How Heifer International uses technology to profit mankind

Little Rock-based Heifer International began 76 years ago with a simple two-part idea: to distribute animals, along with agricultural and values-based training, to needy families around the world as a way of helping them reach self-sufficiency. Recipients agree to then pass on the gift by donating the first female offspring of their livestock to another impoverished family in their community, as well as to share their skills and knowledge of animal husbandry and agricultural training. Heifer International was launched in 1944 with a shipment of 17 heifers to Puerto Rico, and since that initial gift it has distributed livestock, along with training and other resources, to more than 35 million families in more than 125 countries.

Such far-flung projects are comprised of thousands of moving parts, and over the past decade that work has been helped along considerably by emerging technologies. ITArkansas sat down with Jesús Pizarro, one of four members of the experimental “Heifer Lab,” to hear how this international non-profit uses cutting-edge technology to make the world a better place.

Q: What’s the mission of Heifer International?
At Heifer, we are an international NGO and our mission is to end hunger and poverty while taking care of the Earth. We are 76 years old, so we’re older than the UN. By the way, the first project of Heifer was in my home country, Puerto Rico.

Right now, we’re working in 21 countries, including the United States, and all of our work focuses on sustainable agricultural development.

Q: Why agriculture?
Food is central to life. But many people don’t know where their food actually comes from. Normally, when you go to the grocery store, you know, “Okay, I buy this from Kraft, or I buy this from Hershey.” And maybe you trust the store where you shop, but many companies don’t know where the food they sell actually comes from.

The truth is, seventy percent of the food that we consume is produced by small-scale farmers. These small-scale farmers are vital to our food and farming system, but often remain invisible within it. Many are not paid fair prices for the products they produce, and, as a result, are forced to live in poverty.

Our mission is to support small-scale farmers to build food and farming businesses that are both environmentally and economically sustainable. Strong and successful communities are at the very center, which are built through developing social capital.

Through our country teams, Heifer provides assets such as seeds, plants, and animals. We then work with the people in the community as they build and scale their businesses that enable them to reach a living income. So, we are looking to impact the economy, the environment, and the social capital of a community in a positive way.

Q: So how does technology come into this?
In the last 10 years, under our CEO, Pierre Ferrari, we have emphasized the use of technology. My focus is Heifer Lab, which was created to identify emerging technologies that we can use in our projects to accelerate our mission. In the Lab we identify technology, do quick tests, and then try to incorporate that into our programs.

For example, I’m working with blockchain technology, because blockchain has the potential to solve the problem of food traceability, so you as a consumer will know where your food comes from. Not only that, you will also know if your food comes from an ethical value chain. An ethical value chain is a supply chain that creates a positive impact on the environment, a positive impact on the economy, and a positive impact on society in a different place of the value chain or the supply chain.

At Heifer, we say, “You don’t vote only every four years. You vote with your money every time you buy something.” What you buy, where you buy, everything is a political decision, and what we want is for the consumer, the decision-maker, to also be invested in this. We want every actor in the value chain to have the right information to make sure they’re supporting a value chain that is not taking advantage of people living in poverty.

Q: Tell me about some other tech projects the Heifer Lab is working on.
Some of my colleagues are working with renewable energy, with solar, with water purification systems, with applicational GIS. We have two projects that are using Watson for Agriculture. I don’t know if you remember when IBM developed Watson, and for the first time a machine beat a man playing chess. This technology is now being used to support farmers to make informed decisions on their farms.

Right now, we have a pilot project in Honduras using Watson for Agriculture, and we are using drones for multiple purposes. Drones enable us to take the geographic position of the farm and gather information about shade.

Growing cacao, for chocolate, depends on how a farmer manages shade. In order to increase productivity of cacao, it’s important to have trees that provide shade to the cacao tree. The drones are used to take pictures of the farms, uploading the data so our technical experts can support farmers in the design of their farms. So right now, as we are speaking, the Shadow Motion Capture Systems and the IBM Watson are providing detailed information about soil, about the condition of the trees, about weather conditions.

For agriculture, Watson provides forecasting for the next seven months. So, we’re using predictive analytics, forecasting information, for the planning of the management of the farm or plantation. And this is one example of how technology is helping us achieve our mission. Thanks to technology, farmers have better design, better management, and they can reduce operational costs. If they’re planning to spread seeds or fertilizer and Watson says heavy rain or strong winds are coming, the farmers know this is not the moment to do it, as they will lose their investment.

Jesús Pizarro, center, with his daughter, Mila, and a Heifer International volunteer in Puerto Rico in 2019 for the 75th anniversary of the first Heifer project.

Q: What kinds of tech people do you look for at Heifer International?
Well, as you know, we are a nonprofit and our resources are limited—there are just four of us in the Heifer Lab team at the moment. But for tech people who want to do good things, Heifer International offers a lot of opportunity, both in headquarters and out in the field.

We in the Heifer Lab don’t oversee all the technology that we are using. For example, in some projects our teams are using digital marketing platforms for local markets. In Honduras they have local applications that provide technical assistance to farmers, so they are using different technology.

Again, the purpose of the Heifer Lab is to identify technologies that we can scale—addressing, for example, the issue of water, the issue of solar, and I’ve already told you about blockchain technology in agricultural projects that go to the international market. That is what we are working on right now with coffee and cocoa, and we are about to start working with grains, because these are products that Malawi can export.

Q: What does the Heifer Lab look like?
We have aquaponics, botany, and solar testing at the Heifer Campus in Little Rock, but this is not the only place we do testing.

We partner with universities, and in Honduras, for example, we have an office at the National Agricultural University of Honduras in Catacamas. Inside the University, we have an office, and we work with the University to train and also to test new technology and to identify the better type of seed for the local context. Also, we are working with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s IOST lab (Internet of Science Things) for sensors in Aquaponics. As I say, the culture of the lab is to identify emerging technologies and to do a quick test of these emerging technologies, and this can be here in Arkansas but also in Honduras, in Malawi, and the other countries where we have projects.

Q: What is your own tech background?
I am a CPA with a Master’s in Management Information Systems and digital currency. So, the area I focus on is blockchain and financial inclusion, but we’re also working with digital currency as a way to facilitate e-commerce with finance.

On our team we have different backgrounds. My colleague David Gill is a Physicist and Technologist who attended Georgia Tech and graduated from Hendrix; Elizabeth Magombo Kabaghe has a Master’s in Agricultural and Applied Economics from the University of Malawi; and Micah McLain is an MBA from Georgia Tech. Our colleagues in Honduras specialize in agronomics and computer science.

At Heifer, it’s important to have what we call an inclusive stakeholder approach. If you go to Haiti, you’ll see that our employees are from Haiti, and if you go to Honduras, our employees are Honduran. Because we must take into consideration the local context, the local point of view.

Q: In closing, what advice would you give to young people just starting on their career path?

I would say, first, that I believe the future is going to be digital, and the pandemic is going to accelerate that. But we need to make sure that this digital future is not only about financial profit. It needs to also be about a positive impact on the environment, a positive impact on our communities. In every professional field, in every kind of work, that is going to be relevant.

And I believe and I hope that every person, and every company, is moving in that direction. If we don’t do it, our grandchildren are not going to enjoy the planet as we know it. I was born in 1970. From 1972 to 2015, we have lost more than 56 percent of the animal species. We’ve lost more than half of our animal diversity over the last 50 years.

So the situation is critical. And the new generation doesn’t have a choice but to solve this problem. Technology will help.


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