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The Sustainable Grower – transforming agriculture

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What makes agriculture sustainable?

Meet Erika Balzarelli – a woman who is answering that questions as The Sustainable Grower. As an independent consultant in the smallholder agriculture space, Erika is leading the revolution with 15 years of experience across private, public and NGO sector. She has extensive experience in strategy development and implementation, strategic and operational marketing which is complemented with her international experience across Europe, Asia, and the USA.

Erika is passionate about sustainable agriculture, food security and making a difference! She is also fluent in English, Dutch, Italian, French Spanish, German and conversational Hindi – let’s learn more a bit more…

Erika among women farmers during a sustainable rice production training in Bangladesh.

Tell us a little bit about you, your background, and your current role:

I am half italian, half dutch, born in Rome and then did my studies in NL at the University of Groningen, earning a masters in Business Administration. My dream was to become a marketing exec at the time and no best way to start then with Unilever. I got bored pretty quickly and I wanted to shift into a sector where I felt more purpose. I came across Syngenta, a leader in the agriculture industry and started to work with them in Switzerland. Pretty quickly I got relocated to Asia where my journey really began. I worked predominantly with rice smallholder farmers in India, ASEAN (mostly Indonesia), Bangladesh and China. I visited rural areas where no foreigner has ever been. During these trips I started to understand my privilege… and the hardships these smallholder farmers go through every day.

I decided to quit my job and to re-school myself in order to understand the sector from a more holistic perspective – that is when you can truly bring sustainable transformations to life. I pursued an MPA at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I specialized in sustainable development in emerging markets, with a focus on sustainable agriculture development to ignite long term economic progress. After this, I deliberately worked for NGOs, governments and social enterprises to get the most holistic view on how to transform smallholders farmers lives in the most sustainable way. I worked in Mexico and Guatemala with coffee farmers; in Ethiopia with the ATA to help implement the agriculture transformation roadmap, in India with Dalberg.

It was in India where I really understood the fundamentals of sustainable agriculture transformation – there I started to work with a very small NGO dedicated to women empowerment, grassroots. I learned that sustainability comprises of 3 dimensions: environmental, financial and social. All 3 dimensions are closely intertwined and correlated… however, if there is no financial sustainability, the farmer and the farming community will never be able to advance/progress into environmental and social sustainability. This very small but important aspect is often overseen in current programs and approaches to make smallholder farming more sustainable. For example, a smallholder rice farmer in India or Indonesia will never move towards sustainable rice production under the SRP guidelines if it cannot feed him/herself and the family first, send the kids to school and pay for healthcare. The bottlenecks to financial sustainability for a smallholder farmer is a mix of the following systemic bottlenecks: access to affordable credit, access to markets for their produce with fair prices and access to good inputs (seeds, fertilizers e.g.).

Since the beginning of 2021, I have set up a unique boutique consultancy named The Sustainable Grower. We work on developing innovative business models and strategies to remove these systemic bottlenecks and improve the sustainability of the farmer, its farm and its community. We have worked with big multinationals such as Corteva Agriscience in Vietnam on a project on climate smart, sustainable rice. We also work with smaller NGOs such as Sustainable Growers, based in Rwanda and expanding to the DRC and Tanzania, who work with women coffee farmers to develop integrated vertical business models. The Sustainable Grower has been working with them to reframe their strategy roadmap and to develop a fundraising strategy to make the organisation more sustainable and in turn to support more women farmers and their families. Currently, The Sustainable Grower is supporting a venture building project with a a big multinational in agriculture and a bank, designing an integrated solution to increase farmers yields, sustainably.

What is a fun fact about you?

I am also a yoga teacher!

Why do you think climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today?

It is not a “nice to have” anymore – any organisation, whether private sector or NGO, knows it is a must-have to work on sustainability, climate smart agriculture and the Sustainable Development Goals. Within agriculture, this is becoming increasingly important because every day livelihoods are affected due to climate change. Lack of water, decreased soil fertility, erratic rain patterns, higher/lower temperatures and shifting eco-systems have become a real threat to farmers. They are not able to farm anymore and need to leave their land idle and migrate. Others are not able to achieve the same yields anymore as before. There are more than 500 million smallholder farms in the world, which produce 80% of the food the world population consumes. 80% of these smallholder farmers are being affected by climate change. It is important we support these populations to mitigate climate change and to keep farming, transforming the current systems into climate smart and profitable systems.

What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?

Digitized, precision agriculture systems will have reached the smallholder farmers. The smallholder farmer will be able to profitably farm again. There will be less farmers, farm consolidation will have changed the landscape drastically, and more ex-farmers will have moved to the city. Farming will have become more sustainable than today – environmentally, financially, and socially.

What can the average person do to make a difference?

Support NGOs that work with smallholder farmers in emerging markets. Buy sustainable branded foods in the retail shops – they cost more, but an extra return is guaranteed to the farmer.

Erika with a banana and rice farmer in South India after spending a day in the field working on a sustainable growing program.

Green.Org is a television show, podcast, social media, and news platform, hosted by Dylan Welch, that highlights climate change scientists, renewable energy experts, and clean tech entrepreneurs by giving them a voice in the mainstream media. The Green podcast highlights leading experts in cleantech, sustainability, media, finance, and real estate. Tune in and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify to listen to interviews with leading cleantech and sustainable experts. If you are interested in being featured on Green, click HERE.

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