Q&A with the food revolutionaries behind CocoNutZ

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  1. What is CocoNutZ?
  2. What do you use it for?
  3. What problem are you solving?
  4. What’s the back story?
  5.  What stage are you at?
  6. How have we helped you get there?
  7. How has the coronavirus affected you?
  8. Any tips for other startups?
  9. What’s for dinner tonight?

The story of CocoNutZ starts with a sweet soy sauce in Indonesia and turns into a high tech sugar cane operation in Mossman, Queensland. 

It’s a story about perseverance, passion and bio transformation which has the potential to solve a lot of problems, for a lot of people. 

Find out all about it in this Q&A with some of the experts behind the revolutionary food tech startup: Lucas and Debbie Van der Walt.

1. Firstly, what is CocoNutZ?

It’s a different type of sweetener, made from sugar cane.

Sugar cane juice comprises sucrose, glucose, fructose and some micro nutrients. Traditionally, the juice is refined to leave only the sucrose. This creates the sugar used in coffee, tea, cakes, etc. around the world. 

We don’t do this. Instead, we put the cane juice through a fermentation process to create a sweetener that is low in GI (because it’s low in sucrose) and retains the micro nutrients. 

It’s a process called bio transformation, and it produces a sweetener that is very similar to coconut sugar.

2. What do you use it for?

We can tweak it to have many different applications. Our first priority is as the base ingredient for Indonesia’s most popular household sauce, kecap manis. It’s a sweet soy sauce typically made of about 70% coconut sugar and 30% soy sauce. 

In Indonesia, kecap manis is eaten with almost every meal, including breakfast.

Kecap manis sauce being poured into a small bowl

3. What problem are you solving?

Quite a few! On the demand side, Indonesia’s population is growing rapidly. That means demand for kecap manis is, too. 

While demand is growing exponentially, supply is limited because coconut sugar has proven difficult to industrialise. It is a niche product that costs a lot to produce for many reasons, including food safety, harvesting dangers and the need for farmers to forego other coconut products. 

There is no way the supply of coconut sugar could keep up with the rising demand for kecap manis. We’ve found a cost-effective solution using sugar cane, and this solves many problems.

Firstly, our manufacturing process means the final product’s quality is more consistent and safer – it is not prone to contamination and adulteration like coconut sugar is. 

Secondly, finding another way to use sugar cane is important for the local industry. Because of a global glut of sugar, it is difficult for many Queensland sugar cane farmers to make a sustainable living. 

And finally, we will create jobs in Mossman. We’re planning for 17 full-time employees. In a local community, that’s really important.

4. What’s the back story?

CocoNutZ is part of NamZ, an innovative food science company based in Singapore. It was co-founded by a former colleague of Lucas’s at Olam International – Chris Langwallner – and is mostly known through the WhatIF Foods brand. 

NamZ uses science and technology to make healthier food in ways that are sustainable for the planet and for people in the supply chain. CocoNutZ is one of its main technology platforms, which came about by looking at the pain point in the kecap manis supply chain.

After lab testing in Singapore – where kecap manis made with our product proved indistinguishable to premium brands – we went into the pilot phase in Brazil before coming to Australia to work on a pilot at Queensland University of Technology in Mackay. That helped us design our first factory.   

5. What stage are you at?

We had planned to have our first factory up and running in Mossman this year but then the coronavirus happened (more on that below). We’re now planning to start full scale manufacturing in the 2021 sugar cane season.

6. How have we helped you get there?  

We’re a startup, and we’re new to Australia. Our focus has been on developing a factory very quickly. From an accounting perspective, there’s a lot to come to grips with – tax, payrolls and all the rest. It’s daunting. Standard Ledger allowed us to outsource all that and get on with everything else. This has been invaluable to us. 

There’s also R&D tax, which Standard Ledger handles for us. It’s an important part of our story – obviously in terms of funding but it’s also part of what makes Australia attractive for us.

7. How has the coronavirus affected your business? 

A  lot! Our equipment was being manufactured in China and that was completely shut down by the coronavirus even before most people in Australia were aware of the virus. 

It has delayed everything. We had to make the difficult decision to suspend our development until further notice, which had a huge knock-on effect on our private investor funding. 

But there was a silver lining. When we put everything on hold, the Mossman Sugar Mill expressed interest in a partnership, recognising that our product is an essential diversification opportunity for them. Our futures are very linked and we’re pleased to be working with them on what that looks like. 

8. Do you have any tips for other startups?

The advantage with startup companies is that we can make decisions much quicker than other organisations. Big events like a pandemic are devastating for all companies, maybe especially startups, but it is what you make of it to some extent. 

You can’t avoid or control these sorts of crises but you can still try to move forward. 

9. Finally, what’s for dinner tonight?

Well, during COVID, we started reducing our meat consumption. It’s part of the ethos of our company – to consider our environmental impact – but we do really enjoy eating meat. We’ll probably never give it up, but we don’t need to eat it with every meal or every day.

So tonight will be something vegetarian! We’ve been cooking a lot of different things, and we’ve noticed a difference from a health and energy perspective, too.

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