Around the world, women entrepreneurs are revolutionizing agriculture through technology like artificial intelligence, sophisticated soil sensors, blockchain and robotics.
My latest book From Farms to Incubators: Women Innovators Revolutionizing How Our Food Is Grown, is a collection of visual and written portraits of nearly 30 women leaders and innovators in agricultural technology, or agtech.
In it, I look at how women entrepreneurs are revolutionizing agriculture through high technology including artificial intelligence, sophisticated soil sensors, blockchain and robotics. These business cases demonstrate the influence of female innovation, the new technologies applied to agribusiness problems, and the career opportunities young women can find in agribusiness.
An excerpt is below.
Mariana Vasconcelos: A Daughter of Farmers Creates Smart Software to Boost Crop Production
In early spring of 2020, Mariana Vasconcelos found herself at a crossroads. With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading globally, the CEO of agtech start-up Agrosmart had to decide whether to cut costs, including staff. The timing seemed uncanny, if not potentially devastating, for in the growing landscape of start-ups, Agrosmart is a rising star.
Agrosmart monitors crops and provides farmers and the entire food supply chain with agronomic and traceability insights. Headquartered in Brazil, the company uses data acquired from sensors installed on farms to monitor crops, with the goal of boosting crop production. The company’s mission is to “make agriculture more productive, sustainable, and resilient to climate change.” Vasconcelos grew up in a farming family and says that she is driven by wanting to help all farmers be more efficient and increase their yield.
The company has built itself up to nearly 60 staff and to date has raised $8.8 million. Vasconcelos, despite her youthful façade, is a dynamic presence and an engaging and passionate speaker. In 2020 she was included in Worth magazine’s list of Groundbreaking Women of the Year.
Vasconcelo’s personal history inspired her to launch Agrosmart.
She is the daughter of farmers and when younger witnessed the problems they faced. The family farm in Pedralva, Brazil, centered on sugar cane (Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of sugarcane) and in recent years shifted to corn and horse breeding; her brother continues to grow organic vegetables and coffee. In this challenging profession, the fragile line between success and failure during a growing season was heavily dependent on Mother Nature and a grower’s intuition.
She is a staunch believer that innovation, specifically digital agriculture, is an essential tool in helping farmers—especially small- and midsize producers. It was the growing problems related to climate change “that made me want to bring technology to farmers so they could be more resilient,” she says.
With that in mind, Vasconcelos made the decision to maintain as many staff as possible during COVID-19. She also cut the price of her company’s products to make them more affordable for small farmers. “We are keeping a full team to support the farmers to keep producing, no matter what, and we have reduced our prices so farmers can access technology,” she says.
Even during the pandemic, interest and demand for Agrosmart have seen an uptick as farmers turn to technology as a solution to cutting costs and increasing yield.
Vasconcelos observes: “Farmers are looking for more technology and need more technology in order to be able to understand what has been going on in the field, especially with the lack of labor. . . . They have to keep workers very focused and isolated [social distancing] as much as possible. We also have very limited imports and transportation is very limited.”
Despite growing up on a farm, Vasconcelos had little interest in a career in agriculture, much less returning to or running the family farm, which her father started before she was born (her mother, now retired, was a teacher).
“I was not very interested in farming and I really didn’t want to stay on the farm,” she says. In a 2017 Financial Times article, she admitted, “I thought it was very boring. I liked the horses, but I did not like the farming.”
When Vasconcelos was 16, her father handed her the keys to the family bakery, which her grandfather started, hopeful that she’d learn how to run it in case he passed away at an early age as his father had. The bakery was in many ways a companion to the family farm, inspired by a farm-to-table vision of offering coffee and fresh foods. She would continue to run the bakery until Agrosmart took off.
After high school, she studied business at the Federal University of Itajubá, a region about 270 miles outside São Paulo known as Brazil’s Silicon Valley. She concentrated her studies on tech companies and start-ups and quickly became interested in an area called the internet of things. Popularly known as IoT, the internet of things refers to a system of internet-connected devices, including sensors that transfer data over a wireless network. She wondered how IoT could play a significant part in improving efficient in a variety of sectors.
“I had a lot of contact with hardware, sensors and robotics,” says Vasconcelos, recalling the frequent tech-related events at her university, including robot war competitions in which business and engineering students were often matched.
After finishing college, she moved to Germany to enter the training program at Robert Bosch GmbH, where she worked in sales within the automotive industry. While at Bosch, she followed the development of IoT technologies to search for a way to use innovation to help a variety of industries.
Upon her return to Brazil she wasted little time in launching her first start-up. She tapped a student from her college days whom she had participated in robot competitions with and in 2012 cofounded SmartApps, a consulting company with a focus on using IoT solutions for a wide range of sectors, from oil to medical to environmental industries. Quickly realizing that the company as constructed was not scalable, they shifted their focus to developing concepts for a scalable company. Vasconcelos and her team created an open source platform where they could connect with other innovators and where developers and engineers could create their own solutions (such as building sensors). They also organized hackathons to incentivize developers to create solutions.
Her realization of the powerful connection between technology and agriculture led to her decision to leave SmartApps and launch a tech company that solely focused on the agriculture market. A year later, in 2014, Vasconcelos, then 23, and two childhood friends, Raphael Garcez Pizzi and Thales Nicoleti, founded Agrosmart, which creates software that uses artificial intelligence to make agricultural predictions based on data from the soil, weather conditions and the genetic properties of the crop.
Vasconcelos notes she and her cofounders had an edge in that all three have parents who are growers, and they understood the challenges in farming. They shared a common belief that data science was the solution to the roadblocks in food production.
The start-up was fortunate in that it had a ready-made base of operations—the bakery that Vasconcelos continued to run. The team also had a small base of farmers, many of them friends with their parents who had watched them grow up. The growers were eager to help and test the technology and offer feedback, but they were slow to make a commitment when it came to purchasing the product. Vasconcelos believes that age and gender were added barriers to sales and fundraising.
“There were many times that agronomists did not put too much faith in what I was doing; the farmers themselves were very open to receive me and they treated me like a daughter, but they didn’t really want to pay me or do business with me,” she explains.
The solution? “We built a more diverse team with men and more senior people for sales,” she says. So far, the mix has worked and led to a rise in sales and investment.
Vasconcelos says the company now monitors more than 3.5 million acres of farmland and works with major corporations, including Coca-Cola, which uses the technology to monitor fruit farms in Espírito Santo, a state in southeastern Brazil.
Vasconcelos comes across as someone who is outspoken if not adamant about making a difference in food systems. There’s a bit of advocacy interwoven into the company’s DNA, and Agrosmart definitely has a voice when it comes to tackling major issues such as sustainability and the environment. Since 2019 the company has been a member of the United Nations Global Compact, a collective of business leaders who uphold UN goals on sustainability.
Vasconcelos herself has gained the limelight in recent years by providing a mix of innovation and novelty as a young entrepreneur in a space dominated by men. In 2018 she made the “Innovators Under 35 Latin America 2018” list of leading young innovators compiled by MIT Technology Review. She’s been ranked as part of “Forbes Under 30” and was on Fast Company’s “Most Creative” list.
The number of women decision-makers in farming (women producers) was very low when Vasconcelos was a child, but she’s seeing more women emerging in the space. “In agtech it seems low and there is still a long way to go, but it’s growing,” she says, hopeful.
View the trailer from the award-winning documentary, From Farms to Incubators:
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