Épicos Alimentos- Convert all fields in Argentina into carbon sequestrators and restorers of biodiversity.

Transform Argentina's agricultural production system and give people the ability to take care of the world through their purchases.

Photo of Tobias Merlo
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Eligibility Criteria

  • I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria and terms of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge and that I am eligible to apply.
  • I am 18 years old or older.

Initiative's representative name

Tobías Merlo

Initiative's representative date of birth

04-12-1992

Initiative's representative gender

  • Man

Headquarters location: country

  • Argentina

Headquarters location: city

Buenos Aires

Where are you making a difference?

Argentina, Buenos Aires, Ayacucho. Argentina, Buenos Aires, Tandil. Argentina, Buenos Aires, San Antonio de Areco.

Website or social media url(s)

https://www.instagram.com/epicosalimentos/?hl=es or www.epicos.com.ar

Date Started

2/2018

Project Stage

  • Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working toward the next level of expansion)

Yearly Budget : What is your current yearly budget for the initiative?

  • €10k - €50k

Organization Type

  • Hybrid

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.

This is the story of four cousins who decided to change the agricultural system. There are 4 Aha moments: Tobias on a faculty trip went to a “model field" that was very eroded. He asked the professor why they didn't stop the erosion and was told that it was impossible. Ramon worked in agricultural companies that were always in debt and he realized that the winners of the agricultural system are the producers of agrochemicals and the banks. Lucas lived in the countryside. One day he tried to fish in the stream that saw him grow but there were no more fish, the pesticides eliminated them. Ignacio lived his childhood in the interior of the country. He realized that the to generate work he want to industrialize the raw material at the source.

2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Agricultural production is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss in Argentina. Agrochemicals kill insects, microorganisms, mammals, and monocultures threaten biodiversity. Pollinators are in danger. The lack of soil coverage generates flooding all over the country. Diets high in carbohydrates and refined sugars puts at risk the health of humanity. Lack of industrialization of crops does not provide jobs in the interior. All problems that can be solved just changing the agricultural model.

3. Your solution: How are you working to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

To solve the problem we need to change an entire system and alone, we cannot. That is why we are creating a new model of food production where consumers make the rules and producers can respond to the new demand. Epics is the link between consumers and producers. At the moment we sell agro ecological and super nutritious flours from alternative crops in 400 gram packages (Lupine, Teff, Amaranth, Quinoa, etc).To produce it, we associate producers who used to produce with chemicals and we give them a concrete business proposal to transform their field to agroecology. When they harvest, they own a percentage of the final product and therefore earn more money per hectare, since they capture part of the industrial and commercial margin, and they do not have to get into debt to buy agrochemicals. We outsource the industrialization. Result: the region's fields are converted to agro-ecology. The new system is based on coexistence, biodiversity and abundance. We are creating a new world where production and conservation are no longer antagonistic. As we generate employment and food we preserve ecosystems and generate a mass movement by giving people the possibility to be part of change.

4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?

We are innovative because we ensure that the profit from a final product is shared equally among all the actors in the chain. We are the opposite of a monopoly, we include anyone who wants to be part of it. We associate people, we don't buy raw materials cheap. Èpicos was created to change entire ecosystems, speaking the universal language of today: the capitalist language. We could focus on solving the consequences of a polluting system. We could clean a river or plant trees, the difference is that we take care of life by eliminating the cause of the problem instead of solving the consequences. We solve problems that we do not yet know exist. We are creating a new economic and production model, where coexistence and care prevail.

5. Collaboration: How does your initiative seek to bring key players together to preserve biodiversity?

In order to acquire a national scale, change the system and thus be able to preserve biodiversity, we know that we have to bring together as many actors as possible. Our task is to coordinate the following 7 actors. Actor 1: Owners of fields to whom we deliver a concrete business proposal to transform their fields to agroecology. Actor 2: Industries that add value, currently it is a flour mill. Actor 3: Marketers, organic supermarkets, healthy food stores. Actor 4: Government institutions that develop products for us (INTI) and help us with agronomic trials (INTA). Actor 5: Environmental NGOs, influencers and journalists help us to position the brand. Actor 6: Experienced agro-ecological producers. What we learn from them we replicate in the fields of our partner producers. Actor 7: Organic certifiers. We are developing a system of investors which allows us to work in fields that offer us the land but not the work, and we give the possibility to common people to be part of epicos.

6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far — in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?

Our environmental and social impact indicators are the number of hectares converted to agro-ecology and the increase in the carbon storage capacity, bio-indicators such as presence/absence of insects, the number of people involved in the process and the number of packages sold. We transformed 5 entire fields into agro-ecology. In two years we managed to avoid the use of 12000 liters of pesticides and 38000 kg of fertilizers. We installed 6 totally new crops in rotations, in addition to 10% strips of obligatory native vegetation within the crop. Our associated producers hire three times as many people as before to work in their fields, because our crops are smaller, more intensive, and need more labor. Our crops created 27 new jobs. Thanks to our grain the mill had employed 4 new persons. In addition, consumers support this movement. We sold 110.000 packages of flour in 55 stores. All this in two years and with only 5 fields, can you imagine when we transform the whole country?

7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?

To scale up we designed a business model that associates all the actors in the chain, we are the ones who connect them. In order to transform as many hectares to agro-ecology we have to attract as many agricultural producers as possible. There are producers who want to change to a more sustainable production model, but they are very isolated and do not have access to the consumers of agroecological food. Since we already have a client base, we know what they want and they trust our story, we are able to associate producers selling them the harvest in half-kilo flour packages with a high added value. The strategy is simple, position the brand to ensure sales and be flexible and creative to associate thousands of agricultural producers.

8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for society? Or different stakeholders?

Épicos it is created with the aim of generating value in society. To this end, we focus on five key areas. 1)Care for the environment: we propose a model of regenerative agriculture that preserves biodiversity. 2)Strengthening regional economies. We industrialize our crops to provide jobs in the interior of the country. 3)Empowering producers: we associate the owners of the fields to move to the agro-ecology and value-added model. 4)Mass movement: we invite the whole society to be part of the change through their purchases. 5)Disaster prevention: If no one changes the current production system we will lose forests, insects, water quality, health and biodiversity will be seriously affected.

9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

Today we finance ourselves mainly with the sale of flour and some with the income of new micro investors who invest for a return on capital and because they are aligned with the cause. In the medium term, the strategy is to reinforce this system of micro investors that is very successful but we have not yet managed to implement it 100%. Our investors are people who want to be part of the solution, trust our brand, usually eat our products and seek to earn as in a simple banking investment. To change the model of the whole region we need large amounts of money. The plan is to position the brand in 2 years and then be in better conditions to negotiate with potential big investors.

10. Team: what is the current composition of your current team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

The team is one of our main strengths. We're four cousins who know each other very well, we've already undertaken together. We are diverse and each is good at a specific role. Tobias has experience in developing innovative projects. Ramon is a great strategist. Ignacio is a excellent agro-ecological producer and Lucas has a very commercial profile. We work all 4 full time and we will add a full time professional for communication and another one dedicated to support to our associated producers.

11. How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Participated in previous Ashoka challenges

12. Connection to Biodiversity: How does your project directly contributes to preserving and/or restoring biodiversity? Please share data to support your answer.

To restore biodiversity we invite society to stop damaging it. We could restore a pond, or plant trees, or support an NGO, but we prefer to change the system and solve multiple problems, even those we don't know exist. We believe that when solutions focus on the consequences of an established system, it is difficult to restore biodiversity. That's why Epicos seeks to eliminate the causes of the problems. These will be the biological impacts if all the producers in the country adopt our system 1) We will avoid the use of agrochemicals, preserving the life of the microorganisms in the soil and the pollinators, two key organisms for life. We will avoid one of the major causes of eutrophication and water pollution, preserving aquatic life. 2) Monocultures threatens biodiversity. Epicos proposes a model of crop rotation with biological corridors of native flowers. 3) We propose a new system where the soil is covered all of the year, preventing its erosion and favoring carbon sequestration.

13. Example: Please walk us through one or two concrete examples that show how your solution will solve the problem you’re trying to address.

Santiago, one of our associate producers, rented his field for agrochemical production during the last 20 years. He contacted us to see what we could do, going to the field no longer gave him pleasure. When it rained, it flooded. In the lagoon where he swam as a child, his children could not even come close because it was rot. After two years of producing with us he is already noticing the changes, some fish returned to the lagoon. The field was filled with birds. There are studies that indicate that in an agro-ecological system the abundance of soil microbes can be significantly increased (Kim et al., 2020). The relationship between healthy soils and biodiversity is direct. And best of all, there are thousands of producers like Santiago, we just need time. Let's hope we get there in time. Consumers in the region are very aware of the problem and that's why they choose our flours. The great acceptance that our products have had is a clear example that we will achieve the goal.

14. Marketplace: Who else is addressing this problem in your environment? How does your proposed project differ from these other approaches?

There are some farmers in Argentina with a lot of experience in agroecology. From them we learn constantly. We believe they have the technical solution, the problem is that they are too few to impact an entire ecosystem. They tend to be too radical, they see traditional producers as monsters who just want to make money. And they are often seen as "hippies". There is a total polarization. Because we were raised within the traditional system we are able to offer a "capitalist agro-ecological model" that convinces traditional producers. That's our differential. There are also organic food producers. We believe that they do not have a systemic approach and do not focus on the restoration of ecosystems, they simply propose to avoid the use of agrochemicals. It is not an agriculture that regenerates ecosystems. It is still an input technology, but now those inputs are organic (Clarification: we certify our producers' fields as "organic" because there is no other superior certification)

15. Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions, if any, has the project received so far?

In 2018 we were recognized with the award of "Invisible Beauty Makers" by Ashoka in conjunction with PUIG. We were also recognized as one of the most innovative enterprises by the University of Buenos Aires in its program "100k Strong in the Americans Innovation Grant, USA. In 2019 MercadoLibre and Mayma, recognized Épicos as the project with the greatest socio-environmental impact of 300 enterprises from Latin America.

16. Financial Sustainability – funding breakdown: Please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating an estimated percentage that comes from each source.

We started by investing our savings. That adds up to 36% of the total investment. We won two awards a year, one from a corporation and one from an NGO (26%). We use them to grow more and today the investments come from the sale of flour packages (30%) and by private investors who are aligned with the cause (8%) The project is now financially viable, we manage to pay our 4 salaries and fixed costs and associate more producers. Financially our most important costs are our salaries and travel expenses to provide technical support to our associated producers. Then the seed, which many times we provide so that the risk is not taken by the producer alone. The industrialization is paid deferred, once the first packages are sold. Then, the partner is paid as we sell packages. The farmer does not receive payment immediately after the harvest, but his margin in some cases is up to three times what he earned before.

17. How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge? How would you invest the prize money to leverage your work?

Our model works, but we are not reaching the number of people we need. We will invest in two areas: communication and product development. If we manage to position the brand, we will sell a lot of flour and therefore our associate producers will do good business and that will promote a virtuous circle. More producers, more fields that they take care of, more healthy food. Secondly, we want to develop more innovative products from our grains, in order to capture more margin and offer even more attractive business for producers. To do this we would invest in professionals who develop new products, such as vegan yogurts. Once the brand is positioned, the model can be replicated anywhere in the world. Our next focus is the Argentine Chaco, where agriculture is deforesting native forests. We want to make food in those forests, to save that whole ecosystem. But first we are going for the most damaged ecosystem that still has time to recover, the humid pampas.

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. 1) OVERALL EVALUATION

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 33.3%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

2. 2) CONNECTION TO BIODIVERSITY

5 —Absolutely! It’s crystal clear how the solution is directly contributing to preserving and/or restoring biodiversity. - 0%

4—Yes, it establishes a clear connection to biodiversity. - 33.3%

3—Somewhat, the entry speaks to biodiversity but the direct impact is not well established and/or it is focused on a single species without considering its impact on the broader ecosystem - 66.7%

2—Not really, the connection to biodiversity is weak - 0%

1—No. The entry does not reference the solution’s impact on biodiversity. - 0%

3. 3) Is this entry IMPACTFUL?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 0%

4- Yes, I think so. - 66.7%

3- Maybe. - 33.3%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

4. 4) Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

4- Yes, I think so. - 66.7%

3- Maybe. - 0%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

5. 5) Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 100%

4- Yes, I think so. - 0%

3- Maybe. - 0%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

6. 6) Is this entry ACTIVATING CHANGEMAKING?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

4- Yes, I think so. - 66.7%

3- Maybe. - 0%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

7. 7) Does this entry value COLLABORATION WITH OTHER STAKEHOLDERS in its approach?

5- Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

4- Yes, I think ko. - 33.3%

3- Maybe. - 33.3%

2- Probably not. - 0%

1- No. - 0%

8. 8) FEEDBACK – Highlights

INNOVATION: You have a great understanding of the problem, have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions - 50%

IMPACT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 50%

GROWTH & LEADERSHIP POTENTIAL: You have a thoughtful plan for growth and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 50%

VIABIBLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 100%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: You value thinking around how to activate changemakers and empower them to innovate through your product or programming - 0%

POTENTIAL TO CREATE SHARED VALUE: You have a clearly defined plan on how to maximize shared value across multiple sectors and stakeholders - 100%

WRITING STYLE: Your writing style is concise, descriptive, clear, and specific - 50%

Other option - 0%

9. 9) FEEDBACK - Areas for Improvement

INNOVATION: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 0%

IMPACT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 0%

GROWTH & LEADERSHIP POTENTIAL: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 50%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 50%

POTENTIAL TO CREATE SHARED VALUE: your plan can benefit from more thought on how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 0%

WRITING STYLE: Try to be more concise, descriptive, clear, and specific. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 0%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: Try to provide more insights into how you are activating changemakers and empowering them to innovate through your product or programming - 100%

Other option - 0%

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