What do billionaires do with their time, you ask? On top of driving fancy cars, posturing on super yachts, and investing in property portfolios, we can add organic farming to the list.
This is exactly what Slovenian tech billionaire couple Iza and Samo Login have done. Having made a cool billion dollars through the sale of their children’s app, Talking Tom Cat, they have bought 4,000 hectares of farmland in Northern Serbia.
The Logins, who aptly changed their last names to suit their ‘techy’ professions and have topped Slovenia’s rich list for the last six years, set out in 2007 to raise enough money to start a philanthropic foundation to fund a world-changing environmental project.
“In our previous company we figured that out only a couple of million would not be enough, not for the environmental projects we had in mind,” says Samo Login, a 49-year-old entrepreneur from Slovenia.
“So, we said after tax, we wanted a profit of 150 million dollars in seven years. We sold the company after exactly seven years almost to the day for one billion dollars.”
The pair speak with absolute self-belief, describing their new book, 7 Unicorn Drive: From Startup to a Billion Dollar Sale in 7 Years, as the “Harry Potter for business”.
And since they’re apparently not used to failure, when they declare they’re going to revolutionise organic faming through data-driven research, to them, it’s not a completely farfetched idea.
Initially set on green energy projects, they say they realised that their money could have more impact elsewhere: organic farming.
“We figured out more and more that there is actually one area that is more important, and underinvested and underdeveloped; how we produce our food.
“When we look on the facts on the environment, farming is the biggest contributor to the degradation of our environment,” says Samo, who is leading the farming project and does most of the talking.
The couple, who met at school in a town near Ljubljana, have spent their entire professional careers together, bar one or two years. They both have their areas of speciality, as Iza emphasises: “He knows the technical stuff. I am quiet today but normally it’s the other way round.”
In just 10 years, they have invested close to 200 million dollars in their farm and foundation, Login5. Using their farm as a prototype for their research and data team, the Logins want to prove to the world that organic farming can be a viable economic model for mainstream farming, and a solution to the multiple crises that humanity faces.
“We don’t only look at greenhouse gas emissions where farming is actually a huge contributor, but also biodiversity loss and pollution. So that’s why it became our focus,” Samo highlights.
“We said we were going to produce sustainable healthy food for everyone. We don’t believe that non-organic food is really healthy, for people and the planet.”
But to achieve this, organic farming is in need of modernisation and technical improvement, according to the Logins. And it’s true that investment has been lacking in what is perceived as a niche and premium market.
As self-proclaimed “geeks”, the pair set about applying what they know best to this monumental task: data and software. They have built a research team of 50 data analysts and computer scientists, tasked with the development of farm software bespoke for the principles of organic farming.
“We are developing software, which we are intending to offer as a service to everybody for free in combination with best practices and business models,” says Samo. “It’s a low margin business. Farmers cannot afford huge losses if they do something risky or innovative,” he says, before adding: “we can afford those risks.”
Their ‘best practices’ will offer farmers techniques and advice to follow in order maximise yield, and minimise environmental impact, and most importantly – in the bid to persuade farmers to join the cause – maximise profitability.
Scale is important to the Logins too, as they’ve identified this as an area with high scope for impact, and a big factor in buying such a large area of land in Zrenjanin, Northern Serbia.
“That’s why we are focusing on big producers. Big producers will be able to make big changes,” says Samo. “What we need to do and to prove is the production side of farming needs to become profitable. Because that’s the only way to convince farmers to use our technology.”
The farm is growing arable crops to begin with, including organic wheat, barley, soy, maize and rye. They plan to add vegetable production in the near future, but in the long run, the Logins see arable crops rather than vegetables, as an important area to focus on. Arable land occupies a much larger area globally, especially if we consider that one third of global crop growing land is used for animal feed.
When confronted with the well-trodden question of can we the feed the world with organic farming, Samo has these stats to hand.
“If we look at how much land is used to produce animal feed and biofuels, we could reduce those and there would be more than enough land for organic crops,” he says. “We’ll even be able to give some land back to nature or figure out how it rests every third year or so,” he argues, drawing on a recent report by French think tank IDDRI sketching out sustainable farming at scale.
This November, the Logins look set to become the largest organic farmers in Europe, with the completion of their first farming cycle and pending certification. They’re optimistic that the software and technology will be available for farmers to use in less than a year and a half.
On the face of it, it all sounds as though the pair are doing vital, ground-breaking work in the fight for a greener food system. But there are also echoes of the similarly well-intentioned philanthropists who spearheaded the ‘Green Revolution’, and who also wanted to ‘feed the world’.
Responsible for the widespread export of high yielding, dwarf wheat varieties and the associated industrial farming techniques, with heavy use of pesticides and increased mechanisation. This movement brought unprecedented yield increases but also myriad ecological and social problems.
There’s no doubt about the good intentions of the Logins; their desire to change the world for the better feels commendable and genuine. But we should not learn from the lessons of the ‘Green Revolution’ and well-meaning philanthropic foundations?
It seems healthy to conserve a dose of scepticism for a billionaire couple who have made their money through advertising on a children’s app, wanting to decide the fate of sustainable farming.
As an antidote to the industrial food regime, one of the founding principles of agroecology is that it needs to be built from the bottom up, combining traditional farmers knowledge with modern science.
The Logins work could well be a part of the solution, and we will need every ounce of human ingenuity to overcome these crises of a generation. But the project needs to be grounded in the needs of the cause they claim to serve, and not their own personal legacy.
7 Unicorn Drive: From Startup to a Billion Dollar Sale in 7 Years – The Adventure of Iza and Samo Login, by Dani Polajnar, is out now on Amazon (Aphrodite).