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The Pará River. Northern Brazil. 11am. The overnight boat from Belem is docking in Breves.
Among the hundreds of passengers disembarking are two Nestlé employees
Renato Pires has travelled up from head office in São Paulo, two and a half thousand kilometres away.
Heikko Issing works as local coordinator for sales.
“Well we are in the state of Pará which is the second largest state of Brazil and actually we’re in the city of Breves which is the largest city on Marajó Island.
“And it’s an absolutely huge island isn’t it?”
“It is. Actually it is of the size of Switzerland.”
A barge, tied up on the waterfront, looks like none of the other vessels here. It’s blue with Nestlé products painted on the side. A shop’s been built on deck. Aisles of biscuits and cereals, powdered milk and instant noodles occupy 100 square metres of shopping space.
Seven crew and four sales staff sleep and cook and work on board. And they come out on deck to greet Renato Pires, manager of the floating supermarket.
“We have more than 300 items which includes all the Nestlé brands. And we have ice cream, yoghourts, chocolate, all the milks. All the products you can find in a supermarket in the South, in São Paulo for example, we have here.”
“This noise I can hear, is this the generator which is keeping all the…
“….Yes, it’s the generator because we need this 24 hours to have all the freezers and air conditioning and everything here.”
Every month, the boat covers hundreds of kilometres, weaving its way from Belem to the Amazon Lowlands and back. It will stop at any of 27 towns - a day here, a day there - extending Nestle’s reach to one and a half million people in the riverside communities. Just another twist on the company’s door-to-door scheme in remote and low-income regions.
At Nestlé Brazil’s headquarters in São Paulo, Marina Tagliaferri oversees the door-to-door programme. It began six years ago.
“We started with six distributors. Today we have 273. First we were in São Paulo. Now we are in 20 states. In Brazil, we have 26 states. And the only reason we are not in the whole country is because of logistics constraints. As soon as we have the logistics, we will be able to be there. So we are 273 microdistributors. We are 10,000 sales ladies.”
Nestle’s a huge player in Brazil. It posted sales of 20.5 billion reais last year. That’s ten billion francs. Sales from low-income consumers grew 25 per cent, totaling 1.8 billion reais. Go into 99 per cent of Brazilian households and you’ll find a product from Nestlé Brazil or one of its sister companies. So says an independent consumer survey.
“The North of Brazil is the poorest area that we have but still you have a lot of emerging consumers too. We have lots of supermarkets, wholesalers, distributors, all ways to get to the consumer and we also have the door-to-door. But then we realized ok but we still have people in places that we cannot reach with all these channels. You will see there. It’s amazing. It’s water everywhere. So if you don’t reach them by boat you just don’t reach them.”
Across town, the School of Public Health of the University of São Paulo occupies a handsome building, endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s. But the building’s being renovated. And today it’s dusty and loud. Carlos Monteiro works here, a world authority on obesity, advisor to the Brazilian government as well as to the World Health Organization. He’s also a worried man. For six years, he’s monitored obesity in 27 cities around the country. And each year, there’s at least one per cent more obese and overweight people. The culprit, as identified by Monteiro and his colleagues is ultra-processed food.
“One particular cause, I think, is very important for Brazil, at least, is the fact that people are changing the diet very quickly. In what direction? People are replacing whole foods or minimally processed foods, so foods that have been in our food for centuries, such as rice and beans and meat and milk by what we call ultra-processed products. These are ready-to-eat products essentially and they are of much less quality in nutritional terms but particularly for obesity they are much more energy dense.”
In Brazil, says Monteiro, about 25 per cent of household consumption is ultra-processed food compared to 60 or 70 per cent in Britain and the United States.
On supermarket shelves, many Nestlé products now declare that they are rich in vitamins or calcium or iron. Marina Tagliaferri explains why.
“We don’t launch a product anymore that doesn’t have any kind of nutritional benefit. This is becoming a must for Nestlé worldwide and it is no different here.”
But for Carlos Monteiro, tweaking of the products doesn’t alter a basic fact.
“These products are intrinsically problematic. That’s the problem. When you take a biscuit, you can put fibres, you can vitamins, they are still biscuit, they still are a high energy dense product.
“What the food industry does is transform whole foods that are nutritious, that are rich… take substances from here and there and then create a new product. And because we know that these products tend to be very poor in nutritional terms, what the food industry is does is introduce some fibre or some folic acid or some mineral.”
Dusk in Breves. Hundreds and hundreds of birds swoop low across the river and land on the trees by the dock, transforming the branches into a writhing, squawking mass. And about this time too, customers start to flock to the Nestlé boat, - girls buying ice creams, a family spending enough to enter the promotional draw for a moped, and trash recycler, Manoel Neto de Lima, 68-years-old, stocking up with biscuits and instant noodles and powdered milk.
“It’s the first time I have come to the boat. I can find some of the products in the city but here the price is better and I like the quality of the space and the fact that it’s modern.”
The floating supermarket’s been operating for two years now but the next chapter in its history is just beginning. Nestlé wants to build a network of door-to-door sellers who can get products to places where even the floating supermarket can’t reach. The company’s just found its first agent. Vanderlene Pacheco Dos Anjos.
“I used to work as a sales lady for another company selling cosmetics and other things. So I saw an opportunity. I talked to the guys here and now I work for Nestlé .”
An hour’s boat ride north west of Breves lies the village of Vila Mainard. One thousand inhabitants, many working for the local timber company. Vanderlene is heading here with kits of Nestlé items.
Eliane Alves Melo is the next link in the Nestlé chain. Like Vanderlene, she’ll earn a little extra income from each of the kits that she sells.
“I work in human resources and I will sell to my co-workers. Some of them the people who buy these products are from here and others come here to work.”
Vanderlene hopes to find five re-sellers like this. Nestlé hopes she’ll pioneer a network that will expand up every creek and tributary. Heiko Issing again.
“The fact is that today those people even distant from the largest cities, they have television, they have satellite television and so they see the products on TV, they know all about it. We are having this sort of advertising to do this, exactly to make the people want the products.”
The question of regulating publicity has become a key battleground for nutritionists and health experts. It’s one of a raft of measures they would like to see introduced to help combat diabetes, cancer and heart diseases. These are the so-called non communicable diseases which are responsible for 63 per cent of all global deaths. The World Health Organization, based in Geneva, identifies four common risk factors - unhealthy diets, lack of exercise, alcohol and tobacco use.
Tim Armstrong from the department of chronic diseases and health promotion says diet is crucial.
“We are seeing people eating more foods that are high in salt, fats and sugars, much of these foods are being aggressively marketed and being sold in countries which weren’t exposed to these sorts of foods previously, eating more traditional type diets if you like, so it’s clearly linked. We have seen an increase in obesity over the past 20,30 years, we have seen an increase in the amount of fats that are available in the diet and therefore we assume are being consumed in the diet,and it’s really quite obvious, the importance of diet.”
Nestlé is positioning itself as the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company. Marina Tagliaferri says Nestlé says offers training in nutrition to its resellers to pass on the message to consumers.
“Especially what we call our nutrition, health and wellness products which are the ones which have any nutrition enhancement, which are the products that we want to increase, we want the consumers to buy more because they are the good…let’s say the best products, we have. They are providing nutritional benefits. And also we train them in how to make sure that they are telling the consumers that it is very important to have a balanced diet, so it’s not just about chocolate or biscuits. You have to eat everything in balance.”
But Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo is not convinced.
“The main strategy of the food industry now is not to say our products are healthy. What they say are our products are becoming healthy because we are reducing salt, we are changing the type of fat but this has serious limitations. So that you really cannot have a healthy diet if you don’t get most of your calories from wholefoods or minimally processed foods.”
And all the while, health claims on food are becoming a powerful marketing tool, says the WHO’s Tim Armstrong.
“Many companies are promoting so-called better-for-you products or healthy products. But is this really another form of marketing? In Sub-Saharan Africa, we have a certain well-known food company and sub-brand going from village to village providing nutrition education but also providing a bouillon or stock cube which can provide vitamins and nutrients and other forms of fortification. So on the one hand you could say this entity is potentially doing good in terms of classic under-nutrition but are they also making a brand name for themselves because their brand is on the side of the trucks and on the banners?”
And the name of that company is Nestlé.