A group of students on the Department’s MPhil course in Engineering for Sustainable Development have devised a project that will help Mexico’s small producers of tomatoes by improving productivity and reducing wastage.
"It is quite shocking to discover that for every tomato sold in Mexico, another one is wasted."
—Jorge Garcia Moreno
Tomatoes are big business in Mexico, especially in the centre and north of the country. Producers range from large growers, whose farms are equipped with extensive automation and irrigation systems, to small cultivators who eke out a living with the slimmest of resources on plots as small as a single hectare. Small growers are particularly vulnerable to technology lock-ins (barriers to switching to new technologies) and re-investment limitations. They do not have access to advice about improving productivity.
With these small growers in mind, a four-strong team of graduate students on the Department’s MPhil course in Engineering for Sustainable Development devised The Ethical Tomato Company, a concept that has won them first prize in the McKinsey Innovate 2012 competition. Their £5,000 award, plus access to advice from McKinsey, will help them take their project on to the next stage and pilot their ideas in one of the major tomato-producing areas of Mexico.
The Ethical Tomato Company addresses two main problems: productivity and wastage. Team member Pedro Zaragoza explained: Small farmers work with a very low level of technology which results in low productivity and low incomes. We propose to give them access to simple ways of improving their yields such as building timber-framed greenhouses and using organic compost that will enable them to improve their yields whilst protecting produce from pests and extreme weather.
While in richer countries food wastage occurs chiefly at the consumer end of the market, as people buy more than they need and allow food to perish, in developing countries food wastage occurs lower down the supply chain. It is quite shocking to discover that for every tomato sold in Mexico, another one is wasted. This happens because tomatoes do not reach the market at the right moment. This high level of wastage, with the resultant loss of precious income, is another area in which we hope to be able to help, explained Jorge Garcia Moreno, also a member of the team.
We plan to work with growers in bringing their produce to market and helping them to get a fair price. We propose to do this by becoming a tomato wholesaler and providing the logistics from farm to retail. The profits generated will be fairly distributed so that farmers get a better deal and let us expand the business to other farmers.
Although Mexican farmers are highly skilled in growing salad vegetables, they do not always receive the right advice when it comes to using modern fertilisers and chemicals.
Farmers have a lack of training in the use of nutrients such as nitrogen-based fertilizers. In order to achieve high yields they apply fertilizers and herbicides in excess and much of this runs off into the neighbouring water systems where it causes eutrophication. This is both wasteful and environmentally damaging. There are sustainable ways of improving yields that have minimal environmental impact, said Zaragoza.
We plan to share the knowledge through workshops and work closely with them throughout the first planting cycle.
Both Zaragoza, who did his first degree in chemical engineering, and Garcia Moreno, who studied biomedical engineering, are Mexican nationals. Tomatoes are close to our culture and Mexican tomatoes are some of the very best in the world, benefiting from sunshine and good soils, said Zaragoza.
One of the reasons that the team is planning to set up a pilot project in the centre of Mexico is that Zaragoza has family connections with the region’s tomato growers. The other members of the winning team are Stephanie Hirmer, who is a civil engineer from Germany and Daniel Gallagher from Scotland, also a civil engineer. Hirmer has experience of working in Uganda and Gallagher experience of working in El Salvador.
Garcia Moreno said that the MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development has given him and his peers the tools needed to go out into the world and change things for the better. What’s great about the course is that it encourages us to understand how social, environmental and economic aspects interact as part of a whole system, allowing us to develop holistic sustainable solutions, he said.
The Ethical Tomato Company is now in the process of receiving advice from McKinsey consultants to develop plans for a pilot project in Mexico.
Pedro Zaragoza, Chemical Engineer, Mexico Jorge Garcia Moreno, Biomedical Engineer, Mexico Stephanie Hirmer, Civil Engineer, Germany Daniel Gallagher, Civil Engineer, Scotland
Contact: Pedro Zaragoza firstname.lastname@example.org Centre for Sustainable Development University of Cambridge, UK, CB2 1PZ Tel: +44 (0) 7428835370