Amazon’s Guaraná Farmers Are Tapping into Renewable Energy for Sustainable Production

October 3, 2023

In the heart of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, a community of smallholder farmers living along the banks of the Amazon River and its tributaries are grappling with a problem that may threaten their livelihoods. These farmers rely on the cultivation of guaraná (Paullinea cupana), a prized cash crop. Yet a pressing problem looms large: the quest for water to wash their harvested guaraná fruits, an essential step to maintain the quality of the berry, upon which their incomes depend. WIPO GREEN has stepped in to help address the water needs of the farmers by connecting them with the right technology suppliers. This initiative ensures water for crop washing and daily use, enhancing crop quality and securing livelihoods.

The journey of the caffeine-loaded guaraná berry from a plant to the market is long and exacting. The berry goes through a fermentation stage lasting three days after being harvested. Following this, the fruits need to be washed to prepare them for further processing. But in the remote Maués region of the Amazon, where the majority of these small-scale guaraná producers are located, access to clean water in quantities required for washing the berries is a luxury. Many farmers have unreliable access to electricity needed to pump potable water from wells. As a result, they use river water, which exposes the berries to potential chemical and biological contamination.

Seeds of the guaraná berry are in high demand for their energizing and medicinal qualities, finding applications in a diverse range of products. including energy drinks, cosmetics, and medicines. AMBEV, Brazil’s largest beverage company, is a major buyer of guaraná from this region, with purchases amounting to nearly US$ 10 million per year. However, water contamination can adversely affect the seed quality, lowering its market value and undermining the farmer’s capacity to earn a stable income. Such contamination can also create ripple effects across the local and global value chains. In addition, health hazards linked to handling polluted water may leave these farmers vulnerable to illness, further compounding their economic and social difficulties.

Transporting guaraná berries in the Maués region, Brazil. (Photo: Courtesy AMBEV, Brazil)

Research indicates that activities related to artisanal gold mining, for example, have resulted in the emission of large amounts of mercury into the ecosystem across the river basin area. The use of mercury is a standard practice in mining extraction methods since this element serves to bind gold particles together. Mercury is also highly toxic. Due to the proximity of gold mining operations to rivers or other water bodies, the released mercury can contaminate the river water.

Since launching in October 2019 in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, WIPO’s Latin American Acceleration Project, financed by the Funds-In-Trust Japan IP Global, has focused on identifying needs and connecting solution seekers with providers. In Brazil, in collaboration with the National Institute of Industrial Property, the project has recognized obstacles faced by over a thousand local guaraná berry producers. Agrosuisse, the on-ground consultancy firm, collaborated with farmers and AMBEV to evaluate the issue, and recognized the need for eco-friendly, off-grid water pumping solutions. Given the lack of access to constant daytime electricity supply, solar-powered pumps emerged as the optimal option. These pumps would serve multiple purposes: crop irrigation, household water supply, and reliable electricity source. Once this need was identified, the team set out on a nationwide quest to find high-quality suppliers aiming to enhance agricultural productivity in an environmentally smart manner.

Digging traditional Amazonas’ model wells next to the riverbanks was also recommended as a complementary measure in the technology solutions package, as it may minimize contamination by heavy metals and pathogenic biological agents by filtration and precipitation. “Although this is not always guaranteed, it is considered a good practice when compared to plain river as a source for domestic and food processing”, says Richard Charity, Project Technical Coordinator, WIPO.    

Preparing the guaraná berries for the market in Brazil. (Photo: Courtesy AMBEV, Brazil)

Brazilian firms IRRIGASOL and AMBIENTE-SE were identified. Both firms have offered their expertise to address the needs of the guaraná suppliers. Two main challenges need to be addressed. First, the remote locations of the guaraná farms makes it difficult to provide timely repairs and maintenance for the pumps. WIPO GREEN is collaborating with potential vendors to explore solutions for offering effective troubleshooting support. Second, there are financial hurdles concerning the initial investment required for setting up these essential pump stations. WIPO GREEN is exploring various financial solutions that would make it feasible for farmers to install the systems. Once these challenges are addressed and the systems are operational, the berry farms will have access to water for agricultural and household needs.

The solar pumping solution identified through this project does not respond to the problem of water contamination. According to the IPCC, sectors that are heavily dependent on water, such as mining and agriculture, will have to adopt strategies to alleviate water stress and enhance efficiency. Additionally, the escalation of climate change is likely to exacerbate water pollution issues, driven by factors like flooding events, rising water temperatures, and sea-level increases. Against this backdrop, the importance of technological innovation becomes even more critical in connecting the specific needs of these riverine communities with appropriate solutions. WIPO GREEN, with its extensive 129,000-technology database (including 563 technologies specifically dealing with water pollution) demonstrates how innovation can be leveraged to tackle real-world challenges in a changing climate.

Guaraná berries are ready to be harvested. (Photo: Courtesy AMBEV, Brazil)

“The project brought us invaluable results and the identified solution”, says Roosevelt Marhl, manager of AMBEV Farm in Maués, noting that, “applying this solution directly into action would contribute to the quality-of-life people and the precious product they produce – guaraná.”

The story of guaraná suppliers in the Brazilian Amazon exemplifies the potential to find solutions to address the interconnected challenges of sustainability, climate change, livelihoods and innovation. By identifying the need, finding appropriate technologies, and collaborating with stakeholders, it is possible to create a win-win scenario for the environment, small-scale farmers, and industries. Successful implementation of solar photovoltaic pumping systems in the Maués region will serve as a testament to the power of collaboration, innovation, and responsible practices in ensuring a sustainable future.