Buildings, cars, the gray mixing with the green. What? Yes, the traditional city landscape is gradually changing with the spread of community gardens and the arrival of urban farms to some of the largest cities in the world. Although paradoxical, this new scenario is also part of a new context of sustainability under construction and is synonymous with community and good business.
During the quarantine measures established by authorities in Brazil to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, some Brazilian startups that operate in Sao Paulo in other cities are reinventing themselves to keep providing vegetables amid the quarantine period, delivering organic food and vegetables to prevent any lack of food supply.
To learn more about the challenges of such businesses in Brazil, LABS spoke with four of them:
Pink Farms started with a project in 2016 when production engineer Geraldo Maia, 28, met his partners, the twins Rafael Delalibera and Mateus Delalibera, at another startup. In 2018 a pilot farm was made to perform a technical and economic validation of the business. Why “Pink”? because of the hot pink light used, a combination of blue and red light that predominates in the internal environment of the startup’s garden –wavelengths used to activate chlorophyll and perform photosynthesis.
Pink farms’ technology consists of a closed environment as if it were a cleanroom. Each level has its hydroponics system. They operate with microgreens, lettuce, leeks, carrots, cabbage, radishes, mustard, red cabbage, and arugula.
In the urban farm, there is more to be harvested than in traditional farms, without wasting water and without pesticides. For Maia, this is possible because they are inside the city, with a delivery radius of 10 kilometers. Due to verticalization and because of the technology system that the plant is in, it is always in the perfect state of growth, it’s sustainable.
PinkFarms had already two investment rounds. In 2018, Pink Farms received an investment of BRL 2 million from SP Ventures, a venture capital fund manager specializing in agribusiness, and from Capital Lab, a proprietary investment platform for seed and venture capital.
At the end of 2019, the company underwent a round of investments to expand the farm. “We foresee yet another round to multiply the number of farms we have by the end of the year, probably another farm in São Paulo and possibly a smaller farm in Rio de Janeiro, already with the much higher revenues that we have today,” says Maia.
The startup has more than 1,000 customers in Brazil. Pink Farms’ goal in five years is to be the biggest brand of consumption of vegetables and some types of fruits in Latin America. The idea is to have farms in the main Brazilian cities, as well as in cities from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Colombia.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Pink Farms is maintaining production. It has made a partnership providing greens for some restaurants that are delivering food in Sao Paulo, such as Urban Kitchen.
“We will maintain our expansion plan”, adds the businessman. Right now, Brazilians are stocking up food and, therefore, are worrying more about non-perishable food, but Maia believes in a quick return of the demand as people won’t stop worrying about healthy food.
Graduated in Public Administration, Giuliano Bittencourt, 29, didn’t have much to do with agronomy. It was after he created a startup program for the Minas Gerais government in 2012 that he opened his eyes to different business opportunities. In 2014, he went to MIT, where he had contact with a vertical farm laboratory. “I found it super interesting and when I returned to Brazil I decided to make one of this here,” he recalls.
He spent two years on a conventional farm in Betim, a city in the Brazilian Midwest, to understand exactly how it worked. In 2017, he created the startup BeGreen and the first urban farm in Latin America at the Boulevard Shopping in Belo Horizonte. Today the company has three farms in the country: Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro.
He says that, currently, almost 70% of what is produced in conventional farms is wasted. Therefore, thinking about a farm that is within the city reduces the chain that goes from the producer to supply centers and to the market. According to Bittencourt, the product is also on average BRL 2 cheaper than that it is sold on the market. “And without pesticides”, he emphasizes.
If people are increasingly concerned about food quality, about how it’s produced and how it gets to their tables, then the demand for farm techs grows, says Bittencourt. The company believes that the surge of new startups with similar ideas only shows that “it is on the right track”.
With the COVID-19 epidemic, BeGreen keeps delivering. It saw a spike on delivery demand and e-commerce channels since isolation measures were adopted. “Our customers trust in our transparency and hygiene care. They know that our product will be delivered with quality and freshness, so that’s why the demand grew during this time”.
Before the outbreak, BeGreen already had a strong culture of solidarity and usually allocates 5% of its revenue to donations. Now, according to the Bittencourt, BeGreen is targeting its donations to vulnerable people: of every 5 vegetables sold, one goes for donation.
Instituto Cidade Jardim
Headquartered in Itu, about 62 miles from São Paulo, the green roof startup Instituto Cidade Jardim was created by the agronomist, and now its CEO, Sérgio Rocha, 43, and the ecologist Fabiana Scarda. It has specialized in green roof research, production, and dissemination since it was founded in 2008. Its clients range from homeowners to large enterprises such as the Pure Island complex (formerly the Olympic Village) in Rio de Janeiro and Hospital da Restinga in Porto Alegre.
The startup’s latest product is called Kaatop, a hydroponic roof tile that does not require waterproofing. The company’s first goal was to innovate with the cultivation of plants where there is no soil, different from traditional cultivation. The Institute was the first company in São Paulo to specialize itself in the development of farming systems technology within the city, according to Rocha. As of 2012, they obtained the first patent for the hydroponic product, which has enormous potential to be used for food production.
According to the company, having natural vegetation on the roof goes beyond aesthetics. Plants throw water into the atmosphere, help filter rainwater, remove dust from the air. “In the study that we carried out with the University of Bologna in 2018, we already demonstrated that to feed a family of four people you need 8 square meters. It’s possible to meet this demand with green roofs if you think of an area of a supermarket with a green roof, for example”.
By the end of 2017, the Institute received an investment from Fapesp (São Paulo State Research Support Foundation) for product development. Fapesp now holds 20% of the hydroponic patent. Today the company has customers all over Brazil. The main focuses are the cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, and Brasília.
According to Rocha, the office is closed during this isolation period. The company is only taking calls, working in some budgets, and answering technical doubts. Instituto Cidade Jardim saw a drastic drop in the number of orders since the pandemic started to spread in Brazil.
However, he recalls that it may be a push for Brazilians to get more independent and produce food in their rooftops. “Brazilians still have not developed a strategy of self-sufficiency producing”.
It’s possible to produce fresh vegetables in a short area, but to be independent of food supply, he says that it would be necessary to share a larger production area with neighbors or with an entire community.
Founded by Nori Mikami, a 49-year-old medical specialist, Homeponic was launched about two years ago. Mikami set up a hydroponics prototype inside his apartment in early 2018. It was then that the doctor joined an engineer who knew about hydroponics. They made the automation procedure and are now in the process of manufacturing the third version of the hydroponics system inside the apartment, producing a sort-of-furniture. Homeponic also launched its first microgreens product (in the seed stage) two months ago.
“We want to give tools to those who live in small apartments to produce their food, even in a playful way for children to plant, encouraging the habit of consuming healthy food, ” Mikami adds.
Homeponic microgreens are in the cotyledonary phase, with nutritional levels above those found in the adult plant. The product is really simple: a box with a substrate and a kit for single use. It is necessary to sow, leaving the box in a dark place, such as inside a cupboard. The seed begins to germinate and after 14 days it can be harvested.
Another product related to microgreen is a microwave-sized system where the refill and fertilizer kits are placed. The equipment itself makes the irrigation and lighting routine.
The ongoing situation regarding the COVID-19 affected Homeponic, even though it’s an e-commerce business. There was a decrease in the number of orders. “Probably due to the economic crisis affecting families”, ponders Mikami. Microgreens production keeps working during this isolation period, but at a slow pace, to stock up with inputs that Homeponic has already acquired.
On the other hand, the lockdown scenario brought positive insights to the company, since more and more people and enterprises will adopt home office and homeschooling, according to Mikami. He believes that this surging trend created a necessity for self-production of food, as well as a major necessity of self-sufficiency to people. “Therefore, we believe that in our project, the automated production of vegetables and microgreens will have a particular place in the post-coronavirus phase. We are stepping up the pace to launch it quickly as we can”.