While most of the crops are replicated using true seeds, potatoes are planted using so-called seed potatoes. The conventional seed potatoes which farmers can buy on the market are of low quality, they produce poor yields and require unnecessary amounts of fertiliser. For the farmer, this is not only frustrating but also threatens their livelihood.

Paying attention to this scenario, 2019/20 TFF Finalist CBA Sementes developed a business with a purpose. Using aeroponic control systems, machine learning, and AI, they are improving seed potato production to give farmers resources to produce and plant healthy seeds in the field, improve yield, increase incomes and tackle food security.

In this interview, we talked to founder and CEO Lucas Moreira to learn more about CBA Sementes’ aeroponic systems.

Can you describe to us what CBA Sementes is about?

Potatoes are a nutrient-rich, widely available and affordable crop with market size of about 390 million tones worth $400 bn USD per year but there are four factors which play into the vulnerability of the potato crop: time needed to grow, high amounts of crop losses, wide-spread field diseases, and high chemical field inputs. We can change that with high-quality seed potatoes.

With CBA Sementes, we have created an automated aeroponic system to produce high-quality, disease-free potato seeds, while also reducing overall production time and costs. We will implement our systems around the world with a unique cooperative rural extension program that benefits farmers economically and empowers them to be more independent.

It’s our mission to plant the seed of the future today!

How did you start off as a team?

In my Master’s, I focused on studying sensors to measure the content in plant leaves. This is where I had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of aquaponic and aeroponic systems. These systems allow close controlling of important variables to ensure high quality and growth of the plants. As the CEO I now take the lead on building partnerships and educational work to gain wider recognition for our startup.

Although everyone thought planting potatoes in the air was a crazy idea, my brother and father eventually jumped on the bandwagon and we founded CBA Sementes together. I think it was partly due to the political and economic crisis here in Brazil that they decided to start a business that can have a real impact with me. Both are now leading the technical hands-on work at our greenhouse in Divinolândia, an important potato production region in the countryside of São Paulo.

Rafael, who currently leads our communication strategy, is one of many people we count to our close network of collaborators. As an engineer focused on sustainable development he helps us address market and innovation challenges.

How do your seed potatoes differ from conventional ones?

Our aeroponic greenhouse can grow potatoes at 18 times higher density per sqm and produces 50 times more seeds. The pilot facility in São Paulo is a 500m2 unit and produces 1.2m seed potatoes per year in a production system that only need 2% of the water, 5% of the chemical defensives, 20% of the fertiliser and has zero disease infections rates, which is almost impossible in conventional (in-soil) system.

You want to implement your systems through a rural extension program. How does this concept work?

Currently, we earn most of our revenue by selling G0 seed potatoes to companies like PepsiCo, who are big players in the potato industry.

We are working on implementing a business model where third-party farmer producers pay an implementation fee to license our technology, similar to a franchise model in a cooperative context. We supply them with the aeroponics hardware and operational know-how for a 10% commission fee on each seed
potato produced by third party units.

To be able to launch this concept, advance and grow this model, we are now seeking investors from public or private sectors who can support us by helping to provide loans for smallholder farmers so they have the financial resources to get started with our systems.

You had the chance to present your project to government officials in Zimbabwe. Can you tell us about your visit to the country?

When we started off, I said that I want our startup to develop a technology that can be implemented all around the world in as many crops as possible.

We were stoked when we got invited by the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement of Zimbabwe to visit the Southern African country. He wanted to learn about our business and how CBA Sementes could help increase potato production. From 2017 to date, potato production in Zimbabwe had decreased due to a number of factors affecting all other value chains in the economy such as power outages, shortage of foreign currency and climate change.

It was this visit that made us realise that we are not only selling high-quality seeds but that it’s in our hands to empower farmers and change the system from the ground up.

Empowering potato farmers is simple—the only thing they need is a quality seed potato, the right systems and support. We act as a powerful tool of transformation.

What is up next on the agenda for CBA Sementes?

We first want to grow and improve our model here in Brazil and strengthen the bonds with big food industries like PepsiCo so that we can then go global. The implementation of our pilot systems in Zimbabwe will showcase the direct impact we can have and can serve as a blueprint to apply our business in other African countries. Because our business approach is so new, we need to gain insight into the impact that we will have on farmers’ lives by equipping them with the system, training resources and a financial jump-start to farm high-quality potatoes.

How can TFF help you on your journey?

The exposure that TFF will be able to provide us with, will open doors for us. It is extremely important for us to get the word out about what we do so we can find partners who will collaborate with us for the implementation of the pilot in Africa. We have the potential to alleviate food security issues in places who otherwise wouldn’t be able to benefit from high-tech farming solutions.

We will continue sharing about CBA Sementes’ journey here—make sure to check our blog regularly!

CBA Sementes and the other Finalist and Boost Teams are currently taking part in the virtual TFF Academy 2020, which is an open-sourced acceleration program anyone can join. Just sign up to the Digital Labs and make sure to request to join the TFF Community Facebook group here where we will keep an active feed for peer-to-peer discussions and relevant conversations!

Co-written by Brazil TFF Ambassador Bea Mazziero