Philippines’ plant-based pioneers WTH Foods striving to overcome regional expansion challenges

By Guan Yu Lim

- Last updated on GMT

Philippines’ WTH Foods exploring South East Asian expansion with plant-based meat but cites challenges ©WTH Foods Facebook
Philippines’ WTH Foods exploring South East Asian expansion with plant-based meat but cites challenges ©WTH Foods Facebook

Related tags plant based Philippines

The Philippines-based WTH Foods is looking to expand in Singapore and other South East Asian markets with its range of plant-based meats, but has cited challenges in market testing and production.

WTH which stands for Worth The Health launched its first products in September last year, with an aim to develop WTH into an ASEAN plant-based brand.

Currently retailing five products in the Philippines, its plant-based ground meat (Giniling) and corned beef products are best-sellers.

To get the texture and nutritional content of its plant-based meat on par with the animal version, WTH utilised ingredients such as unripe jackfruit which gave the texture of pulled pork, and mung bean flour which contain essential amino acids. In addition, its products contain a mix of soy protein, tapioca starch, carrageenan as well as coconut oil for fat.

The small team of six is now hoping to enter Singapore by the end of this year, Thailand and Indonesia after.

It is currently conducting market testing for products adapted to local taste buds.

For instance, a dried meat (Bak Kwa) or Pork Floss product might be in the works for Singaporean consumers. For Thailand, it would be something similar to minced meat, and Indonesia, a Rendang dish.

FoodNavigator-Asia​ spoke to founder and CEO of WTH Foods, Stephen Co who laid down some challenges faced by the team, not least caused by the ongoing pandemic.

Challenges aplenty

As a small company, WTH does not have the manufacturing scale of more mainstream plant-based food companies.

This means it need to find the right contract manufacturer to produce its products.

There are not a lot of contract manufacturers available for plant-based foods in the Philippines and in South East Asia. Typically, plant-based companies will use meat-processing contract manufacturers, but there is also the problem of contaminating plant-based products with meat ingredients​.”

Another issue was getting the cost down in a bid to become more mainstream. Currently, its products are priced around ₱250 (US$5) for 200g-250g bag.

While WTH’s plant-based products are suitable for vegan and vegetarian consumers, Co said its target audience is meat-eaters. “We are not trying to convince them to cut out their meat, but to replace some of their meals with plant-based​.”

Co further explained that plant-based consumers were split into two groups, the pre-2018 which consumed plant-based foods for animal welfare, ethnics, cruelty free reasons, and post-2018 which focused more on the health benefits of plant-based foods compared to animal based.

Co added its products appealed to young professionals, fresh graduates from university, people in their mid-30s and young families. “(We find that) the millennials and Gen Z are more willing to try out new products​.”

It’s like a chicken and egg situation. You don’t want to invest so much when testing out the market, but you can’t go mainstream without making your products as cheap or as economical as animal meat​.”

We are competing against a highly efficient animal industry which has its production optimised for several decades​.”

Then, there was also the consumer perception of plant-based foods. “Can I convince Filipinos to give up pork and meat for something that is similar but made of plants?​”

Above all, the unexpected challenge this year was the pandemic, which disrupted its expansion plans.

Co told us it was difficult to do a market test of its products in overseas markets with international travel restricted. The company resorted to rely on local companies to recreate its products for local taste testing.

In addition, Co said as WTH products were frozen, but it was difficult to ship huge quantities of frozen products overseas.

Despite plenty of challenges, Co remains optimistic.

Before the pandemic, WTH’s products were sold on its website, 50 specialty grocers and e-commerce sites like Grabfood and Food Panda in the Philippines.

Co said: “When we first launched in September 2019, sales were picking up, but plateaued during the pandemic​.”

Many Filipinos are choosing to cook at home or order online as they are afraid of going out​.

For this, we have to grow our e-commerce presence, and our sales are now improving monthly, as we figure out how to play in this new normal​.”

WTH is hoping to enter larger supermarket chains in the future to expand its reach. “We want to get our products mainstream into supermarkets, this will be more impactful for the bigger population​.”

Development in progress

Currently, its ground meat and corned beef products have proved popular, which are typical staple breakfast food for Filipinos.

Co told us the company is now developing a new product, a soy-based sausage which it hopes can help bridge cultures.

As a lean company, Co is not afraid to remove existing products if market reception was not good. The company is hoping to keep its product line to seven products.

WTH is also conducting R&D on a seafood product made with microalgae, as it looks to create a plant-based squid/prawn product.

However, Co said achieving the chewy and bouncy texture for plant-based seafood proved difficult.

According to Co, the Philippines is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with plenty of agricultural and indigenous plant ingredients that were a good source of protein. It was this reason along with the rise of plant-based trend in the West, which inspired Co to start the company.

It sources half of its ingredients locally, while the other half from China, US and Australia. Co explained: “The plant-based market is still small in the Philippines and there are not a lot of suppliers. On the other hand, US is a big producer of soy and China a manufacturer of soy protein, so to ensure stability, we import some of our ingredients​.”

In addition to a South East expansion, the firm has received recommendations by advisors to consider targeting the 12 million Filipinos living in more than 100 countries, in the hope that these consumers can eventually become its brand ambassador.

WTH is a portfolio company of the venture capital firm, Big Idea Ventures.

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