reNature co-founder Felipe Villela aims to regenerate 1 million hectares of land through Agroforestry by 2030.
reNature Co-founder Felipe Villela has an ambitious goal: to regenerate 1 million hectares of land through Agroforestry by 2030 – a figure which he says is just a drop in the bucket of the 1.9 billion hectares of degraded topsoil worldwide.
With a nature-loving Mum and a banker Dad, his love for blending sustainability with finance and business started at an early age:
“My Mum comes from a farmer family in the countryside of Brazil, where they used to grow large scale organic citrus fruits. So I would always go visit the farm, and my Mum would take me out into the forest and nature.
“I was raised in a family that cultivated nature as part of our way of life, and my Dad worked for banks in the financial sector – so I’ve got both the financial background and the nature-loving, agricultural background.”
As a young man, Felipe’s passion for nature and business had taken him across the globe in search of nature-based innovation that he could get behind. But it was a trip a little closer to home – the Amazon rainforest – that became his defining moment.
“I decided to go explore the richness of nature around Brazil. I got to know each biome and its context. I saw how much richness and knowledge people living across the Amazon have and how they can produce their own food, fibres and medicine.”
Like many other green techpreneurs, Felipe’s big idea started with spotting a major problem and then finding means and ways to turn solutions into profitable products and services.
“I was amazed by how Amazonians treat and respect nature. Then when I left the Amazon, I saw massive deforestation for soybean cattle ranching industries, and I asked myself why we need to harm nature to produce our major global commodities.
“I wondered if there was a way we can produce agricultural commodities while preserving the natural environment by including trees or forests into the design process?
He found that despite an abundance of science backing the benefits of agroforestry and regenerative farming for both the environment and farmers’ bottom line, it wasn’t practised in mainstream agriculture.
In 2018, Felipe went on to launch reNature together with his Co-founder, Marco de Boer, to change that. He has since appeared in Forbes 30Under30, become Strategic Advisor to the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), delivered a TED talk, and dedicated his entire life to changing the way we produce Agri commodities worldwide.
reNature’s goal is to ensure the growing global population will have access to high quality and sustainable food while regenerating the land. It’s already rejuvenated over 40,000 hectares of land and works with major corporations as well as smallholder farmers looking to green their supply chains.
What change are you hoping to create in agriculture?
The traditional farming industry makes farmers less resilient and more vulnerable to climate or price volatility. Frost or an intensive dry period creates big losses on yields; just now in Brazil, coffee farmers lost 80% of the harvest because of frost. In France, 60% of viticulture farmers lost their grapes for wineries because of heavy frost.
Across the globe, there’s a common-sense that climate change is impacting our agricultural commodities and there is urgency for farmers to start changing how they manage soil. Regenerative agriculture plays a key role because you support farmers in getting away from monoculture and you diversify farms to produce multiple crops so farmers can mitigate and spread these risks.
How did you get your first clients?
We started with testing the waters around local communities and smallholder farmers to showcase projects so we can communicate the benefits of such practices.
The biggest win came when we saw the appetite for regenerative farming from large corporates. Now, we are working with Nespresso, Danone, Unilever, LVMH, Chandon, LUSH and others. This is something that is now not just a nice concept, but it’s really being applied to business operations.
What key messaging did you use to sell reNature’s services?
We have two main messages: we show the inspirational side of the things – why this is good for the farmers and the planet so – looking from the perspective of impact and future generations.
Every corporation has individuals inside the organisation, who also have kids and who care about the future.
We make a clear business case; we’re focused on communicating the economic benefits, so companies can see this is not a romantic concept but there’s economics behind transitioning towards regenerative agriculture.
We make infographics showing the economic benefits for multiple crops like coffee and cocoa. Companies and farmers see this as something they should look at, if we can make more profit by using a principle that works in favour of nature, why wouldn’t we do that?
How far or close are you to achieving your goal of regenerating 1 million hectares of land by 2030?
In 2018, we were able to regenerate around 335 hectares, by 2020, we regenerated around 4,000, and now we are at around 40,000 hectares. We’re growing fast.
Our impact matrix is not only based on land but also on farmers and food security – social impact. We have a 10 million farmer transition target; it means we need 2% of total smallholder farmers to transition by 2030.
What kind of partnerships do you need to achieve your goals?
We have a very vast network of farmers and communities and possible projects in our pipeline that request support, both technical and financial support.
reNature provides technical assistance, but we are looking for financial institutions, banks, investors, or philanthropic organisations. Some of our projects are early stage and need financial capital. We’re now looking at possible investment funds and grants for projects as well as looking at possible corporate partners.
We’re also looking to expand our portfolio across industries; so not just work with the food industry but also the textile industry, fashion brands, cosmetics, perfume brands, the pulp and paper industry, the timber industry.
What are the biggest challenges in achieving reNature’s growth targets?
We have the capacity and knowledge to change the game in this industry. My founding partner and I wake up every day with the confidence that we can do this.
This work brings us a lot of inspiration, but of course, there are some challenges: one is that a lot of organisations are very fresh and new with this topic so we have to spend a lot of time, effort and money on educating the market about the concept.
We have several meetings with organisations to explain from a technical and financial basis what it means for them to transition. It’s really challenging to turn that conversation into something concrete as a project – we go through lots of discussions and it can take a while to close a deal.
Another challenge is our rapid growth and hiring! We want to make sure we take the right steps and develop a process before hiring new people, instead of hiring people and then developing a process. We’re really focused on the quality of our hiring process.
We hired some senior people from recognised organisations that can bring us some experience – this gives us a lot of relief that we are not alone as entrepreneurs.
What advice would you give to other green techpreneurs?
The only way that we can succeed in reaching net-zero and having a positive impact at scale is if we collaborate with multiple actors in the supply chain. Build a network of people that can support you in reaching your goals, collaboration is key.
If you had a magic wand and could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
I would turn every single piece of degraded land we have today into regenerative agriculture. I truly believe that there is no healthy society if there is no healthy soil. We cannot live as a healthy planet and a healthy society if we don’t treat the soil right.
We humans need to use sunscreen to protect our skin from the sun to not get burned – the soil is the same. It needs a layer of vegetation and greenery to protect it from the sun so that you can keep it moist and keep the soil nutrients rich.
………….…..………if Felipe could teleport himself into his future, he’d be on the borders of the Amazon, converting all the land that has been deforested into forests and regenerative cash crops.