“Providing hope never tasted so good”. – Don Larson, founder and CEO of Sunshine Nut Company
I am always inspired by the amazing people out there who are making the world a better place and giving back. Meet Don Larson, founder and CEO of Sunshine Nut Company, a cashew company that is harnessing the food industry to create lasting economic transformation in Mozambique. In 2011, Larson and his family left a 25-year high-level career in the food industry to launch Sunshine Nut Company with the belief that a food company can be the catalyst for lasting economic transformation in some of the poorest countries in the world.
When Larson and his family left the comforts of their home in the US to set off on a new adventure in Mozambique, many thought he was a little nuts. However, in the past six years Larson has done amazing things to help the community in Mozambique and change the world, one package of nuts at a time.
Sunshine Nut Company grows, roasts and packages cashews in Matola, Mozambique where they operate a world-class cashew factory and are able to go from tree to package in just three weeks. Thirty years ago, cashews were one of Mozambique’s top cash makers however almost two decades of civil war and poor economic conditions nearly destroyed the once lucrative industry. Larson found this as an opportunity to not only bring back the cashew industry but create lasting sustainable change by empowering the local community.
Sunshine Nut Company directly employs over 50 people at their factory, hiring primarily adult orphans and promoting from within. 90% of their distributed profits are reinvested back into the community: 30% to orphan care, 30% to farming communities, and 30% to replicate the business model elsewhere. Now in over 3,000 stores across the US, Sunshine Nut Company hopes that when you purchase their cashews, you taste the difference in the freshness and quality, and find hope in knowing that you are making a difference in the lives of the poor and orphaned in Mozambique.
I had the opportunity to interview Don and here is what he has to say about the mission behind Sunshine Nut Company and what his visions for the future are.
Me: Tell me a little bit more about your career/background. I see you worked in the food industry for over 25 years. What did you learn?
Don: My career in the food industry prior to starting Sunshine Nut Co. was widely varied. I established myself as a “turnaround guy,” incorporating expertise in manufacturing, industrial engineering, sourcing, and management in order to build out successful food factories. During my time as Director of Cocoa Operations at Hershey, I traveled to West Africa and witnessed the effects of extreme poverty firsthand. I didn’t realize it then, but that was the start of developing ideas around using the food industry to create a positive impact for the entire supply chain, starting with smallholder farmers.
A constant theme in my professional career has been taking on seemingly impossible tasks and creating something vibrant from what everyone else thought would surely fail. The tenacity I developed in my earlier career to problem solve in difficult situations is something that has massively applied to my career now as an entrepreneur working in a cross-cultural setting. In a place like Mozambique, you can have all the education and experience in the world, but none of that matters unless you also have the willingness to place yourself in new, challenging situations, humble yourself, and relearn everything you know to apply in this new setting.
Me: What inspired you to give up a lucrative, successful career in the US and move your family to Mozambique to start the Sunshine Nut Co?
Don: I left the corporate world in 2007 after building a major cocoa processing plant that then became the largest, fully automated cocoa processing line in the world. Once the plant was sold, I was no longer needed as CEO and I decided to step away from corporate life to pursue a more meaningful life calling. I had no desire to ever get back into food processing, much less step another foot onto the African continent. However, it was in that season that I began digging deeper into a calling that turned out to be everything I thought I didn’t want, but now brings incredible purpose and joy in my life: to build food factories in developing nations to bring lasting economic change.
Me: Why did you choose cashews and why Mozambique?
Don: Mozambique was once the world’s primary supplier of cashew nuts. After gaining independence in 1975, a devastating civil war crushed the industry and left barren factories throughout the nation. When I was first developing the concept, I visited Tanzania and was about to purchase land there. However, a prominent investor from London recommended that I visit Mozambique before planting roots in Tanzania, and nothing was more perfect than the cashews I found here.
The first motivation to produce cashews was the desire to provide a market for smallholder farmers. Despite the decimated cashew industry in Mozambique, cashews were still being grown across the nation on a large-scale, to far more supply than demand required.
Because we are located in Mozambique where we grow, roast and package all of our cashews, we are able to go from shell to bag in just two weeks, capturing incomparable flavor and freshness. We like to say, “We capture the crunch in a cashew.” Truly, there is no other cashew on the US market that tastes like ours! Being able to introduce our brand to customers with a truly unique and differentiated market is essential to the longevity of our brand as we eventually grow to producing other products.
Me: Tell me more about the mission and business model behind the Sunshine Nut Company.
Don: Sunshine Nut Company is based on the Sunshine Approach business model, which is a value driven business with a quadruple bottom line – financial, environmental, social and transformational. Our bottom line is built on the premise that packaged natural foods can leverage improvement at all levels of the value chain. In order to ensure this, we are based in Mozambique, right where our cashews are grown. We source as much of our raw materials from Mozambique itself, and when that is not possible, we source from the Southern African region. We also seek to provide the best job opportunities and work experience available in the cashew industry. A recent government official who visited our factory noted that our employees are the highest compensated workers in the entire Mozambican cashew industry. As we grow, our desire is to constantly seek improvements in how we can provide a positive and productive work environment that catalyzes the holistic transformation of our employees and, by extension, their families.
The second stage of our business model is reinvesting 90% of our distributed profits back into the community – 30% to orphan care, 30% to rural farming communities and 30% to replicating the business model elsewhere. This is a continuation of utilizing our value chain for good – the final step. Thus the social impact doesn’t stop at our factory.
Me: How do you give back and help the local community?
Don: I founded Sunshine Nut Co. in order to drive community transformation, so we have gotten involved in that in a number of ways. We donate 90% of our profits back into the local community, which is done through our foundational arm, where we are able to also receive donations. Our main social focus is caring for orphans and widows, which has led to everything from student education sponsorships, a weekly community feeding that reached over 200 children, supporting local orphanages and providing health-focused trainings at primary schools.
However, our main initiative is our Sunshine Houses, where we pair widows or abandoned older women with orphans to create a loving and positive home environment. It is estimated that 10% of the population of Mozambique is orphaned. There is a similarly pressing issue of abandoned children and widows. We developed Sunshine Houses based on the desire to see vulnerable children raised in a family setting.
Me: Tell me about some of the challenges working in Mozambique as well as some of the greatest rewards?
Don: Well, the most obvious challenge to working in Mozambique as an American is the language! Portuguese is the official language here, and in the area where we work, the local language, Shangana, is also very prevalent. My frequent travel and many who speak to me in English has unfortunately made learning the language very difficult.
Another challenge is the crushing bureaucracy that creates daily head-against-the-wall moments. We have learned to overcome through patience, high moral integrity, and an unwillingness to compromise our principles.
One of the greatest rewards we have experienced thus far is seeing two of our employees raised into management positions. They grasped the company’s vision and were unafraid to step up to the task. They now lead our production team of 30 with excellence and commitment. Seeing them grow in the way they interact with daily challenges has been incredibly uplifting and inspirational for the whole team.
Me: How has your family adjusted to life in Mozambique?
Don: Prior to starting Sunshine Nut Co., my family lived a very affluent lifestyle. Our children were in private school, we had all the luxuries we wanted and we were extremely content.
When my wife and I moved to Mozambique, it changed everything. Our youngest son, Will, came with us, but we left our oldest daughter in college and our middle son in his last year of high school. It was an extremely challenging period of transition for our family but we now have a completely different outlook on life. We value others more than ourselves and find satisfaction in the more simple things that create joy, contentment and fulfillment.
Me: How has the business grown and changed over the past six years?
Don: Our vision has always been to build food factories in developing nations to bring lasting economic transformation. Naturally, sales are the primary driver of our success that then allows us to accomplish our quadruple bottom line.
Our factory in Mozambique started production in 2013 and we have experienced incredible growth ever since. In less than four years, we have made it into in all the major US grocery distributors, we are appearing regularly on QVC selling out every time, and I am speaking all over the world sharing about our business model as a way to effectively solve systemic poverty through jobs that are dignified and sustainable. Our product is available in over 3,000 stores across the US, and growing.
With this fast-paced growth, we have also experienced all the challenges that go along with it: personnel, logistics, working capital needs, and seething competitors trying to put us out of business! I would like to think that most of the changes in our company have been for the positive: we now have an incredible team in Mozambique and in the US, we have perfected our product offering, and we have many more items coming down the pipeline including smaller 2 oz. packages that we only dreamed of having a few years ago.
Me: What kind of impact has Sunshine Nut Co. made within the community?
Don: Cecilia, Madalena and Antonio, the children in our first Sunshine House, are the greatest example of the impact we have had in Mozambique. When my wife and I first met them, they had just lost both their parents and were living in an extremely vulnerable situation. Now, whenever we have them over to our house, their joy and excitement fills the house. They are also now attending a private Christian school, which has facilitated this transformation greatly. When other aspects of the business prove challenging, spending time with these three kids reminds me of our purpose and potential for driving positive transformation on an even larger scale.
Similarly, I am incredibly proud of the jobs we are providing through our roasting factory. Historically, we have hired primarily out of orphanages, a vulnerable population with few other job opportunities. These jobs create hundreds of jobs for shelling operations (removing the cashews from the shell), and a ready market for tens of thousands of smallholder farmers. The multiplicative effect on people’s livelihoods makes our job very satisfying.
Want to learn more? Check out Sunshine Nut Company’s website here. I especially love the piece on the “Story of Cashews” and their Philanthropic Work. And of course, the shop and store locator is wonderful too!