Startup Watch

Premium nut dubbed ‘next macadamia’ faces volcanic threat

By Oliver Nieburg

- Last updated on GMT

Mount Mayon's wild pili nuts from the Philippine rainforest enter the market as volcano erupts in the growing region. Photo: MM
Mount Mayon's wild pili nuts from the Philippine rainforest enter the market as volcano erupts in the growing region. Photo: MM
Startup Mount Mayon has developed a special method for processing the pili nut for packaged goods - it enters the market as its raw material grows next to an erupting volcano that has displaced thousands.

The company sources its pili nuts in the Bicol Region of the Philippines, home to the Mayon Volcano or Mount Mayon, which erupted in late January​, displacing more than 80,000 people, according to the UNFPA.

pili volcano
Lava began erupting from Mayon Volcano in late January. Mount Mayon has sent supplies such as blankets via Red Cross to support co-operative farmers. Photo: MM

Pre-sprouting method

"We don’t take this lightly,”​ Dr James Costello, general manager of Mount Mayon told ConfectioneryNews at the ISM trade fair in Cologne.

“Many people around there are pili farmers and they've been sent out of their homes forcibly by the government."

Brothers Dr Steve and James Costello established their business Mount Mayon late last year after developing a pre-sprouting method to process high Vitamin E and Omega-9 pili nuts.

They claim the proprietary ‘SloDry’ method transforms flavorless pilis, which are traditionally cooked and heavily seasoned with garlic, into a luxury buttery snack.

The company processes and packages its pili nuts at origin in the Philippines and is looking to enter Western markets with packaged varieties coated in Himalayan salt or organic Ecuadorian cocoa.

Pili group nuts-HIGH-RES
Mount Mayon to sell Himalyan Salt and Ecuadorian cocoa varieties in a 135 g cans for a suggested retail price of $16, 85 g foil pouch for $13, 28 g pouches for $3.99 and 12 g packs for $2.

Test-phase in Asia

The brothers, both former dentists, say Mount Mayon’s pre-sprouting technique creates a gourmet nut high in Omega-9 vitamin E, protein, fiber and magnesium.

pili olives
Pili nuts look a lot like green olives. Photo: MM

They hope the brand will appeal to those following the paleo movement and shopping in high-end natural stores in the UK, US and Germany.

The brand is already in a test-phase on store shelves in select Asian markets.

Organizing the sector

Mount Mayon sources around half of its pili volumes from the wild and half from farms.

It helped establish a cooperative in the growing region with 20 farms signed up and it is looking to grow membership to 100 farms.

James Costello said: "The tree is a natural environmental protector, especially with landslides. If you cut the tree down you are going to get landslides. We want to expand the tree base to all provinces that have this volcanic soil.​ 

pili tress
Growing season runs from May-November. Photo: MM

"Twenty years from now you might see this getting as big as the macadamia crops in the world​,” he said.

The company is applying for organic certification, but faces difficulties in providing soil records for nuts collected in the wild.

Ideal volcanic conditions

Mount Mayon’s erupting volcano is a real threat to the new premium nut and the startup, but the company also benefits from the soil conditions it creates.

"We think the provinces it's growing in now where it's thriving provide the wind, water and sunblast that it needs,” ​said Steve Costello. “In these provinces, we see large nuts. We've been sent nuts from Indonesia, but they are very tiny."

Pili nuts also exist in Malaysia and Australia, but are not of the same quality, according to the brothers.

Steve Costello said the pili nut tree benefits from stressed conditions in growing area around Mount Mayon, which experiences around 20 typhoons a year.

Pili wood overhead-HIGH-RES
Mount Mayon will apply different preparation techniques for Western and Asia markets to cater to local tastes. For example, the Himalayan salt variety will contains less salt for the Chinese market than in the UK. Photo: MM

“It loves to get blasted and it’s one of the reasons we think it hasn’t found its way out of those provinces in the Philippines."

Pili choc trio nuts-HIGH-RES
Mount Mayon's Ecuadorian cocoa variety uses coconut flower sugar to sweeten the product. Photo: MM

"[Local people] fry it, bake it or cook it and in the process, but because the nut has such a high oil content, you cannot taste it so they cover it with marzipan or garlic. The nut never found its gourmet stature until we applied the pre-spouting and dehydrating,” ​he said.

Processing in Subic Bay

James Costello said it was too wet to dehydrate the nuts in the growing region, so Mount Mayon processes in Subic Bay, a more suitable climate around an hour plane flight from the growing region.

He said there are a few other companies exporting pili nuts. "But they are more cooking the nut and we see ours as the premium nut."

Mount Mayon uses its pilis purely for its own brand. The company plans to add two extra flavors in the next six months.

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