Growing sustainable food off-grid in Bogota

Interview with Saenz Fety's Business Development Manager about Project Ahora

Saenz Fety is a renowned Colombian company, always on the forefront of new developments in the horticulture sector. In August 2021, they launched Proyecto Ahora*: a completely self-sufficient food production unit that is placed in Bogota, the buzzing capital of Colombia, to demonstrate that sustainably growing food (in the city) is possible and within reach. The project and campaign are all about connecting, inspiring and educating the public, by showing them a tangible example and inviting them to learn more. 

But what inspired Saenz Fety to develop and launch Ahora* and what can we learn here?Alejandro Saenz about Project Ahora* in Colombia

In this interview we talk to Alejandro Saenz, Business Development Manager of Saenz Fety, a Colombian family run business with more than 60 years experience in the agricultural sector and initiators of the Ahora project.

Alejandro, you’re very passionate about project Ahora. Can you explain how it came about in the first place?

‘Being contributors of Eat This we knew about the developments in NYC and thought that the next city should be Bogota. As company we want to create that social dialogue with consumers and government institutions. Ahora is the perfect way to achieve those goals.

Some might say that Colombia is not ready, not an incorrect statement. However, life is for those who are passionate for what they do and most importantly are part of the solution. Let´s question the status quo, let’s explore ways to improve, let´s promote a more resilient, healthy and durable future for all.

Infinite attempts have been made, including a visit of Prime Minister Rutte and Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Mrs. Carola Schouten to showcase the potential of a fruitful communication between the Netherlands and Colombia regarding the vast opportunities to explore.

Time has come to make the change! Imagine a second edition of the container at NYC but this time in Bogota. A city not too many consider as their first option. Wouldn’t that be a statement in itself? By showcasing this model, we will be a trending topic which will enable us to engage in the dialogue we have been not successful. Once consumers start seeing the nice story, we will tell them, they will ask for safe and innocuous food. Isn´t that what we know and breath? We know how to produce, we just need to tell it, show it and continue to be even more proud of what we do.’

You are next generation of a family company that is deeply rooted in Colombia’s agricultural development. Was it always obvious or even your dream to become active in Saenz Fety as well?

‘Since I can recall I had always the dream and ambition to become active in Saenz Fety. I have been preparing my self to be ready for the task of leading the company, for that I did my studies in Wageningen and Nyenrode while also experiencing the real sector through lots of field visit and shows. My personal dream is to make the Colombian agricultural sector sexy and cool Colombia sexy, cool and the goal of Saenz Fety is to transform the sector into a more productive and entrepreneurial one. I have the great fortune of combining my personal ambitions with the company goals!’

Can you briefly explain Saenz Fety’s history, current activities and ambitions? What kind of company are you? Also, why is it so important for Saenz Fety to be a member of Eat This and to initiate a large scale project like project Ahora*?

Saenz Fety is a family-owned company with more than 60 years of agricultural tradition committed to Colombia and its people. Over the last 60 years, Saenz has been the leading company in the trading and distribution of agro implements in Colombia. Saenz provides expertise and innovation in agricultural solutions for growers in the field of forage grass seeds and vegetable seeds. We are also active in substrates and soon in biological control.

The company is a key player on the Colombian market; it is the only company that owns land to grow its own crops in order to validate their behavior in tropical conditions before releasing them to the market. Saenz technical people offer their expertise in the handling of crops, and as they work, but not sell, directly with the grower they create the demand for the products. At the same time, with the chain management department, Saenz acts as an intermediate for growers and retailers where it joins the demand created by the household to the supply offered by the grower.

Saenz believes that it is important to do research; to educate and to teach local workers and growers in order to apply more advanced technologies into Colombia and consequently create sustainable development in the region. Saenz is a company that strongly believes in the principle of shared value, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. By doing so Saenz connects company success with social progress. Shared value creation focuses on identifying and expanding the connections between societal and economic progress.

The world is changing rapidly and being in contact with state of art companies but most importantly sharing a common vision on how to feed the world sustainably were the reasons that made us be a contributor to EatThis. With project Ahora we want to create a dialogue with consumers and society as whole about our common mission while also putting in the spotlight my country for its opportunities to generate wealth via the production of healthy and innocuous food.’

What, in your opinion, is the most important message that project Ahora can bring to Colombian society?

‘Seeing is believing! The name Ahora translates as “now” which is a message in itself. It is today, it now that Colombia needs to make that step forward towards producing healthy innocuous products. That is the message we want to bring; we need our own people to believe in this incredible country.

We need to promote the triple helix model so that private sector, public sector and academia work together in the development of a sector where technological innovations should beat any ideology. We are in this together and we need to work hand by hand to achieve better yields in our fields that subsequently will bring progress and social development.’

(Interview continues below the video)

In what way do you hope that the project changes Colombian horticulture?

Ahora consists in finding an answer on how to feed the world without damaging the planet, through crops, fair trade and healthy nutrition that translates into a positive supply chain. Today the agricultural sector represents only 6% of the Colombian GDP. We aim to sow the seed so that in couple of years we will be harvesting around 20-25% participation of the GDP. We want to show alternatives that are feasible and have already a proof of concept.

When is project Ahora a success for you, both professionally and personally?

‘Project Ahora has been a success personally since I got the approval from the board of EatThis, professionally it will be when Ahora becomes a movement towards the production of healthy and innocuous food.’

Colombia as a country has a turbulent history and also recently, Covid 19 and public protests show that the current times are not easy. You stay optimistic about the power of horticulture in Colombia, why and how do you look at the future?

Colombia has done several market studies; it has been named by FAO to be one of the seven countries who could help food security. We are over diagnosed with the possibilities and in a way thanks to a world health crisis I feel a new atmosphere about passing from diagnosis into action.

Well Project Ahora comes with a concrete proposal in these turbulent times. We want to change the image of the sector into a sexy and cool one where entrepreneurship leads to better opportunities to our inhabitants. 

When producers achieve higher and sustained productivity growth rates, a virtuous circle is generated with positive externalities for society. By being more efficient, the producer has lower costs and higher profits; the growers are able to obtain a higher quality and better paid jobs; the consumer gets better products at a lower price; the Government can collect more taxes to finance public spending and investment, and in environmental terms benefits are generated by producing the same or more with less inputs. It is a virtuous circle on which Saenz Fety bets firmly and that is why we are promoting Project Ahora. We want to transmit knowledge, train and therefore generate a social impact where the idea is to transform the sector to one of greater productivity.

We’re looking into organizing various (virtual) activities during project Ahora, what has Colombia in your opinion to offer to Eat This contributors

Colombia and specifically Saenz Fety has a lot to offer to many of the (future) contributors. Their technology and know-how are needed in Colombia and Saenz Fety can be the vehicle to reach the growers. You are more than welcome to visit Colombia during these months and especially at the end of October during the Agro Expo fair for you to encounter the opportunities Colombia has to offer. Additionally, together with the Holland House and the Dutch embassy we are organizing a virtual or in person trade mission for all contributors of Eat This.’

Want to learn more about Project Ahora? We previously wrote an extensive article on the ins and outs of the project.