A Queensland-based food manufacturing company is continuing to expand its operations and product-base, using the excess produce and waste from growers around Australia.
Natural Evolution Foods, from Walkamin in the state's Far-North, started making products from bananas 10 years ago after realising the potential of the fruit that was being thrown away.
"At the time, on our farm alone, we were throwing away around five metric tonnes a week," Ms Watkins said. "The industry itself has around 500 metric tonnes a week. No one was commercially producing what we thought was perfect; banana flour, which was an alternative to gluten flours on the market. So, we started really small, literally hand peeling bananas to make powder and it really kicked off with consumers, as people were really looking for gluten-free and healthy alternatives. We talk about the nutritional benefit of our products, and the feedback has been that when they get the products, they actually work and make people feel better."
Ms Watkins grew up with a banana farming background, but her family decided to leave the fresh banana industry, due to two category five cyclones. She added that as other farmers were hearing about what they were doing, and began selling their excess produce. Initially, it was only from local farms, but soon gained more widespread interest.
"My family decided to lease the farm and that was probably the best thing that happened to us," Ms Watkins said. "It forced my husband Rob and I to think about doing our own thing; turning bananas into powder. Everyone thought we were 'bananas', but we originally thought that we were the only ones with the waste problem every week, but every other member of the horticulture industry had the same issue.
"In some cases, the issue of oversupply and out of spec produce was a lot bigger than what bananas were. We do a lot of research and development on other crops; even today in our factory, we are doing some Victorian spinach trials. We have done just about every type of fruit and veg. Gold sweet potato is something we do on a regular basis, as there is so much waste from it in the industry. We've brought sweet potatoes from as far away as Bundaberg, we've brought broccoli from Victoria."
As the initial banana products grew in popularity, Ms Watkins says the technology and machinery used in the production had to 'ramp-up' as the process became too labour-intensive to keep up with the rise in demand. There was also an economic element too, with the dehydrators becoming too costly - and the company began automating the process.
"The first part, and the easiest for us, was designing equipment to help with the peeling," she explained. "My husband designed it, which made things a little better, but there was still quite labour intensive, and electricity-sapping with the drying. We have a motto of zero waste, and the banana skins are also high in antioxidants. So, rather than throw away the skins, we extract the antioxidants and not only use them for our products but other companies around the world. In terms of sweet potato, we are making sweet potato powder, which is extremely high in vitamin A, but we have a lot of juice leftover, so we ferment it and make sweet potato vodka."
Realising the need for improved technology, Natural Evolution formed a trademarked and patent-pending NutroLock technology, which takes the banana and transforms it into powder in under 10 minutes. Ms Watkins won a Gold Edison award in 2017, recognising her success in driving innovation, as well as several other national recognitions.
"We did a lot of research around the world about dryers and off the shelf equipment that we could purchase to make our powdered product, which at the time was just bananas," Ms Watkins said. "We found that there was a lot of degradation of the nutritional value with certain drying technology. So, when we designed ours, we wanted to ensure we were delivering the best quality product out of our drying system. What we found was that we got 20-50 times better nutritional value from our drying tech than drying conventional tech. We have had that verified with the Queensland Department of Agriculture."
Along the way, the company also stumbled on additional health benefits from the banana flour. Following some additional research with the Australian Defence Force, Ms Watkins says the company found it had actually discovered the richest source of resistant starch, which is a fermentable fibre that works like a prebiotic, feeding the good bacteria in the gut. This led to the manufacture of Green Banana Powder, for cholesterol, weight-loss and diabetes, which is registered with the Federal Government's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
"We wanted to expand our operations to not only make more products but be a sustainable business, so that we were around as an industry for a long time to come," Ms Watkins said. "With the labour and lack of processing technology and equipment for highly fibrous plant materials, we would have gone broke. In fact, for a while, we were struggling to cover those costs. Now, the simple fact is we are now outgrowing our small facility in North Queensland, so we are putting in a much larger facility just for bananas; then we have smaller sites earmarked along the east coast, where we are hoping to set up smaller co-operatives - we are just so passionate about Australian manufacturing."
Natural Evolution not only sells food and medicinal products but also a range of beauty and equine products from fruit and vegetables as well. Products are for sale online and in independent health stores domestically and internationally.