The pongamia tree is native to Asia and has been revered in Chinese and Indian medicine for thousands of years, particularly in ayurvedic remedies. This is because the pongamia tree’s beans are known to have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial purposes.
In addition, the tree is particularly hardy and capable of surviving under immensely tough conditions including limited water, high salinity, shallow soil, degraded soil and so on. It is also a legume tree and fixes nitrogen, all of which has made it a prime target for reforestation projects over the last 20 to 30 years.
“TerViva came across pongamia around 10 years ago, and at first we thought that its oil would be suitable as a biofuel. It wasn’t until 2015 that we switched direction to think of it more as a food product after realizing that we could use traditional oil seed processing equipment to steer it in this direction,” TerViva Founder and CEO Naveen Sikka told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“Pongamia can yield four to five tons of beans per acre – that’s four times more than soy beans, meaning that we only use a quarter of the land. With our patented processing technologies, we modified the traditional equipment and used this to debitter the beans and refine the products we got from them.”
Pongamia oil is 55% oleic acid, and the rest is mostly linoleic, palmitic and stearic acids, and Sikka described this as ‘closest in similarity to a mid-oleic sunflower oil, but organic’.
“We also want to produce pongamia flour with applications for baking due to its gluten-like properties, and pongamia protein isolates for beverage applications as these have very good solubility – about 90%, as opposed to soy which has about 50% solubility, and yellow peas at about 20% or 20%,” he said.
TerViva is filing for FDA approval next year and will start scaling up tree acreage and selling its products in North America first, but Sikka emphasized that Asia was definitely on their list.
“All of our products have been 10 years in the making, and we want to bring pongamia back to its roots in Asia, which has a big market for plant-based oils and proteins,” he added.
“Palm and soy are the main sources of plant-based oils and proteins in the region currently, and pongamia is healthier, more sustainable, carbon negative and affordable, so I think we could position this as a premium vegetable oil here.”
Pongamia trees are also native in Australia, and due to its ability to grow in adverse conditions, Sikka believes that it would be able to thrive even in land that has been scarred by the recent bushfires in the country.
“The trees can grow on degraded agricultural land, even bushfire-ravaged land – they would need water, of course, but they are tough,” he said.
“They also fix nitrogen in the soil so would help with recovery, and we’ve had measurements done with regards to carbon sequestration (the long-term removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow or reverse global warming) and found that the trees can remove five to seven tons of carbon per acre per year, which is a considerable amount.
“I believe we would also be able to set up a produce supply chain here, and work from the angle of marketing premium oils and plant ingredients from Australia to Asia.”
According to Sikka, one of the major challenges TerViva faced in dealing with pongamia was that harvesting could only be done after four years of planting – a hard-sell when dealing with regular farmers.
“A tree farmer would understand the long wait, but asking a regular crop farmer to wait so long, they would find it very hard, it would be a very hard-sell to get them in,” he said.
“In relation to this, ramping up supply to meet current demands have been difficult, as we’ve seen a good lot of engagement from food companies already, even though we haven’t even been FDA-approved yet. It truly goes to show how eager food companies are for such alternatives.”
TerViva is part of Mondelez’s SnackFuture programme for innovators, and although Sikka declined to provide details about the products both firms are working on together, he emphasized that the focus in Asia would be on the health and organic aspects.
“We’re looking at mostly B2B, but also B2C potential opportunities when we start to sell the oil, protein and flour,” he said.
TerViva is running another funding round this month after obtaining US$20mn in its Series D round last year, looking for investors to join its many supporters including global agtech fund The Yield Lab.