Helping Dairy Farmers Thrive Through Carbon Harvesting: An Interview with Luis Alejandro Vergara
The university of Dublin-based researcher Luis Alejandro Vergara is the mastermind behind Carbon Harvester, a startup that aims to help dairy farmers to gain additional income by reducing their carbon emissions.
In this interview, Alejandro opens up on his passion for creating value through sustainability, solo- running an early-stage venture, and his future plans for Carbon Harvester.
Tell me about the problem that Carbon Harvester is tackling.
The price of milk in Ireland has been, for the last 30 years, unaffected by inflation. At the same time, farmers are experiencing increasing pressure to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture activities, such as using less fertilizer- this means additional expenses are growing either they have to spend more or are producing less. So, farmers kept making less money every year while prices increased.
Why is it such a significant problem to solve?
When the rural community makes less money, it causes a domino effect: first, they’re less resilient to the changes in the future decades. Next, people leave to live in the city, which causes overpopulation in cities, reducing, in turn, food production. Additionally, the dairy industry is portrayed in such unflattering light by popular media: as the primary driver of climate change! Sure, farming contributes to climate change, but at the same time, they’re producing food- which we all need and sequestering carbon in the soil.
Explain the solution you’re currently developing- Carbon Harvester. Tell me, how does a less carbon footprint equal additional income for farmers?
I’m developing a platform that helps farmers to measure their carbon footprint daily. The algorithm includes a toolbox of climate mitigation strategies to reduce their emission- tailor-made to suit each farm, and at the same time, generate income. For example, certain methods lead to less fertilizer need, while productivity stays the same. The second source of income is selling a premium product: you see, organic products are 20 or 30% more expensive than its counterpart. The market is similarly responding to climate-friendly products.
Why not generate income through carbon trading?
I am glad you asked that! The problem with today’s carbon offsets market is it’s not economically regulated. A European-based company can buy tonnes of CO2 from South America, Asia, or Africa for less than one euro per tonne, whereas Europe’s official emission allowance is 25 euros per tonne.
Carbon harvester is a university spin-off based on your research project. What made you enter academia in the first place, and what drove your leap to entrepreneurship?
Academia provides me with the resources to explore this particular topic: decarbonizing the dairy industry. It was economically and technologically not feasible until a couple of years ago. Then, I started to develop the venture as I recognize its possibility to generate value throughout the supply chain.
What is your short- and long-term goal for Carbon Harvester?
My goal next year is to develop a proof of concept. The long-term goal would be to scale things up and offer the software Europe-wide. My grand vision is to incorporate cattle and pig farmers into our customer base.
Carbon Harvester is currently a one-person show, and you’re looking for a co-founder. What kind of person is your ideal co-founder?
I’m looking for a software developer as a co-founder. On a personal level- of course, I’m looking for someone who shares my passion and my vision -someone who’s invested in growing the startup, who wants to grow with me and challenges my ideas. Maybe, the pandemic is over, and things get back to normal, I can connect with different people interested in partaking in the project.
You were selected to take part in the Global Food Venture Programme’s Business Incubation stage. How did your participation help Carbon Harvester?
Working in a small team, it can be challenging to view our venture with a fresh perspective and see where we made mistakes. Having to present our project frequently and getting feedback from top experts in the world, be it in product development, business, and pitching was so valuable!
The mobility grant program, which allowed me to visit farmers and validate my business idea, was incredible- I gained a new perspective and a newfound respect for the farmer industry.
What’s the biggest lesson learned from your participation in the business incubation program?
The GFVP taught me to be resilient. I failed at least five times a day during the Bootcamp, always getting feedback on the things I did wrong. Learning how to fail is not an easy thing to do. But, there’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves- we must take action with the feedbacks we got.
Author: Jennifer Sasa Darmali
EIT food is a European innovation initiative with a mission to educate the new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators to transform the food system onto a more sustainable and healthier path.