kubé, a raw coconut cream-based ice cream company in California, is working to address systems of oppression in the food supply chain.
The coconut industry including oils for cosmetics and milk for plant-based foods is growing. Coconut-based products can be a healthy alternative for milk, especially for people who are lactose intolerant. People of African heritage often face lactose intolerance, according to a study from The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology.
But according to the International Trade Centre, countries in the Caribbean and West Africa are often left out of the global coconut market because of a scarcity of capital and other resources. This lack of investment in coconut-based products in Black and Brown communities often excludes these groups from health and economic benefits, Kai Nortey, co-founder and owner of kubé, tells Food Tank. “That’s an example of systemic racism,” she says.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Nortey tells Food Tank. kubé is “[me] wanting to create a social enterprise that would be a liberation model,” leading an inclusive and full-circle regenerative economy that brings health, equity, and dignity back to people and the planet.
Inspired by a trip to Ghana, where she tasted fresh coconut cream for the first time, Nortey founded kubé with her husband Nee-Nueh in 2016. The company has since grown into a Black women-led, food-tech enterprise that specializes in plant-based products.
Based out of a commercial kitchen in downtown Oakland, kubé currently purchases its coconuts from local distributors who source their product from Mexican growers. But the company is working to identify coconut farmers in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Mexico, who they can work with directly.
In addition to creating more investment space for marginalized farmers, kubé strives to create a safe and equitable workspace. Coconut production uses outdated unsafe equipment, Nortey tells Food Tank. Workers use their hands to crack and shred coconuts, resulting in injuries, many of which go unreported.
The Norteys have patented a 304 stainless-steel coconut scrapper device created for coconut robotic automation, to make cracking and shredding coconuts easier and safer. They are also collaborating with an engineer to develop their own stainless-steel robotic equipment that will be designed to hold the coconut scrapper. This provides a safer working environment, prioritizing health in the supply chain.
“That is what makes kubé liberation ice cream,” Nortey tells Food Tank. “kubé is connecting the dots between systems of abuse and oppression.”
These systems of oppression are also evident in the synthetic chemicals used for food, which impacts consumers’ health, says Nortey.
“The international industry uses sodium metabisulfite, a chemical bleaching preservative, to bleach the coconut cream white during the pasteurization process, prolonging the shelf life,” Nortey tells Food Tank.
Food additives such as sodium metabisulfite can impact the gut microbiota and inhibit anti-inflammatory bacteria. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require manufacturers to list it as an ingredient if it is less than 10 parts per million (ppm).
Nortey argues that this violates the basic level of food justice: the right to know what’s in your food. Therefore, kubé does not add synthetic chemicals to its products.
kubé also works with the community in an effort to address the issues of food justice and restorative economics. The company donates coconut byproducts to local urban gardens for compost and hires formerly incarcerated people.
But finding investors and venture capital aligned with the same values as kubé has been difficult. Investors can be extractive, says Nortey. Many expect her to sell kubé in the future, but she believes doing so would risk the company’s quality and values.
For now, kubé sells its 3.5-ounce ice cream from its Oakland location. But in the future, kubé hopes its patentented coconut scrapper will expand their marketability and accessibility.
“kubé is all about the journey of self-determination to create healthier regenerative ecosystems,” Nortey tells Food Tank. “I am most excited about the social impact from [ice cream and robotic coconut equipment], food justice, and building relationships based on integrity.”
Photo courtesy of Kai Nortey.
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