Editor’s Note: Vonnie Estes is VP of Technology at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and a regular contributor to AFN – see her previous posts here. PMA represents companies from every segment of the global produce and floral supply chain.
Estes is a prominent figure in the agriculture biotech scene, having held technology leadership roles at prominent companies including DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta, as well as for small startups and venture funds. Most recently, she was vice president of business development for Caribou Biosciences, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing startup. She’s also been an independent business consultant since 2015.
Here she writes about her recent visit to Brazil. (I hope I can come next time!)
The PMA Science and Technology team visited Brazil last month for Fresh Connections: Brazil with 900 participants from the fruit and vegetable industry. In addition to the highly successful conference, we convened a Science and Technology Dinner, conducted member visits and visited the AgTech Garage in Piracicaba.
Here are the top things people were talking about:
We arrived Tuesday, August 20, the day after all the smoke blew into Sao Paulo, turning the city dark and starting the social media storm. There were peaceful demonstrations outside our hotel and throughout the country. From discussions, the biggest contributor seems to be the blind eye of President Bolsonaro. Here is English coverage equivalent to what I heard. This is certainly an important topic exemplifying how agriculture, natural resources, climate change, and politics are intertwined.
US trade talks with China were a focus. More than half of the cultivated crop area in Brazil is dedicated to soy. Prior to the US-China trade quarrel, the US supplied 34% (33 million tons) of China’s soybean needs in 2017, which decreased to 18% (16 million tons) in 2018. In 2018, Brazil supplied 75% (51 million tons) of Chinese soy purchases. Tariff conversations between the China and the US seem to change daily, but Brazil stands to win on increasing production and sales of soy to China.
3. Evolving consumer demands for food
The macro-trends of Brazilian consumers are the same as other countries: desire for increased convenience, increased connection and communication throughout the value chain, and a shift towards healthier products. Brazilian consumers see fruits and vegetables as fundamental to their diet: they feel they need to consume them to stay healthy and function.
Technology will help bring the desired products to the Brazilian consumer:
- Organic produce: Solution providers are developing crop protection products and traceability systems to provide consumers with organic food. Bio-control products are being tested, sold to, and used by producers. Organic produce is being traced through the chain with traceability systems developed by start-up companies and/or brought in from foreign providers.
- Sustainability: Producers we talked to are pushing production of more sustainable food and communicating the benefits to retailers and consumers. Technology is being developed to grow in a more sustainable way and to trace and brand the product for consumers to know the difference.
- Convenience: Brazilians want convenience in obtaining and preparing food. This will come in different types of stores and retail experiences. Consumer apps, AI used for prediction for better stocking, and logistics will play a role. The streets of Sao Paulo were clogged with bikes carrying Uber Eats.
- Food safety: As in all developed food systems, food safety is a concern. Technology is being developed and deployed to prevent and detect food borne pathogens along with tracking and eliminating pesticides in food.
- Consumers want innovation in food: We heard consumers want both a bigger variety in their fruits and vegetables along with produce improvements. They are interested in innovations like seedless grapes and watermelons. These products can be developed by plant breeders for the Brazil growing environment.
4. Technology and efficiency on the farm
Agriculture productivity has increased over the last 20 years with improvements in quality of research, technology development, and innovation. The large hectare crops of sugarcane and soy are highly mechanized and efficient but innovations such as digital farming, remote sensing, data analysis, crop protection, and biotechnology are mostly being tackled by startups. As in all rural areas, access to broadband is a problem for adopting digital tools. Brazil, like every country, will have to develop a local fix along with solutions to transportation and cold chain. Great opportunities exist to develop and deploy technical tools providing solutions for increased yield, transporting safe food to market, and profitability.
5. Brazil’s Agtech Ecosystem
The startup scene is booming in Brazil. According to the Association for Private Capital Investment in Latin America, venture funding grew to $1.3 billion in 2018. That’s 52% more than the $859 million invested in 2017, and 369% increase from the $279 million in 2016. Some of that investment will find its way to the exploding AgTech sector.
Piracicaba is the capital of the thriving AgTech ecosystem. The Agtech Garage in Piracicaba is the best think tank and support of AgTech. Startups, academia, producers, investors, and other innovation partners work together to drive solutions for the sector. Stop by and visit. Jose Augusto Tome is a great host and infectious in his enthusiasm.
Last year Francisco Jardim of SP Ventures detailed Brazil’s agtech ecosystem with a 338 company market map on AFN. The continued investment by SP Ventures and others adds to the excitement. The likely exit for startups is currently acquisitions by strategics at a good price.
Here are a few of the best funded agtech startups to date.
- Agrosmart: Recently closed on $5.8 million Series A; $10.4 million total raise. Smart farming software that allows remote monitoring of agroeconomic data for managerial automation. CEO Mariana Vasconcelos is a superstar.
- Strider: Acquired by Syngenta. Farm management software platform. $4m raised by 2018. Great example of exit for Brazilian startups.
- InCeres: Developed software for Systems Precision Farming. $2.6 million raise.
- Solinftec: IoT platform in the sugarcane industry, integrating and digitalizing farming operation. Backed by TPG ART and AgFunder.
- Terramagna: Risk mitigation in finance. Raised $760k from Yield Lab and Canary
- BUG Agentes Biológicos: Wasps to substitute for pesticides. Acquired by Koppert
When I was working in Brazil in 2015 for GranBio, startups were not part of the Brazilian business ecosystem, even though people were hyper-connected with a ton of good ideas. Going back this trip, I visited a WeWork site humming with allbird-clad young entrepreneurs in Sao Paulo. The excitement at the AgTech Garage was palpable. I look forward to seeing the continued development and deployment of technology for both broadacre and the produce supply chain to increase producers’ efficiencies and profits and to delight the Brazilian consumer for increased demand.