‘There is a growing awareness that the machine is stuck’

A bright green field in an otherwise dry, brown Kenyan landscape. It is the result of no plowing, no use of fertilizers and pesticides and no monoculture. In short: regenerative agriculture that ensures that soil quality is restored.

This is done by growing different crops and trees that reinforce each other, where animal husbandry can also play a role. As a result, (small-scale) farmers can live off their own land and supply large food and fashion producers with raw materials.

Consultant for regenerative agriculture

reNature moves between these as a kind of matchmaker and practical trainer. ‘We gather supply and demand in the supply chain and advise on the best way to start’, says Marco de Boer, CEO and founder of the company. To put it bluntly, the business model is therefore a consulting firm. ‘Of course it doesn’t sound very sexy. But we also work hands-on with the farmers. Very practical. ‘

reNature started in 2018. The company supports the production of a wide range of crops and livestock, while restoring degraded landscapes, diversifying risks and generating financial gains. These are different products. From cotton, wood or palm oil to honey, beef or pepper.

Eight people now work at the Amsterdam headquarters, and local experts are involved in each project because of their knowledge of specific circumstances and support the community.

Cloud stormers

In the series Hemelbestormers, MT / Sprout talks to entrepreneurs, visionaries and leaders who are looking for radically different things and who are changing the current system. What drives them? Where do you start? What are the pitfalls? And what can you learn from them? Read all articles here.

De Boer ran his own marketing agency for 25 years, until about four years ago he met his current business partner Felipe Villela. Villela’s great enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture convinced De Boer to get started. ‘He understands that. I know how to market it, “said the CEO. ‘That way, I have found my mission. I have therefore dissolved my former company and decided to do this full time.’

Promotion via LinkedIn

A trend starts with a seed. Make sure people understand it, believe it and talk about it. Then it becomes a movement, and big brands also see that consumers demand it. “It simply came to our notice then organic† People are increasingly wondering if a product is good for nature. Of course we score well on that. ‘

Coffee is getting worse, cotton is getting harder and harder to produce

Increasing this effect is done by publishing a lot and looking closely at where and with whom. ‘You’re looking for ambassadors who can make it bigger, and above all you want to be where the business is.’ People who want to do something good for the world often seek out their own circles, De Boer sees. But everyone already knows it there .. The possibilities are just outside your own field.

Which makes LinkedIn a suitable platform for reNature. ‘Felipe is young, driven and has a gift for convincing people. On a B2B platform, there is a growing awareness that regenerative agriculture is a good idea and we should do it. ‘

No sales, everything is demand driven

reNature has the luxury of not having to make sales, De Boer continues. Everything is demand driven. Both from the farmer and from the business community. We are therefore working right now for almost all major manufacturers, such as Danone, Unilever and the beverage manufacturer Diageo, as well as for fashion giants.

This is partly due to increasing consumer demand, but also because the companies themselves see that the current agricultural system will no longer provide the quality they are used to in the future. “Coffee is getting worse, cotton is getting harder and harder to produce. There is an awareness that the machinery is going to get stuck. Long-term fertilization, depleted soil and a changing climate all play a role in this. ‘

When a startup comes to such big parties, someone who believes in the movement ‘as a kind of groupie’ goes to their leader and tells them that it is extremely important to do something about it. ‘Then it is calculated and the plan is set aside. So it is up to us to demonstrate the long-term economic benefits. ‘

ReNature projects.

The project will improve the supply chain

What helps is that companies have set climate goals that reNature can respond to by showing what the results of regenerative agriculture will be. ‘We share that all the time. We are constantly showing what the outcome of an intervention is so that companies can also publish this. ‘

without it green wash is, says De Boer emphatically. “We only take on projects if they are part of a company chain. Not to polish the picture, but to actually improve the supply chain. ‘

If you want to buy pesticides, you can borrow money for it

Many of the projects that reNature is doing are in a pilot phase. It is not accidental, says De Boer. A farmer cannot change from one day to the next. By working on a small scale, it remains manageable and the farmer can make the transition step by step. ‘Therefore pilots we all. ‘

Another challenge is not only that the soil has to be worked differently, but also that the farmers produce different products. So in addition to the main product coffee for example also ginger, jackfruit and two or three other products. There must also be a customer. ‘Which also means that instead of harvesting once a year, for example, he goes to harvest two or three times a year.’

Pests and weeds

That the system has many benefits raises the question of why “not everyone” works like this yet. “We have taught farmers to work like this,” the CEO said.

A monoculture is much easier with one product and one buyer, adds De Boer. And for this, an entire chain has also been set up, including financing options. ‘If you want to buy pesticides, you can borrow money for it, because those pesticides are proof that you are going to get the harvest.’

The fact that pests and weeds are allowed in regenerative agriculture makes it a little intimidating for investors and insurance companies, notes De Boer. ‘The big doubt starts with how powerful the system actually is.’ Therefore, his company monitors everything in order to be able to scientifically substantiate in the long term that it provides better returns. ‘It takes time because agriculture is a lengthy process.’

renature marco de boer felipe villela
Marco de Boer (L) and Felipe Villela, the founders of reNature.

Financing is difficult

De Boers does not have to think long about the biggest bottleneck for his company: money. Customer surveys conducted by reNature show that everyone is convinced that they want to do projects and that they need to be funded, but when asked how much they are willing to pay for it, they often keep quiet for a while.

And it is said that the whole chain must pay for it. “That’s right, because neither the farmer nor the consumer can afford it alone. But that makes it difficult, because then everyone has to give up some profit. “

To date, the start-up has been financed with money from, among others, the DOEN Foundation, Meraki Impact and private lenders. A pre-Series A investment round is added this summer. ‘We get so many inquiries that we want to attract more. Last year, 170 applications were received from farmers. Halfway through this year, there were already 105. ‘

Make results transparent

At the same time, work is being done on a digital effects dashboard that will contain and provide insight into the aforementioned monitoring data. “Transparency is needed to prove it works. We train and educate a lot on how to do what it means for the chain. ‘

Building a local economy around new raw materials strengthens the system

To make it tangible: originally, 25 farmers were trained for a white pepper project, and there are now five hundred farmers using the system. In a year or two, it should be possible to sell jars of regenerative white pepper.

Criticism that De Boer sometimes hears is that the working method would involve a dependence on reNature. ‘After three years, we really want to say goodbye,’ he says. What he thinks is possible is by transferring it all to the farmers or to specialists in the company itself.

Attraction of non-farmers

To change the system, we look beyond the yard alone. reNature also wants to realize a local regenerative system for society. Reason enough to start an entrepreneurship program soon to give people who may not be farmers themselves, but who have an entrepreneurial spirit, the opportunity to contribute.

“If there are mangoes and the first town is a hundred miles away, someone can dry and transport them,” De Boer explains. ‘By building a local economy around the new raw materials, the system is strengthened and people can survive.’

This is how Marco de Boer wants to change the food system with reNature:

  • Establishment of regenerative agricultural projects improves soil quality, enables farmers to live on their own land and supplies large food and fashion producers with raw materials.
  • By publishing and talking a lot about the phenomenon, people will come to understand it, believe in it and talk about it. So consumers are starting to ask for it from brands.
  • reNature is happy to promote its ideas and approach outside the ‘green bubble’ in places where business is.
  • Then it becomes a movement, and big brands also see that consumers demand it.
  • Only projects that are part of a company’s chain are accepted. Not polishing the image, but actually creating a new supply chain.
  • We look at the raw materials where the most impact can be in relation to environmental or socio-economic effects. Such as cocoa, coffee, cotton, livestock, rubber, palm oil, wood and soybeans.
  • By building a local economy around the new raw materials, the system is strengthened and people can survive.
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