“Techniques to help people grow their way out of poverty exist”
Social entrepreneur Curt Bowen explains why he left the US to live in Guatemala’s farming communities – and launch a new way to fight malnutrition.
I came up with the idea for Semilla Nueva back in 2004, when I was building a house for a family in need in Nicaragua. As we proudly hammered in the last nails, neighbours clamoured for us to help them and I realised we could never build enough homes to end Nicaraguan poverty. It inspired me to focus on tackling the root causes of extreme poverty rather than alleviating the symptoms.
I realised that many of the world’s poor are farmers and they need help to improve their agricultural livelihoods. I researched, saved money, found sympathetic experts and packed my bags for a life in Guatemalan farming communities.
I spent the first year travelling on the back of a cheap dirt-bike between communities, universities and fields of corn. I was lucky enough to be joined by Guatemalan agronomist Trinidad Recinos, who went on to become one of Semilla Nueva’s co-founders.
I learned that techniques to help people grow their way out of poverty exist. The problem was a lack of institutions and organisations to disseminate this knowledge, and get useful technologies into the hands of farmers. With a plan to change things, I persuaded my closest friends to move to Guatemala – a country with the world’s sixth highest rate of malnutrition. Together we formed Semilla Nueva.
Curt Bowen, Semilla Nueva
The reality is we cannot solve global poverty without solving chronic malnutrition. It prevents children from reaching their full potential, has devastating impacts on communities and economies, and perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty – with children spending less time in school, receiving lower earnings later in life and being more susceptible to illness.
What makes Semilla Nueva’s approach different is that we sell the world’s first commercial corn seed with higher quality protein and zinc. It’s a (non-GMO) more nutritious, biofortified seed with 2.5 times more quality protein and 50% more zinc than conventional corn – two critical nutrients lacking in the rural Guatemalan diet.
To get farmers to grow our seed, of course it has to work for them too. As a non-profit we keep seed prices low (at cost) while still offering a high-quality harvest. It means farmers can earn more and provide more for their families growing nutritious corn.
One bag of our biofortified seed makes 10,000 pounds of corn. That produces enough to improve 60 diets for a year. In 2018, our seed will improve the diets of up to 97,000 people, and we’re on track to reach up to 1 million by 2022.
The amount of corn produced by one bag of Semilla Nueva seed.
We’ve had to recognise and admit failure along the way. We started out trying to change the crops farmers grew but that didn’t work. We realised we had to focus on giving farmers a crop they were used to, but also affordable and easy to grow. Biofortified corn was the answer.
One of my proudest moments so far was our biofortified corn seed’s official launch in May this year. It meant that our product would be available for all agro-stores in Guatemala to sell, giving more farmers access to biofortified corn seed and improving nutrition for even more families and communities across the country.
My motivation comes from a deep desire to turn possibility into reality. Nothing makes me feel more alive than working with passionate people to solve a hard problem – and I love how infectious that passion and purpose can be, especially when you know you have something to offer the world that matters and will make a difference.
We came into the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards nearly five years ago as a small grassroots NGO. The mentoring we received, along with exposure to other social entrepreneurs, helped us identify how to improve our model. Now we have 1% of Guatemala’s corn seed market and plan to expand to 3–4% and impact hundreds of thousands of people next year.
We currently only sell our biofortified corn seed in Guatemala, but we’ve got plans to grow. We hope to expand our work to other corn-dependent and undernourished countries – first to other parts of Central America, then to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Whether you work in the private sector or for a non-profit, I believe we all have an obligation to make a difference. We should think big and look at how to make systemic and impactful changes.