Article by Katrin Deeg based on an interview with Natalia Welch, March 2022
As a child, Natalia was never far from sugar cane in some form or another; biting into a piece of stalk straight from the field or dissolved into a glass of water for aguapanela.
“We had panela everywhere we went. It is the sugar of choice in Colombia.”
Panela is a golden-brown sugar made by extracting and dehydrating the juice from sugarcane. No centrifuge, no burning temperatures, nothing added. The simplicity of panela production means the resulting sugar retains vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and flavour rarely present in more processed sugars. The ubiquity of panela – raw, unrefined cane sugar – was a privilege Natalia now admits she took for granted growing up in Colombia.
Today, Natalia Welch is the founder and director of Pura Panela and lives in Sheffield, England with her husband and baby. She wasn’t always a panela importer, though. Natalia moved to the UK to learn English and pursue a masters in international criminology, working long hours as a waitress to cover her university fees.
A chance visit to the Eden Project in 2014 – along with Natalia’s natural entrepreneurial spirit – would set her on the path of panela.
New Dawn Traders: Why Panela?
Natalia Welch: I have always been an entrepreneur inside, despite the fact that I decided to study law and become a lawyer. My mum and dad had their own shop, and I would work there selling clothes during the holidays as a kid. So when I finally decided to stay in the UK to explore life with my partner, I decided to create a business that could really have an impact in Colombia. Something that would bring value to Colombia.
In Colombia, we haven’t capitalized on the industries of finished products. We have sold a lot of raw materials for other people to transform into final products and profit from. Like the green coffee beans, we export for someone else to roast and grind. I didn’t want to do that. Plus, everybody was already doing coffee.
In about 2014 by chance, I saw an exhibit on panela at the Eden Project in Cornwall describing its energising and health properties for cyclists. It clicked. Panela had been around me a lot of my life, but I had never considered it to have so much potential in the UK market – it has no chemicals or additives, it’s natural, it has minerals. And… it can be exported as a final product.
I told my husband and father-in-law that day that I would bring panela to the UK. They just told me I was crazy.
NDT: So that’s how Pura Panela began. How does sail cargo fit into your business model?
NW: More than 250,000 families in Colombia live from Panella production. Unfortunately, not all of them are ready to export. Panela is such an artisan product that it’s normally made in very, very small farms and sold at street markets. In this sense, panela is a domestic market product. Or, [at the other extreme], panela is produced in huge quantities and exported only in full shipping containers.
At the beginning of Pura Panela I wanted to work directly with producers who were small [and also] exporting. That was a challenge. So incorporating sail cargo gives small-scale panela producers who were not previously able to export the chance to have their products in the international market. It’s such an opportunity, you know, it doesn’t happen every day.
NDT: What’s more popular – panela’s taste or panela’s health properties?
NW: Its taste! If a product doesn’t taste good, people don’t buy it again. In the beginning, I thought panela was going to sell because people want a healthier sugar option. I quickly understood that beyond all the health benefits of panela, its best feature is actually the taste. It tastes like caramel.
A problem with more refined sugar is that it tastes very sharp and the first thing you feel on your tongue is the sweetness. Whereas panela has a round taste, so it doesn’t “hit” you on the tongue – panela actually helps other food flavours come through.
NDT: You refuse to use plastic in Pura Panela bags. Tell us about the process of designing biodegradable packaging.
NW: With a lot of research and support from The Sheffield Sustainability Network and Intrinsic Earth Network at Sheffield University, and Green Packaging in Colombia I found a way to make biodegradable Pura Panela bags. The outside is made from sugarcane husks, called bagasse, which is such a nice cellulose material to work with. The inside layer is made from corn.
Working with bagasse can sometimes be a challenge. For one, it lets a bit of air come in. People use plastic as it is a very, very strong protective layer. A bagasse bag also doesn’t “sit up” as straight as one made with plastic; Pura Panela’s listing at a larger retailer was terminated because the bags didn’t look quite right on the shelves, they didn’t stand up fully.
So that’s why I concentrate more on small retailers and selling wholesale [for now]. I will try to find better packaging, but I won’t use plastic.
NDT: Sugar can be contentious. What’s your take?
NW: In general, we have lost our way in our relationship with sugar. It’s everywhere and it’s so cheap. It’s in foods it doesn’t need to be in. We do not value sugar as an ingredient.
I don’t really have much sugar, you know, but when an occasion does call for sugar, I choose panela. I think if you pay a little bit more for a really good product, you will appreciate it as a real treat. And because you appreciate it more, you use less of it!
My motto in life in terms of my food is “Always go for the healthier option.”
Try these at home…