Edison Award shines light on a visionary journey

A revolution is under way in Walkamin south of Mareeba.

Rob and Krista Watkins of Natural Evolution are marketing innovative products made from green bananas – and the world is beating a path to their door.

Not only are they providing a viable use for the estimated 500 tonnes of bananas deemed to be unsuitable for market every year, but they are also tapping into the highly lucrative nutraceuticals supplements market.

International recognition has come their way in the form of a nomination as a finalist in the Food and Beverage category of this year’s Edison Awards. The Edison Awards were established in 1987 by the American Marketing Association and are named after Thomas Alva Edison who invented the incandescent light bulb, among a great many other things. Winners will be announced in New York in April this year.

The nomination is just the latest in a string of awards presented over the past few months, including:

  • The Innovation in Sustainable Technologies Award
  • Banksia Food for Sustainable Thought Award, and
  • The Tropical North Queensland Innovation Awards.

Rob Watkins is a second generation farmer whose father ran cattle before turning to bananas, avocados and macadamias. The family lost most of their crops in Cyclone Larry and from that experience learnt that diversification was an important way to manage risk.

Rob grew up wanting to be a farmer and enjoying farm work because it gave him a diverse range of challenging things to do. He has a highly inventive mind and enjoys finding solutions to problems he encountered.

Ten years ago he added a string to his bow when he married Krista, a local teacher. Together the couple has two daughters. Rob credits the “Krista and Rob team” as essential to the success of their business endeavours.

“We are both essential to our business’s success. We bounce ideas off each other and bring different angles and perspectives to a problem,” he said.

In 2009, when Rob was only 24, he invented the Banana Blankey, a polypropelene carton insert which sought to reduce damage to bananas in transit. It was the winner in an episode of ABC Television’s New Inventors.

But the real lightbulb moment occurred in 2011 when Rob ran over a hand of green bananas with a forklift and witnessed a cloud of white powder fly up. He and Krista began to make small scale batches of green banana flour as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flours, for sale in local shops.

After working out the patented mechanics of producing banana flour efficiently, Rob began full scale production using a purpose built $3.8 million factory on the farm with the help of the Queensland and Federal Governments. The company now produces 2-5 tonnes of pharmaceutical grade flour a week. His patented technology can take green bananas and turn them into powder in under 25 minutes, as opposed to a much longer conventional drying process.
Setting up business online, the new Natural Evolution company attracted interest from pharmaceutical companies in Japan, Canada, US, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe and the United Kingdom. The product line is also distributed through health food stores throughout Australia. There are now plans in place to deliver products through Australian supermarkets.

Working with the Japanese, the company has developed a line of skincare products over the past three years, launching a soap, mister and moisturiser infused with extracts from green lady finger banana skins.

The flour has been found to be high in vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, Vitamin E and zinc. But it is its high resistant starch (fermentable fibre), inulin (soluble fibre) and insoluble (dietary) fibre, which is finding an important market as a prebiotic for gut health. Green lady finger bananas have been found to have the highest source of high resistant starch in the world at 40 per cent.

“Krista and I have been on an immense journey over the last few years,” said Rob.

“Last year we were a startup. Now we are a fully fledged north Queensland nutriceuticals manufacturing business.”
“The most exciting breakthrough was when I received a call recently from a man with Crohn’s Disease who told me our product was giving him immeasurable relief.

“The story just gets better and we hope to announce another major breakthrough in the next two years.” (Those people who know Rob well will also know he always has a number of cards up his sleeves.)

The Watkins have boosted their banana supplies with the help of three farming neighbours and they are looking for other growers who are interested, whether they grow Cavendish or lady finger.

Rob has had major interest from overseas for new manufacturing facilities but he is particularly interested in establishing other manufacturing sites in Australia using his patented technology. He is proud of Australia’s clean and green reputation and wants to ensure a high quality local product is available to beat the competition from unsafe and unregulated imports.

“Banana growers have had to deal with major issues such as TR4 in recent years but we should not let despondency or negativity get in the way of the greatness of what’s happening right now. There is a huge market in prebiotics for us to tap into,” Rob said.

“Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, China, America and New Zealand are already beating a path to
our door.”

Rob and Krista Watkins  were featured in the March 2017 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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By Chris Walker