Prodigy was founded by husband and wife team Sameer & Neena Vaswani, after Sameer's experience building a confectionery and biscuits business in Africa highlighted to him the realities of mass-produced sweet treats that use highly refined and low cost ingredients. The brand launched in late summer 2019 with the aim of reinventing favourite chocolate bars to make them all-natural, better-for-you and more sustainable. As a result, all six Prodigy bars feature silky-smooth plant-based chocolate, less than half the sugar of regular chocolate bars, all-natural, premium nutrient-rich ingredients, plastic-free packaging and are high in prebiotic fibre. The brand’s mission is to deliver sweet snacks that not only taste amazing, but benefit the environment, have a significantly healthier nutrition profile and are accessible to all. We caught up with Neena and Sameer to find out how they plan to improve the standards of the confectionary we consume. 

Sameer and Nina, founders of Prodigy Snacks by Liz Isles Photography

Sameer and Nina, founders of Prodigy Snacks by Liz Isles Photography

Please tell us what you both did before founding the Prodigy brand and why did you decide to change course and start a business together? 

Neena and I had been living in Nigeria for some years. I had been running a branded biscuit & confectionery business and Neena was busy being Mum as we had just started our family. The business got sold in 2016 and we moved back to London. We took a couple of years off, and travelled for a bit and then started Prodigy in 2018.

Please tell us about the process of creating your bars and getting them to market. 

Everything starts with a brand, so our first step was to create a brand identity, brand manifesto, and brand values. From there, we began to formulate the Chocolate recipe – we were essentially creating an alternative way of making chocolate with ingredients not used before. We got rejected by quite a few producers, until we finally found an SME factory who was willing to make the change. We went through approximately 25 different trials and taste tests until we finally landed on our unique recipe. That was the genesis of the Chunky range – and we created the 4 different variants. A big challenge was the biodegradable, plastic free packaging we were committed to using. Again we were rejected by numerous producers because of this issue alone. However, our current producer was open minded enough, and after some machine trials and adjustments, it was all settled. We then had to find another producer to create our Bounty and Snickers reinventions – our Cahoots range. A similar process of multiple trials was involved and our suite of 6 bars was launched!

Did you always want to create a vegan chocolate bar and if so, why?

We wanted to create a Chocolate bar that was better for us and better for our planet. That means stamping out highly processed ingredients for health reasons, and also stamping out dairy for environmental reasons. Dairy used in Chocolate is not the “glass and half” we have been fooled into believing, it is actually highly processed milk powders that have largely had all their nutrients stripped out of it. So the decision to be a plant based or vegan chocolate was for both health and environmental reasons. Also today’s society is plagued by guilt and shame over eating habits and choices, especially over sweets and snacks, and we wanted to go back to good old days where we could eat.

Given the recent interest in vegan products, how have you found the response to your bars from plant based consumers? 

Our bars have been roaringly well received by the plant based audience, as they consider our bars the closest thing to mainstream chocolate they have ever tasted – rich and creamy, intense cacao and indulgent. We have also received amazing feedback from non-plant based consumers who love the taste of our bars and also their sustainability and health credentials.

How difficult was it to create a negative plastic product and do you think other brands should follow suit?

Being Plastic Negative was actually fairly easy as it was all seamlessly handled by our wonderful partners at Repurpose Global. It is essentially the same system as carbon offsetting, whereby we contribute funding to organisations who take on the task of cleaning up plastic waste from landfill and our oceans. We made the conscious pledge of cleaning up the equivalent of 10 plastic wrappers for every bar sold. I definitely think other brands should follow suit, as whilst planting a tree for every unit sold is a noble cause, if brands feel strongly about the plastic crisis – as we do – then it’s a more meaningful impact. Plastic is a major problem of our society today, especially single use plastic. Recycled plastics are a step forward but still not good enough, we need to greatly reduce the production of plastic in our world both for the carbon emissions they generate, and also the huge problem of their afterlife and polluting of our oceans and environment.

MORE: Top tips on launching a new vegan product

Why are the classic bars so detrimental to our health?

The Classic bars are of course iconic but we feel are not fit for today’s world. They contain up to 60% refined sugar, (do stop and think about that) have actually very little cacao in them, and are packed with processed milk powders and unnecessary ingredients like palm oil, toxic ingredients like high fructose corn syrups and glucose. None of this has any nutritional value, they are purely empty calories, that cause blood sugar spikes and then the ensuing crash leads our bodies to crave even more sugar. Cacao was the “food of the gods” because of the pleasure it brought to taste buds and the nutrients and antioxidants they naturally contained.

Why is there so much controversy over palm oil and why is it a good idea to avoid it?

Palm oil is from Palm kernel which is the fruit from palm trees largely grown in Asia. Palm trees are actually one of the easiest trees to cultivate and they grow relatively quickly. So producing palm oil is cheap and easy and has found multiple uses in food, soap, cosmetics, etc.. with the huge surge in global demand for this low cost oil or fat - Asian countries are undergoing major deforestation programs to make space for palm tree plantations on epic scales! Deforestation is a travesty for our planet as it decimates natural habitats for wildlife. Rainforests are described as the "lungs of our planet" because they absorb co2 and provide oxygen for our earth - the more deforestation, the more global warming and less all earth's creatures can breathe.

What tips do you have for launching a business with your significant other?

    1. Get some therapy before starting!
    2. Have your desks at opposite ends of the office!
    3. Have very clearly defined roles and responsibilities with no overlap.
    4. Have a well stocked drinks trolley at home.

How was your brand affected by lockdown?

It was a severe setback. Our products are impulse, on the go products, we need people traveling, commuting to work, and shopping in stores to buy our products. With lockdown that came to a practical standstill and supermarkets had so many issues to contend with, they just weren’t looking at new brands to stock. Face to face meetings weren’t possible, trying to get samples into buyers hands was close to impossible as they weren’t even at work to receive them, let alone taste them. It was a tough time. However, we seized the opportunity to get “our house in order” – so we focused on setting up our Plastic Negative initiatives, certifying our range as Carbon Neutral, and applying for B Corp status. We also conducted some research and did a packaging redesign, which has really improved our offering.

What is next for you? 

Global Domination! No Seriously, we launch our reimagination of a Caramel filled Chocolate egg this Easter, and our take on the nations favourite chocolate digestive biscuit – but with all the Prodigy health and sustainability credentials. We are a B Corp Company now running our business with balanced goals of profit and purpose. We are trying to making an impact by inspiring change in our food industry and showing them there is a better way, and give this generation and the next a better choice.

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