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For the past five years, sales of Nestlé chocolate, ice cream, and milk powder have slowed in some of the wealthiest countries.
So Nestlé, the world’s largest packaged food conglomerate, came up with a way to spread its presence abroad: sponsor an Amazonian river barge to sell its products to the backwoods of Brazil.
Faced with pressures to grow sales, big food companies – from Nestlé to Unilever to General Mills – are looking to expand their presence in developing nations. Like Nestlé, Unilever has an army of door-to-door vendors who sell processed food to low-income villages in India and west and east Africa. The brewer SABMiller, a leading Coca-Cola distributor in South Africa, is also aiming to double carbonated drink sales in the country’s townships in coming years. Nestlé told The Wall Street Journal it expects 45% of its sales to come from emerging markets by 2020, up from around 30% today.
For Nestle, the boat was a way to expand in hard to reach parts of Brazil, reports the New York Times. Since 2010, the boat delivered tens of thousands of cartons of milk powder, yogurt, chocolate pudding, cookies, and candy to isolated communities in the Amazon basin. According to The New York Times, the boat was taken out of service in July 2017, but private boat owners have taken over to fill the demand.
The program, called “Nestlé Takes You Onboard,” was part of a larger effort of Nestlé’s door-to-door marketing campaign, which aims to grow the corporation’s presence in the developing world. Nestlé currently also employs thousands of local vendors, who sell its products to quarter-million households, many of which are in isolated, low-income areas of Brazil.
The “supermarket” boat, which measured 1,076 square feet, journeyed to 18 cities and up to 800,000 consumers on the Para and Xingu rivers in Brazil, the company wrote in a press release. It carried 300 different items, including chocolate, yogurt, ice cream, and juices.
Food luminaries, like Ruth Reichl and Mark Bittman, as well as public health advocates, have criticized Nestlé’s floating “supermarket” effort, arguing that it contributed to the country’s obesity epidemic and shoved native diets aside.
“If there are people out there so backwards to still be subsisting on food found in nature, Big Food will find them, by land or by sea, and set them straight,” Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, wrote in AlterNet at the time.
The company told Bloomberg that it would add nutrients like iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamin A to address nutrition deficiencies among poor Brazilian consumers.