As a student Rachael Cox (BS ’09 and MS ’12) thought outside the box. Today she’s going for what she wants in Guatemala and launching a multi-national business, EarthEmpower. Echoing her time in Agronomy.
“When I came to ISU agronomy there wasn’t a path written out for people like me who were a little weird and wanted a little something different with their life,” says Cox. “But there were people who were ready to support me. I was encouraged to start organizations, organize conferences, build networks, and pursue big dreams. All of those activities are parallel to the daily life of a startup founder.”
After graduate school, Cox was hired by CIMMYT in Mexico to coordinate conservation agriculture research partnerships with national research organizations.
“I was living my dream in a million ways more than I could have ever imagined,” says Cox. “Though I loved traveling around Mexico, the agriculture and food systems most interesting to me were in South Mexico, Chiapas and Oaxaca, some of the most impoverished parts of the country, where the land is mountainous and most farmers subsist from the food they grow.”
Cox was asked by Semilla Nueva, a partner organization, and ICTA, the Guatemala National Agriculture Research Department, to give a workshop in Guatemala on behalf of CIMMYT. She was asked to help them launch their own conservation agriculture research program and guide them in designing research plots across Guatemala.
Her time there was brief, but she knew what she wanted.
“I absolutely loved the volcanoes overlooking the cornfields and became very motivated to take a career step to move closer to Guatemala,” says Cox. “I led a multi-disciplinary scientist team to win an $8 million dollar USAID grant for CIMMYT to launch an office and project in Guatemala a year later and moved there.”
During her time in Guatemala, Cox noticed a focus on increasing yield to stop hunger. But beyond sustainability, there is no market. Cox wondered what would happen if yield outpaced the immediate need with no viable marketplace for the extra goods.
“World hunger is a huge motivator for why we all study agronomy and work so hard to do what we do, but the next step is harder,” says Cox. “Once someone has enough to eat but not enough money, how can they grow more and sell their crops so they can have a better income to send their kids to school, pay for medications, stay in their home country instead of migrate? This isn’t about more yield, it’s about markets, cultural dynamics, and empowerment.”
She couldn’t shake the women of Guatemala as well. Women are typically the caregivers of the crops and family food security but do not have access to financial capital and a voice to make the necessary changes.
EarthEmpower became the solution by working with women farmers and their communities in Guatemala and Mexico. They provide extension services to ensure women have productive and sustainable crop systems to both feed their families and sell a small part of their harvest to EarthEmpower. Profits will be divided in thirds among shareholders, reinvesting in the farmer community and back into expanding EarthEmpower into new communities and new countries.
“We pay a premium price so they can have a fair and just income from what they produce and what we buy,” says Cox. “With these crops, we transform what seem like typical native and traditional food crops into gourmet snack foods in the US specialty food market at a premium price.”
And their long-term goals will help us too. EarthEmpower strives to incorporate practices that will impact climate change as well, like perennial tree and grass planting guided by the local communities and other climate smart agriculture practices.
“The multidisciplinary focus I took has served me so well in my career because in the ‘real world’ of working with farmers in developing countries are all mixed up and complicated,” says Cox. “I have more tools in my toolbox to fix problems, to troubleshoot, to critically think, and to face challenges because I went to ISU Agronomy.”
And those tools are serving Cox well. By the end of 2018 EarthEmpower food products should hit the shelves of grocery stores in the US, Guatemala, and Mexico. In the next five years they hope to expand into 1-3 other countries, including El Salvador, Haiti, and/or Rwanda. By 2030, the goal is to work with 500,000 women-farmer business partners across ten countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
*This piece was written prior to the volcano eruption in Guatemala. We have reached out to Cox who resides in Mexico City who has confirmed the EarthEmpower team is safe, however it is a very difficult time for the country.