Gro Intelligence seeks to change the global agriculture industry, one fact and figure at a time.
The gold strands of unthreshed teff, ready for harvest, hold a promise.
Within the stalks, the tiny, dense grains are rich with nutrients and even deeper value: 6.5 million families across the country plant the grass and rely on it for income as well as sustenance; fifteen percent of all calories consumed in Ethiopia are from teff, mostly eaten ground down fine into flour for tangy injera flatbread. Over 90 percent of the world’s supply of the grain is grown here, typically in small, individual farms where coaxing food from the fine blades can be a battle against the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Given an unanticipated drought, the promise of teff — and all it means to the country that relies on it — can wither away to nothing in the field.
Entrepreneur Sara Menker wants to change all that, and then some. And she built a product that just might.
Menker, who was born in Addis Ababa and raised in the United States, is the CEO of Gro Intelligence, a data company she founded in 2014 “dedicated to building products that change the way the world understands agriculture,” according to its literature.
But Menker is not a farmer; her tactile experience with crops is limited to the strawberries her mother, a seamstress, used to grow in a patch of land outside of Addis and sell to market. All the leftover strawberries would be served, pressed, in tall glasses to her children. Often. “To this day, I can’t drink strawberry juice,” Sara says with a laugh.
In fact, she has spent her professional career in offices, not fields. She formerly worked as a vice president at Morgan Stanley, where she began specializing in risk management of commodities and moved into managing a trading portfolio. But it was there of all places, in her Manhattan office, that she began to delve deeply into agriculture — not by plying a till in the earth, but from a macro, bird’s-eye perspective. It was 2008, and the world was spiraling toward financial crisis. At Morgan Stanley, eyes keenly trained on the plummeting markets, Menker watched as her colleagues began to hatch doomsday backup plans buying what they hoped were more stable bets.
“When the world felt like it was falling apart, a lot of my colleagues were buying gold as their end-of-world hedge,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘If the world comes to an end, I just want to eat.’ That time was when I first started thinking of agriculture.”
Her background pointed her in the direction of Africa, where her first thought was to invest in farmland. She looked into strawberries, of course, but also cocoa and cotton and almonds and wheat and rice. “I got obsessed,” she says. But when she began to ask probing questions, the same questions she was programmed to ask as a risk manager — What’s your insurance against crop failure? How do you forecast into the future? What data do you use to make shrewd decisions to guarantee the best yield? — she found there were no good answers.
And that the problem is worldwide.
“I realized that the problem was systemic; people talk about the small-scale farmer when it really is the plight of everybody,” she says. “I felt like it was a system that was not only broken in Africa, but it was broken globally. There are massive inefficiencies in the market that I felt could be removed if we built a system of data around it,” she adds. “And I felt I was qualified to do it.”
So along with two Ethiopian-American colleagues, Sewit Ahderom and Nemo Semret, whom she met in America, she founded Gro Intelligence three years ago.
The triumvirate brings together a unique interplay of skills to tackle the issues hampering the global agriculture industry. After completing his Ph.D. at Columbia University, Nemo created an online auctioning system for internet bandwidth before selling the company and becoming a senior engineer at Google. Sewit served as vice president of an Africa-focused private investment fund, and has a wide-ranging background that spans from a college degree in electrical engineering to work experience in infrastructure development.
Though many assume their roots drew the team together, the magnet was in fact the issue at hand. Nemo was introduced to Sara after watching a talk she gave at Google on the thorny concerns plaguing the agriculture industry. Sewit and Sara connected through networks of friends to realize a shared vision. Sewit perhaps sums up best what exactly pushed them both to leave high-profile jobs to found Gro Intelligence: “I was so fascinated by the problem she was trying to solve,” she says.
The company’s main product, Gro, is a web-based tool that serves not just as a repository for far-flung information on agriculture, but also as a systematizing library where the disparate types of data have been processed by their dedicated team, so that people in the industry can take advantage of the processing via algorithms and machine learning Gro has done, to make sense of it all.
The subscription-based software product’s goal is to enable better decisions in the agriculture space. The result could mean an end to food insecurity.
“We can tell there will be a drought in places well before people can see it,” says Sewit, the COO, “But it’s not useful to people unless it is contextualized.”
In agriculture, data is profoundly stratified, dispersed between entities that collect information on the land, the climate or the crop cycle, such as universities, governments and private research institutions. The minute permutations of weather, climate change and other information that could be essential to everyone from farmers all the way up to the financial markets that trade upon their goods are out there, but spread wide and largely unprocessed.
Information is not just profoundly siloed, the team discovered, but in agriculture, there is also no universal language, so to speak, of how data is presented. That makes drawing comparisons between disparate data sets nearly impossible. Gro Intelligence set out to standardize the data.
“Everyone is operating in a semi-opaque environment,” Sewit says. “Agriculture is one of the oldest sectors in the history of humanity, and yet there was no standardized terminology, definition or structure for the data — until we came up and created it,” she adds. “Which was shocking to us, to be honest.”
The consumption of such important data is also undemocratic. There exist reams of satellite data that could be used to prospect the future of a given market, or that could offer guidance to a farmer on how to, say, adjust a planting cycle to keep pace with shifting weather patterns induced by global warming. But typically, only large entities such as banks can afford to hire teams of experts to collect, analyze and metabolize things like buckets of geospatial data.
The result, according to Gro Intelligence, is a messy industry unable to capitalize. Africa, for example, contains 60 percent of the world’s arable land that is uncultivated, but growth in the agricultural sector has lagged, according to data compiled by the World Bank. From the cultivated land, crops are between a third and half the global average. The impact is on more than wallets: About one in four people in Africa is malnourished — the highest level worldwide, according to information compiled by the African Development Bank.
The sector, despite its millennia of existence, often relies on ancient practices uninformed by the wealth of information that could make planting (and trading upon what farmers do) more profitable, resilient and rich.
The applications are manifold, says Tiffany Shi, Gro Intelligence’s growth manager, potentially changing the way business is done. She has already seen changes from clients.
“We work with these dairy traders, these very sophisticated traders, and they tell me they are making decisions based on the farmer’s feeling, of his time spent looking at the cows,” she says. With Gro, the traders were able to harness market data to make their predictions.
It can also shape policy: Last year, Shi says, a certain African government was mulling a ban on corn exports, afraid a drought on the horizon would make corn scarce for the local population (Shi declined to name the country because of client confidentiality). With Gro’s data, however, the legislators were able to extrapolate that the coming drought would not, in fact, be severe. The ban was scrapped, sparing the country from a spike in corn prices, she says.
Dr. Zerihun Tadele, an Ethiopianagronomist who leads the crop breeding and genomics group at the University of Bern’s Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland, says a tool like Gro could be a valuable resource. “Using the data to improve the food security, I think that’s a good idea,” he says. “Having the data and the knowledge can help the farmers in using their resources efficiently.”
At Bern, Dr. Zerihun is working on food security issues as well; he is creating a more resilient and productive form of teff, a plant he feels is well suited to the future extreme weather a warming planet will produce.
But even with expanded access to data, Dr. Zerihun believes there are caveats to what can be gleaned via a product like Gro. Agriculture, he says, is dynamic. Data on soil, for example — its acidity or alkalinity — that is even a growing-season old, might no longer be accurate. Constant updating is necessary. “There are a lot of applications it has,” he says of Gro. “But there are also some limitations.”
Although Gro was born when Menker first turned her mind to the problems besetting the vast tracts of arable land in her homeland, the product is a tool for agriculture globally. Gro Intelligence has offices in New York and Kenya.
Nemo, the company’s CTO, says the founders’ Ethiopian roots have enhanced Gro’s scope. “Having a global perspective means that we understand what the issues are in food and climate around the world, not just wealthy countries.”
The ultimate goal is to help the 6 billion people involved in the industry globally make informed choices. Those decisions may help them deal with the effects of drought, or help expand crops that can survive an uncertain climate future. There is an explosion of data out there to help make that happen, Nemo says, and Gro aims to put it within reach.
“Having more accurate decision-making tools,” he says, “means lots of lives saved.”
Sarah Maslin Nir is a staff reporter for The New York Times and the author of “Unvarnished,” an investigation into labor conditions and health issues of New York City’s nail salon industry, for which she was nominated for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.