"The muzzle of every cow is unique – just like a human fingerprint!" The young entrepreneur said enthusiastically, gesturing to a flyer with a picturesque cow’s face looking placidly up from it as he explained how his company used muzzle-print data to create a unique ID for every cow, thereby making them traceable and unlocking farmers’ access to insurance and financing. Across from him, green leafy plants overflowed from a water- and land-sparing indoor gardening set-up; tables on either side were laden with bags of locally grown quinoa and boxes of barley flakes, both the result of efforts to make nutrient-dense whole grains more accessible to the local population.
It was just before the start of the Grand Finale of Food Frontiers 2.0, a business pitch competition sponsored by the Scaling Up Nutrition Business Network (co-convened by the World Food Programme and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)) in collaboration with GAIN’s Business Model Research project, Bangladesh Agricultural University, and the National Association of Small and Cottage Industries of Bangladesh (NASCIB). Entrepreneurs from nine Bangladeshi start-ups were standing at tables in a hotel lobby in Dhaka, extolling their business ideas to the entering attendees.
It had already been a long journey for the nine teams who had made it this far: 159 teams had submitted ideas for the contest, which focused on reaching lower-income consumers with nutritious foods, disruptive technologies, and innovative marketing campaigns for nutrition. Of those, a lucky dozen were selected to participate in a multi-day bootcamp with guidance and feedback from 18 experts in food systems and entrepreneurship, as well as an investor’s night with impact investors, angel investors, and venture capitalists. Based on votes from these investors, three competitors were eliminated to bring it to the final nine. Some were at the pre-seed stage, while others already had a few thousand clients and were focused on growth.
Entrepreneurs and attendees alike filed into the decorated ballroom to listen to the four judges—two men and two women, with expertise spanning business, technology, agriculture, gastronomy, and nutrition—explain what they would be looking for in the pitches, including affordability, scalability, nutrition impact, and inclusion of women and youth. Then it was time for the pitches to begin: in just 4 minutes each, the teams laid out their ideas and the numbers supporting their business model, aiming to get all their key points out before they were cut off by the bell. From moringa-based instant noodles to an app enabling delivery of home-cooked meals from local homemakers, the pitches were diverse and creative. In each case, the judges grilled the contestants on their assumptions, profit models, and what made them stand out from competitors.
With each ding of the pitch-ending bell, the suspense grew as attendees watched the judges take careful notes on their scoring sheets. And it only increased as those completed scoring sheets were taken away to tally up while a series of distinguished guests gave remarks of encouragement to the entrepreneurs on the importance of nutrition and agriculture for the country and the value of entrepreneurship for furthering its growth.
After the final speech from the Chief Guest, Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun MP, the Honourable Minister of the Ministry of Industries, it was time to announce the winners. First, five runners-up or winners of the Disruptive Technology and Innovative Marketing categories – Farmzila, Cookants, Krishi Swapno, and Konna Wellbeing – collected their cheques with a mixture of excitement at having won an award, including the invaluable aspect of being connected with leading local startup mentors and companies, and disappointment at not having scored the top prize. With the audience on the edges of their red velvet seats, the emcee read out the final name: the Inclusive Business Champion was Agriventure!
Applause and confetti rained down as the excited group, wearing matching company polo shirts, bounded on stage to accept their super-sized cheque: 10,000 USD to use towards further developing and scaling their idea for increasing agricultural productivity through improved inputs, training on increasing efficiency, and linking to markets. It was only one more step on their long road towards entrepreneurial success in service of transforming Bangladesh’s food system – but just maybe a critical one.