When filmmaker Rémi Denecheau, founder of RDV Products, started work on a documentary about guarana and indigenous communities in the Amazon, he couldn’t have imagined that he would become one of the main actors in his production. 

Denecheau’s film, “Heirs of Guarana,” aimed at creating awareness about social and environmental challenges in the Brazilian Amazon, received recognitions at film festivals upon its 2004 release.

One of the unintended consequences of the documentary was that Denecheau would become closely linked with indigenous peoples and their guarana products. 

After the film received positive feedback, he was approached by key industry players asking for more information and product traceability.

And the small producers he had met during the film production asked him for assistance finding international buyers for guarana.

Denecheau gradually moved RDV toward an active social enterprise. The initial step to reach the international market was supporting the small Brazilian producers to obtain guarana organic and fair-trade certification. 

“As a startup, the great difficulty for the Agrofrut cooperative was the lack of a certified structure and the absence of reliable export opportunities from the Amazon,” he said.

In 2007, the first organic guarana from the Amazon region was certified and in 2008, the first fair trade certification was granted. The export structure was set up, and the company could focus on direct exports from the Amazonian city of Manaus.

The result? Over the past 10 years, RDV Products has made a name in the industry working closely with small producers. Its primary partner, Agrofrut, is the largest cooperative, trading high-quality guarana and other Brazilian natural and organic-certified products for the food, supplement, and cosmetics industries.

Guarana demand

Guarana is a climbing plant from the maple family, common in the Amazon region, mainly in Brazil. Although it produces fruit, the true value lies in its seeds, rich in vitamins B1, B6, salicylic acid, oligo elements, proteins, theobromine, theophylline and guaranine.

Approximately twice the size of a coffee bean – with about double the amount of caffeine – guarana is commonly used as a stimulant in soft drinks, typically found in Brazil and neighboring Paraguay. But this only skims the surface of guarana’s potential applications. 

Originally brewed as a drink by the Guarani tribe in the Amazon – from whom the name is derived – guarana has extensive medicinal uses for weight loss control, as well as treating headaches, backache and joint pain, and mental and physical fatigue. Guarana also has a role in fitness cereal bars, syrups, and even cosmetics.

What makes RDV Products’ guarana from Agrofruit stand out? “Our product is dried in the traditional way, providing the highest level of caffeine and the best nutritional values on the international market," said Denecheau.

The guarana seeds are ground and slowly dried. The long process guarantees the guarana will retain its nutritional value with a maximum caffeine level.

“Our exceptional guarana is recognized by its light colour, since it is not roasted,” said Denecheau. “The seeds are a slightly bitter (due to oxidation without drying) but with a pleasant taste.”

The firm also offers a high-quality guarana cultivated in small farms following biodynamic methods and with Demeter certification, contributing to increased biodiversity and water conservation. A third grade includes a mid-quality guarana roasted at a temperature between 80° C and 100° C for 30 minutes, a faster processing that keeps the caffeine content but not all nutritional value. And there is also a lower grade that is processed faster but is only destined for animal consumption.

RDV Products has established a system with the farmers that includes clear steps allowing strict quality control along the supply chain, from cultivation and harvesting to drying, packing, and distribution of the product.  

The entire production is planned and marketed under annual contract, which allows everyone to predict performance, the size of the certified plantations and the scope of work. Production of organic guarana this year was 47 tonnes and next year is expected to be between 60 and 70 tons. Around 80-per-cent will be exported, 52% to France.

Financial backing

The project has benefited from financial assistance from other organizations. In 2016, RDV Products, in partnership with Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, BMZ’s develop.PPP program and Sequa gGmbH also in Germany, embarked on a two-year project with the Agrofrut cooperative to improve the guarana production further and diversify its portfolio of organic products.

Resources have been placed towards innovative technical solutions such as the incorporation of solar irrigation. “In the Amazon, people do not have electricity and if they do it is not reliable,” explains Denecheau. “Weather conditions change often. Sometimes there is too much rain, sometimes not much at all. With solar controlled irrigation, Agrofrut can obtain a better product at the end.”

Other actions include investing in new infrastructure and conducting agricultural research such as applying a homeopathic treatment against pest threats.

Training courses have been established under themes such as proper plant care, organic certification, hygiene and safety, and proper processing, storing and packaging (HACCP).

Getting growers to work together in associations has also been crucial to the development of the initiative, according to Eric Carrié, project assistant at RDV Products.

“The high certification costs can be covered better by a group and all may benefit from the technical assistance, training and funding when available.”

The RDV-Agrofrut partnership in developing a reliable supply chain for guarana allowing the diversification of crops incorporating açai and acerola, both following organic certification as well.

Thanks to the BMZ-Sequa financing, RDV has additionally helped fund the planting of 6,000 tonka trees in over 60 plots, benefiting 60 families from Urucara.

Although RDV is aware that all efforts are a long-term commitment, Carrié says for him and the rest of the team knowledge of the Portuguese language and the Brazilian culture has been crucial to ensuring a lasting relationship and the prosperity of the business. “It is important to keep an open mind, changing the business mentality at both ends of the supply chain when needed,” he said.