Fifteen years ago, Andean Valley and other Bolivian leading quinoa exporters were selling the little golden grain only as commodity to a handful of traders based mainly in Europe and North America.  The highly nutritious and gluten-free seed had caught the attention of a small but steady group of loyal consumers, mainly vegetarians, those with food intolerances and some adventurous food lovers.

Demand for this versatile grain grew steadily as people learned of quinoa’s health benefits - packed with 10 essential amino acids, minerals and even vitamin B16. More ethnic, natural and health food stores started to pop up in the artsy neighbourhoods of Berlin, Amsterdam, London, Tel Aviv, San Francisco and Montreal. But for Bolivian entrepreneur Javier Fernandez, managing director at Andean Valley, this traditional North-South trade between wealthy and developing countries, was too rigid without much room for additional cooperation and diversification.

“In 2007 I realised that strictly exporting containers of quinoa as commodity was not the only path I wanted to follow”, says Fernandez.  Instead of finding several buyers in a few markets to offer the same commodity with price as the main selling tool, Fernandez changed the strategy: serve a few customers in key markets with a range of quality quinoa products.  He kept clients like David Schorr of Quinoa Corp who introduced quinoa to the United States as a direct grower in Colorado and is still a main direct importer. “Schorr understood that a guaranteed fair price was the only way to alleviate the farmers’ uncertainty, especially considering the harsh weather conditions and poor infrastructure prevalent in the Andean highlands,” says Fernandez.

Trade between developing countries, also known as South-South trade, has not been common in Latin America in spite of agreements negotiated in the region. It has usually been easier and cheaper to fly to the United States or Europe than to any neighbouring country. Still, Fernandez opted to explore Brazil, a country where he found a great partner with knowledge of logistics and warehousing.  Soon Andean Valley became the main supplier of quinoa in bulk and to the main retail channels, including giant Pao de Açucar. He began to introduce value-added products like gluten-free pizza dough, hamburgers, soups, breakfast cereals and desserts. “Today Andean Valley offers 38 products with quinoa as main ingredient, all prepared and packed in Bolivia”, says Fernandez. He relies on other Bolivian groups such as Coronilla and El Ceibo to supply Andean Valley with additional products under private label.

Andean Valley has developed a simple but effective business model that will be launched in Colombia this coming February; Costa Rica will follow. Living abroad for several years before returning to Colombia, Sebastian Zamora and Vanesa Parra became aware of the strong connection between health and food. “There is a great potential in Colombia for high quality organic foods, especially gluten-free”, says Parra of Andean Valley Colombia, which is updating its corporate image with a new communication campaign and website. Demand for quinoa is booming and Fernandez is confident that this noble food will open a new era of south-south trade in the organic market.