Off to Colombia to support improving rice cultivation technology

After three years postponed by COVID19, Meros finally kicked off a long-awaited project in Colombia!

Meros is supporting the Japanese agricultural innovator Noshou Navi, together with the backing of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to transfer knowledge related to Japanese rice planting techniques to farmers in Colombia. We are also exploring the possibility of developing small-lot, high value-added premium rice products and conducting consumer activities to inspire more rice ‘fans’.

Our Meros teammembers Chisa Ogura and Hiroki Seki traveled to Bogota, Cali, Ibague, Espinal, and Saldaña in Colombia over two weeks in February and March.

To the team’s delight, they found that the Saldaña office of Federarroz, the national federation of rice farmers’ associations in Colombia, has already installed a Kubota rice transplanter from Japan and has begun researching mechanical transplanting!

The area we visited is wet paddy fields and many farmers plant by hand, but the number of workers willing to do transplanting by hand is decreasing. Also, wages are rising, so transitioning to transplanting by machine will be important in the near future.

Machine transplanting is also very effective in fighting red rice, an invasive weed. A BASF rice variety called Clearfield, which is herbicide tolerant, has been introduced, but even so, this has not been sufficient to defeat the red rice. Gabriel Garces, the researcher in charge of rice transplanting, told the Meros team that another benefit of machine transplanting, compared to hand-planting, is that machine transplanting reduces the amount of seed required by 30-40%. Machine transplanting also saves water, since the crop can be planted without needing to flood the field.

Rice transplanters made by Kubota, Japan’s largest agricultural machinery manufacturer, are popular for their durability and Colombian company Motomart is the local distributor. However, the challenge is that although normal maintenance can be performed, the supply of replacement parts, such as planting claws are not easily available and so major repair work cannot be done.

In addition to machine transplanting, Federraroz is experimenting with other new rice growing techniques. For example, they are looking into various methods of seedling cultivation, as currently the seedling boxes are not disinfected and dry seed is sown before germination. Adding these additional steps may be able to greatly improve seedling health and yield. We are sure that there are even more techniques and experience we can transfer from Japan!

A big welcome to Meros’ new winter research assistant, Zhou Yunkai!

Zhou Yunkai, who goes by Shu in Japan, is a third-year student at Keio University studying economics. He is on a one-year exchange from his home university of Beijing Foreign Studies University and is taking this semester to work full-time at Meros.  Shu wastes no time and has been accompanying our team to meetings at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), supporting research on seafood exports to China and starting to dig into China’s food security policy.

Shu discussed why he was drawn to Meros. “ I majored in Japanese at my university in China and was very interested in agriculture. I was trying to find an opportunity that would be a crossroads between these interests. So fortunately I found Meros. To be honest, I love Meros as a team with its diversity of different backgrounds, individuality, and global experience. In this way, Meros can solve challenges by providing insights from different perspectives and can be more open and cohesive.”

In the next few months he will be taking a deeper dive into the most recent developments in China’s food security as part of his independent research project. He has already proven himself to be an enthusiastic and quick learner with an incredibly proactive attitude.

“Working as a research assistant, I want to help the team as much as I can. And at the same time, it is a great experience for me to learn Meros’ methodology for solving challenges. I expect the first weeks will probably be hard, especially the process of learning technical terms in foreign languages. But I believe that with the effort and help from team members, I can accommodate myself to Meros quickly, and have a better understanding of the consulting business and agriculture trends.”

Shu has big plans outside of work this season too. “As a big fan of Japanese food, I was so excited to find there are numerous great restaurants near Meros. So apart from work, my first goal is to experience all of these great restaurants, especially ramen! I also plan to travel to Kyoto to enjoy the scenery – and of course experience Kyoto’s famous Ramen Street while I am there.“

On stage! Plug and Play Japan’s Food and Beverage accelerator showcases its first cohort

Meros was thrilled to be invited to the final pitch event of Plug and Play Japan‘s Food and Beverage accelerator program, with Meros’ managing director Chisa Ogura on stage as a commentator. Plug and Play Japan is a subsidiary of Plug and Play Tech Center, the global innovation platform headquartered in Silicon Valley.

The 10 start-ups on stage on September 13th were the members of the Food and Beverage accelerator’s first cohort and included both Japanese and international start-ups.

The event was an exciting chance to see the strong interest in food tech among the Japanese industry, as well as the high level of interest in the Japan market among overseas startups.

Here are some of the highlights!

1 There is a high level of interest in sustainable packaging and bio-plastics

Of the 10 companies showcased by Plug and Play, four were related to sustainable packaging. Among the various fields related to food tech, the growing focus on sustainable packaging over the past year or two is very interesting, especially considering the interest from food-related companies in Japan.

Interesting start-ups included Phaxtec, which uses biogas powered by microorganisms to produce PHA, allowing high production efficiency and low emissions. The end product has high biodegradability but the high price remains a bottleneck for the company. The company says they are addressing this issue. From our chats with visitors at the event, we could sense a high level of interest in sustainable packaging and bioplastic technology.

2 From upcycling to precision fermentation?

There were four startups working on upcycling using fungi and bacteria, utilizing by-products of the food industry. They produced end-products ranging from bioplastics to food ingredients and alcohol.

However, the biggest challenge for these companies in scaling up is securing sufficient volumes of raw materials.

One company, Mi Terro, is looking to overcome this challenge by avoiding a focus on sourcing a specific food waste as it scales up its protein film/fiber products, and instead produces protein from microbial cultures. This is potentially a very interesting direction.

3 It all comes down to health!

Out of all the interesting companies in the Plug and Play lineup, the pitch winner was….. was Tait Labs!

Taking inspiration from the dried mandarin orange peels used in Chinese medicine, Tait Labs has developed a prebiotic supplement that reduces inflammation in the digestive tract and promotes digestion. They have a patented extraction technology and utilize mandarin peel waste from juice and canning factories. They are planning to link this with digital-based health management.

Tait Labs’ concept was easy to understand and its potential for future development as a medicine was also interesting. Importantly, this business concept seemed to resonated with the broader audience, beyond just those in food-related fields.