Just imagine: Growing potatoes on Mars....

Posted by  Ton Dobbe

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Carlos Varela (CIO) and Joel Ranck (Head of Communications) at Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), a global organization headquartered in Lima (Peru) operating in over 20 developing countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The focus of the conversation was their vision that the first living organism on Mars should be a potato. Their project #PotatoesOnMars (which is executed in collaboration with NASA) has become big news and raised the profile of CIP and its cause worldwide with over 2 billion followers. The project is led by a team of world-class scientists that aim to grow potatoes under Martian conditions in a bid to save millions of lives.

Question 1: First explain to me what CIP is all about...

Joel Ranck: "Our vision is to improve the lives of the poor. To accomplish this, we work with partners to achieve food security, well-being, and gender equity for poor people in root and tuber farming and food systems in the developing world. We do this through research and innovation in science and technology, and by strengthening capacity.

We are part of a larger organization (CGIAR), a cooperation of 15 research centers, that aim to bring together research synergies, strengths and resources from multiple centers to increase efficiencies and enhance impacts. Within this collaboration, we lead the research programs on Roots, Tubers, and Bananas.

Question 2: So how does your project "Growing Potatoes on Mars" link to that mission?

Joel Ranck: "Our goal is to raise awareness of the incredible resilience of potatoes, and fund further research and farming in devastated areas across the globe where malnutrition and poverty are rife and climbing. How better to learn about climate change than by growing crops on a planet that died two billion years ago? We need people to understand that if we can grow potatoes in extreme conditions like those on Mars, we can save lives on Earth.”

"In essence this an initiative in response to the impacts of global climate change and food security. Currently, famine affects 842 million people around the world. Global warming creates poor soil conditions and increases the prevalence of pests and disease which have the combined effect of limiting harvests globally but particularly in vulnerable areas where poverty, malnutrition, and food insecurity already exist."

"Understanding atmospheric changes on the surface of Mars will help build more dynamic and accurate simulation centers on Earth, providing further research for both CIP and NASA, who are looking to pioneer space farming for future manned missions to other planets and moons in our solar system."

By using soils almost identical to those found on Mars, sourced from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in Peru, the teams will replicate Martian atmospheric conditions in a laboratory and grow potatoes. The increased levels of carbon dioxide will benefit the crop, whose yield is two to four times that of a regular grain crop under normal Earth conditions. The Martian atmosphere is near 95 percent carbon dioxide.

Question 3: You are using a Unit4 ERP solution to increase the impact of your programs - how does this solution add value to the project?

Carlos Varela: Unit4 Business World’s role is one of an enabler. Although the project to grow Potatoes on Mars is one with a potentially very significant impact (saving the lives of millions of people), it's one that proved hard to get donor funding for. Our donors are individual countries, major foundations and international entities and the trend in the Not for Profit market is that the majority of funding is ‘restricted’ e.g. the funds provided should have a direct impact on “on earth” programs that directly impact farmers and communities. As such we have to use these resources on the specific projects they were granted for. The project “Growing potatoes on Mars” is not one of those, and as such, it needed a creative approach to secure funding. This is where Business World became the enabler."

Question 4: Can you explain the creative approach you took?

Carlos Varela: By using Business World’s core strengths (in the Elastic Foundation), we could capture every single relevant detail/aspect of the business at a level of granularity unmatched in the industry. This capability allows us to link any transactions (cost, expenses, time, investments…) to a purpose i.e. a scientific activity and the project (bus) it belongs to. This way scientists, project managers and business managers across the organization can be 100% accountable for anything they do or spend and have real-time insight into burn-rates to take instant action to make improvements.

The project “Growing Potatoes on Mars” is funded in a special way by using all under-utilized resources across their entire organization. Business World allows us to earmark those resources and use charge-back capabilities to make them available as funding for this particular project. The granularity by which we apply this is fascinating. Even the time (and value) of the scientists’ lunch-breaks are available for re-allocation.

In a typical situation, this strength would be used to meet the detailed and ever-changing requirements of any donor to report what their funds have been spent on and what the outcome was. In the case of the project “Growing Potatoes on Mars,” it's used the other way around - to be 100% accountable to donors that their “restricted” donor money is not spent on this “unrestricted" project. This way Business World is enabling us to secure the continuation of our visionary project for which we are now planning a second phase.

Question 5: I can imagine this approach holds a lot of promise for the future - can you elaborate on that?

Carlos Varela: Yes, indeed. Business World has had a significant cultural impact on CIP so far - every single one of our +600 employees is using it across the world, often in mobile scenarios while working on projects in the field. The inherent flexibility of the solution has introduced a “Can do” attitude amongst our organization allowing us to make a difference.

Let me summarize three effects:

  1. It has enabled us to reach new levels of business agility which make it possible to start (and respond to) new business opportunities (projects) as and when we need to and at minimal cost.
  2. It allows us to deal with unpredictable challenges and the fluctuations in funding adequately. It has grown trust amongst funders because of proven responsible management and full transparency. The result: the continuation of a growing funds base in a period where globally funds have reduced.
  3. And lastly, the effect of empowering people to do what's right has led to results we couldn't even imagine. To quote Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames research center: “The extraordinary efforts of the team have set the bar for extraterrestrial farming. The idea of growing food for human colonies in space could be a reality very soon.”

Ton Dobbe

Ton joined Unit4 in 1991 as a partner manager before moving to the product team and subsequently taking the position of product manager. He became global head of product marketing in 2015 and has since been responsible for some of Unit4’s most successful product launches. He took on the role of chief evangelist in 2016.