prayer and solitude, I then developed the Sunshine Approach business model, focusing on transforming lives at every level of the business. Not long after, I was led to Mozambique and its abundance of amazing cashews to start this grand adventure. Faced with a calling I had little desire to fulfill, I chose to be obedient. My wife and I sold everything we owned and moved our family to Mozambique.
Since we moved to Mozambique in 2011, we have found our own lives transformed. In the past six years, we have built a world-class food factory hiring primarily adult orphans. We have developed relationships with orphanages and other community organizations throughout Mozambique where we support and develop projects with 90% of our profits. In 2014, we landed on US shelves and today, we have an all-African staff of 30 producing the best tasting cashews under the sun!
As CEO of Sunshine Nut Company, I press forward relentlessly growing our operations in the US and Mozambique, while sharing our story all over the world. My wife, Terri, oversees all our philanthropic work as the Director of Social Impact and spends her days spreading love to the most needy in our community.
We hope when you buy our cashews, you not only taste the difference in freshness and quality, but also find hope in knowing that you are making a difference in the lives of the poor and orphaned in Mozambique.
Providing hope truly never tasted so good!
Founder & CEO of Sunshine Nut Co.