Rainforest looks beyond seafood for growth momentum

With a cassava farm fully planted and supply contracts in hand from small farmers, seafood processor Rainforest is looking to export bammies, a food item that is most often paired with fish.

It’s just one of the non-seafood products that the company has expanded or diversified into to resurrect revenue lost to the pandemic.

The 40-acre farm in Martha Brae, Trelawny, was acquired about four years ago, according to General Manager of Rainforest Seafoods Jerome Miles, and the company spent some time in research and development to relaunch cassava bammies bearing its own label.

“The bammy is a lead product for us to get more into the diaspora, particularly North America. The look and feel is there; plus, we’re backing that with our quality assurance through manufacturing,” Miles told the Financial Gleaner in an update on the company since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Acquiring the farm allowed Rainforest better control over the supply chain for its cassava inputs, which Miles said had previously been insufficient to meet demand consistently. The company now utilises about 30,000 tonnes of cassava per week to produce bammy for the local market, and is confident it can generate supplies to fuel its growth plans.

“That’s just a start, and depending on the market, we can double or triple that,” he said. “We want to be in a position when we get an order asking, ‘How much can you do?’, we ask, ‘How much do you need’.”

The company expects to start exporting bammies by mid-year.

“We’re talking with a few distributors but we haven’t signed anything as yet, so I would not want to say more,” he said.

Rainforest is mainly in the business of seafoods, particularly fish and shrimp, supplied locally and overseas, but does other products as well. The 25-year-old company is looking to double the overall size of the business over the next five years, using the theme ‘Rock the Recovery’, said Miles.

Like other businesses that relied on the tourism sector for big sales, Rainforest experienced an erosion of revenue when the travel and hospitality sector were locked down early in the pandemic.

The company had been growing at an average rate of 20-30 per cent over the past five years, but the pandemic wiped out 50 per cent of the company’s market overnight, the GM noted.

“COVID essentially wiped out all of the hotel business that we had for a while. Last year this time all hotels were closing and in the second quarter, there was no business. Thankfully, we’re back to maybe 25 per cent of what it used to be,” he said.

As the hotels went into lockdown, Rainforest, like many other distributors, looked to the Jamaican consumer for sales opportunities. It has ventured into potato products, fruits, frozen vegetables and preserved meats, and jazzed up the packaging for the products.

“We had to shift focus, since hotels used to be 50 per cent of the business. We looked to exports and local supplies such as supermarkets to claw back a lot of that – not all, but a substantial amount,” he said of the aggressive diversification strategy pursued over the past year.

“Before this, we were more into supplying pickled mackerel and pig’s tail as bulk products,” he added. “Now with the First-World, more prominent packaging, we’ve established ourselves in the retail space with greater visibility.”

Rainforest’s main complex is in Montego Bay, but it also operates in Kingston as well as in Belize, St Lucia, and, through a partnership, in Barbados. Miles said the company would look to the continued expansion of overseas operations for the production capacity to facilitate the ‘Rock the Recovery’ growth plans.