Get an inside look at the journeys of successful food brands with our “Startup Stories” series. Each episode features interviews with founders, CEOs, and other key players, sharing their path to success and the challenges they faced along the way.

Each interview takes a look at the journey of a food brand, from its humble beginnings to its current success. Through these stories, we hope to inspire and inform those who are passionate about food and entrepreneurship, and provide an inside look at the challenges and triumphs of starting a food brand.

Today, we’re excited to have James Livingstone-Wallace, the Founder of Quinola, join us…

What Was Your Motivation For Starting Quinola?

12 years ago I left my job in finance to go travelling with my family with the vision of setting up a Fairtrade business. The simple idea was to help poor small hold farmers improve their modest livelihoods through their hard work by paying them a fair price for their produce, something mostly lacking in international food trading.

Whilst in Peru I discovered quinoa and its rich  heritage, and Quinola was born. The business has evolved since then but our philosophy remains to “Make Eating Right, Easy.” This ensures that every time you pick up a Quinola product you can be confident it tastes great, is healthy for you, has a low environmental footprint and pays its producers fairly.

What Is A Fairtrade Business & Why Is Quinola One?

Quinola Fairtrade Partners
Quinola Fairtrade Partners

It’s important to us that our farmers are looked after and treated fairly. By working with the certified Cooperatives, we guarantee a minimum price for the farmers’ crops and pay a Fairtrade premium, ensuring that our farmers and their families earn a sustainable income.

Since 2012, we’ve generated an extra $320k through the Fairtrade premium for our farmers.

30% of that premium has to go towards environmental causes, which is also important to us to ensure that we are not leaving a negative impact on the planet. Once you deduct input costs the minimum price we guarantee, some 40% above current market rates, actually doubles their take home income—that is something to be proud of, when their average household income is a very meagre $4000 a year.

Does Quinola Do Anything Else To Give Back?

Quinoa is a carbon efficient crop, especially compared to rice, as it has less carbon emissions and requires no irrigation. But we do offset our carbon through a scheme in Peru (Pur Projet) which is committed to protecting the rainforest and planting trees on degraded land.

Our pouches are made of plastic, which is the lowest carbon material available right now. We offset this plastic by contributing to a scheme in India run by Repurpose which empowers waste workers to collect single use plastic from the environment. More info on this here

We also work with a work assistance establishment in France whose objective is to help adults with disabilities in the workforce, some 94% of whom are unemployed as too complicated to integrate into workforces. The 19 people we work with help pack our grains and flakes.

Our commitment to social justice and equity has been recognised by B Corp which we were proud to achieve certification for earlier this year.

Why Did You Decide To Go With Quinoa For Your Product Line?

Quinoa Grains
Quinoa Grains

Quinoa has been described as a ‘wonder grain’ and was described by NASA scientists as the closest we can get to the most perfect food for humans of anything in the animal or plant kingdom, when they were researching what foods astronauts would take with them on deep space missions to Mars.

It is also one of the only vegetable proteins that has all 9 essential amino acids, and a protein almost identical to that found in milk. It is a slow release carb, which means glucose is released more slowly than with refined carbs so you don’t get sugar spikes and helps keep you full for longer.

With obesity and diabetes on the rise we think it is important that people, and especially Type 2 diabetics, have options to eat healthy and tasty food. Quinoa is also full of magnesium and fibre, which are great for gut health.

What Made You Choose The Name “Quinola”?

The pronunciation of quinoa in Quechua, which is what they speak in the Peruvian Altiplano, is ‘Keen-wah’. However, when we launched, most people had not heard of this rock star of the plant protein world, and would pronounce it as written in English, ‘Kwinoa’. We decided to remove all possible confusion and call it Quinola, a word everyone would pronounce identically.

What Was The Hardest Part Of Starting Quinola?

Having come from a very different world I knew next to nothing about the food business. How on earth do you ship products from Peru to Europe, how do you get organic certification to import products into Europe or for that matter source a barcode? Even seemingly simple things like buying boxes to pack the products in has its whole own jargon—double crenelated kraft American cases anyone?

So basically, the whole endeavor of converting an idea into an actual business that could supply a product onto a shelf with no prior knowledge of any of the mechanics. From idea to a product on shelf took me the best part of year, but what an exciting learning curve that was.

What Makes Quinola Products Unique?

Harvesting Quinoa
Harvesting Quinoa

Our mission to provide easy, tasty and healthy quinoa that is also good for the planet and people involved in getting it to our tables makes us unique to other quinoa brands out there. Our quinoa comes from the same farmers that we’ve sourced from for over 10 years so we can guarantee its high quality. We’ve also won multiple awards for having the best tasting quinoa.

How Did You Scale From One Sale To Where You’re At Now?

A bit of luck, but mostly a lot of very hard work encroaching on evenings and weekends. But when you are a mission driven business it doesn’t feel quite so bad, as at least you are incredibly proud of achieving progress on something you care deeply about.

It’s a roller coaster emotional ride, so you need to have pretty thick skin. And when a left field blow knocks you over you need to get back up, and dust yourself off for another round in the ring of the FMCG giants from both a retailer and supplier perspective.

Who Are Quinola Products Made For?

The microwave quinoa is made for time poor people looking for a convenient shortcut, who want a quick and easy but tasty and healthy meal solution. Ideal for lunch in the office or a quick dinner, or even for a quick energy fix out on a trail whilst doing endurance sport.

As quinoa is a slow release carb it’s perfect for diabetics, athletes who need to fuel and dieters who are managing their waistlines.

Which Are Your Personal Favorites?

Black Bean Chilli With Mexican Quinoa
Black Bean Chilli With Mexican Quinoa

Personal favorites are the Whole Grain, made from a unique saponin free varietal we grow in France, as it has a delicate flavor so I can pair it with anything. A regular lunch for me is this quick pesto recipe.

I’m also a big fan of the Spanish Style Quinoa, with its moderate chili zing, which I eat straight from the pouch!

Where Do You Sell Them?

In the US we’ll be in Costco in California and Hawaii starting in January 2023.

What’s Next For Quinola?

We’re looking to evolve the microwave quinoa range and introduce some exciting new flavors from around the world, including a Piri Piri. We’re also introducing a microwave Green Lentil pouch using lentils from the Champagne region of France, for the best lentils that money can buy (but that will be at a most affordable price 😊).