Kilimo helps farmers save water and gets paid for it

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When people think about the water they use, they think of drinking water from the tap or perhaps their daily shower. But about 70% of the water we use goes to growing the crops that feed us, a number that rises to 90% in low-income countries. Finding water for other uses can be a daunting task.

However, in many areas farmers are encouraged to use as much water as they think they need, even more than is needed to ensure crop success. “Governments want to grow their own food. They don’t want water to be expensive,” Kilimo co-founder and CEO Jairo Trad told TechCrunch.

“But if farmers irrigate less, there is a huge risk of reduced production, loss of money and loss of more food,” he said. “There is an imbalance in risk.”

Cheap irrigation has turned many areas around the world into granaries, but it also means that little food remains for other uses.

For companies, water shortages can be an existential threat. “If you have a $200 million bottling plant and you don’t have water next week, that’s a lot of money at risk,” Trade said. “So we started talking to people and trying to put a value on water.”

What Trad and his colleagues at Kilimo have created is best thought of as a risk management tool. So far, the company has taken nearly 100,000 soil samples from 45 different crop types in many different countries, primarily in South America. From there, it uses those samples to link soil moisture to satellite imagery of fields, which is much easier to obtain.

“You need to be up close on the ground to understand how things behave in the specific soil of a specific country,” Trad said.

Kilimo can then remotely monitor farms and advise farmers on their water use. It charges farmers for the service, and if they are able to successfully reduce their water use, Kilimo can sell the surplus water to a company in need in the same watershed, sharing a portion of the proceeds with the farmer. In the end, farmers who reduce their water use earn 20% to 40% more than what they pay Kilimo. Everything is verified by a third party following the Volumetric Water Benefit Accounting standard.

Though the startup has been around for a decade, it is working to expand its operations as water scarcity tops the list of authorities’ concerns. It currently operates throughout South America, including Argentina, where it is based, and Mexico. This is followed by the southwestern United States and Europe. To support growth, Kilimo recently raised a $7.5 million Series A, which the company shared exclusively with TechCrunch. The round was led by Emerald Technology Ventures with participation from iThink VC, Kamay Ventures, Salkantay Ventures, and The Yield Lab Latam.

Kilimo is working with Microsoft, Intel and Coca-Cola, all of which have announced commitments to water conservation. (Data centers are big water consumers, as are beverages.) Trad hopes to get more to sign on. “Each company alone is not going to make a difference. But if you can leverage corporations, government and development bank entities, you can start to make a difference,” he said.

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