When you farm for a living, the weather always matters. Droughts, floods, frosts and the like can destroy entire harvests, which can be especially detrimental for subsistence farmers. Thankfully, though, many of these risks can be mediated with proper planning, and basic weather forecast information is often enough.
Started in Argentina, Booster is a mobile application for small farms to harness weather and climate data to make informed business decisions about managing their crops and yields. Though currently only available in Argentina and Paraguay, we spoke to the company’s co-founder Marcos Alvarado to learn more about the implications for farmers further afield and what his work means for the foodtech movement.
Edible Manhattan: Tell me more about Booster.
Marcos Alvarado: Booster delivers weather agronomic data using mobile phones to help small farms boost their crop yields. We designed Booster to solve a global problem around weather data. With little or poor data infrastructure in rural regions across the globe, farmers need help getting the information they need to manage their crops.
EM: Who are your target customers right now?
MA: Our target customers are mostly small- to medium-size farms in Latin America with less than 10 acres.
EM: So why focus on weather?
MA: Simple! It’s the key variable of every agricultural production cycle.
EM: What motivated you to launch this technology and tackle rural farming in particular?
MA: Farmers are usually short on infrastructure and investments in their business. The lack of access to agronomic information hampers them from being able to make relevant decisions such as when to plant or when to harvest.
EM: Would you say this was purely a business decision then, or motivated by some other mission?
MA: Ultimately, we have a problem. Eighty percent of the world’s 580 million farms are small and without access to relevant agronomic information. They also lack access to weather data, planting, harvesting and market information. As a result, small farms lose 30 percent of their production each year. That adds up to an estimated total loss of $200 billion each year in lost crops or lost crop opportunity.
EM: Do you think that challenge can be solved by tech alone, or are there other ways to address the global farming issue?
MA: The lack of data and help provided to small farmers is an issue governments have to help solve aside from business. Thankfully, even without government aid, technology today has reached a point where even relatively simple data can help empower farmers, and that challenge starts with access to that information in the first place.
EM: Sounds like technology plays a crucial role in your business and mission…
MA: We often hear people talking about how there’s a big data revolution transforming the agriculture space with drones, high-resolution satellites imagery, virtual reality and those top-notch technologies. But at the end of the day, that technology is only available for large farms who have the structure to benefit from them or already have the potential to scale their business. We want to change that.
EM: So where does your technology come in? Does it impact crop yields? That’s a farmer’s bread and butter isn’t it, or are there other benefits?
MA: If you compare yields between large and small farms, large farms produce up to 50 percent more per acre thanks to that technology and other benefits of scale. But we’re focused on the 80 percent of farms around the world that produce 70 percent of the food that we eat: the small farms. Tech and yield management are both important. Honestly, it’s time the community was aware of the challenges small farms face technologically and beyond.
EM: You’ve mentioned some pretty eye-opening statistics about small farms. Are there any hurdles to helping or reaching farmers use your technology?
MA: Our technology is adapted to the current agricultural situation. Mobile coverage is 100 percent in most parts of the world, even in emerging countries. Each farm has a mobile phone, but only 10 percent of those phones are smartphones. That’s a challenge to begin with. On top of that, roughly 25 percent of farmers don’t have Internet access even if they have a cellular signal, so we were forced to adapt our tech solution. Now SMS text messages are one of our principal channels for delivering information instead of mobile browsers or our mobile app. You have to adapt technology to the people, not the other way around.
EM: Tell me more about your team. How did you find the right people to develop Booster?
MA: We believe our team is the most important asset Booster has. Besides working hard, we try to have fun. In terms of leadership, we’re a team of two. Sebastián, our CTO, is responsible for the development of our data platform. He has a computer engineering degree and has built a career specializing in artificial intelligence techniques such as big data and machine learning. I’m the CEO and responsible for the development and execution of the company. My background is in finance, business administration and tech.
EM: What did you do before launching Booster?
MA: I co-founded two startups. The first was a kind of “Foursquare for nightlife.” Unfortunately, it was a classic case of a brilliant idea that sadly ended up not working out as a business. After that I founded a ride-sharing platform in Argentina, which I sold in 2014 to Tripda (now Rocket International Carpooling). I also worked for a Zurich-based business consultancy for several years.
EM: How did you both end up tackling the issue of farm data in the first place?
MA: Sebastián and I both grew up in a rural small town, Saladillo, near Buenos Aires, and we’ve known each other for more than 20 years now. Our families were deeply engaged in agriculture; we’ve always been very close to the agriculture space. We’re an Argentinian company and giving back to the community is important to us.
After specializing in technology for both our careers, we started to think about how we could address the rural information gap using technology. We saw an opportunity with mobile phones and data coverage. We’re at a point where most farms can receive actionable information to make better decisions and consequently improve their yields. That was the idea that led us to develop Booster.
EM: How is Booster faring today?
MA: Booster launched in November last year, in Paraguay. We’re already in Argentina, our home. To date we’ve already helped more than 8,000 happy customers engage with our data.
EM: How did you encourage so many farmers across both countries to use your new app?
MA: Customers pay the same $1 monthly subscription fee in Argentina and Paraguay.
EM: Booster is a tech tool that ultimately helps grow food and farming businesses. How do you view the intersection of food and technology in general now?
MA: When it comes to farming, we’re talking about one of the most important industries in the world. Sadly very few people seem determined and encouraged to get into that area though. I think the food-tech movement is at the right moment to start leveraging the powerful technologies that already exist to improve farming and re-emphasize the important place farmers have in our community. That’s where they ought to be.
EM: You’re currently working in Latin America, but your technology is global in application. How can someone in New York learn more or discover your technology?
MA: We don’t currently have any plans to go to New York. Our next big step is Brazil. We’re already planning a rollout in April this year. That being said, we’re going to be launching a second product using the same technology aimed at the U.S. market.