Econ scholar receives fellowship after developing innovative agri-business model

Economics student Laura Navarro ’22 has received a Kirchner Food Fellowship, which trains and empowers next-generation talent to steer investment into sustainable solutions and technologies that advance global food security.

The fellowship brings together high-achieving students to identify socially responsible agricultural businesses in Latin America and to make the final decision on significant impact investments – a type of investment that aims to generate positive social and environmental impact in addition to financial return.

Navarro, a senior in Duke Kunshan’s pioneering Class of 2022, is one of only a handful of undergraduate students ever selected for the program. Most fellows are master’s students and Ph.D. candidates.

“It’s a big opportunity. I’m really excited to meet entrepreneurs from Latin America and to learn about innovative business models that can increase the access to basic resources for vulnerable groups,” said Navarro, from Bogota, Colombia.

The fellowship, an initiative of the Kirchner Impact Foundation, selects students each summer in three cohorts: Americas Fellows; Mexico Fellows; and HBCU Fellows, who are from historically black colleges and universities in the United States.

Navarro is one of three 2021-22 Mexico Fellows. Over the fall and spring semesters, her cohort will meet regularly online and at in-person gatherings to formulate a mandate, identify sound investment opportunities, and draw up a shortlist of candidate companies. The program will conclude with a pitch competition, with each cohort expected to make a final decision on which agri-businesses will receive impact investments.

Fellows receive extensive training in financial analysis, accounting, angel investing, developing business relationships, evaluating and closing deals, and due diligence, with instruction from leading industry experts such as seasoned fund managers Ruben Hernandez and Hector Martinez.

“I used to have the erroneous notion that social entrepreneurship was scarce in Latin America,” said Navarro, who majors in political economy (economics track). “But in the past few weeks I’ve learned that the region has one of the highest rates of early entrepreneurial activity. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between entrepreneurs, investors, and the public.

“After hearing pitches from local entrepreneurs, I’m very optimistic about the role that entrepreneurship and innovation will have in leading the region’s social and economic development in the next decades.”

Navarro first heard about the Kirchner Food Fellowship in mid-2020 while taking part in an impact entrepreneurship program at the Watson Institute, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, in Guatemala. The program’s leaders encouraged her to apply for the fellowship after hearing about her own innovative business model to grow nutritious native crops in vulnerable parts of Latin America, which Navarro believes would improve local economies and the quality of life for minority groups.

“There’s a high diversity and richness of crops native to Latin America – and a lot of human potential and capital – that’s not being utilized to the best benefit of the region,” she said. “There’s some native crops which are really nutritious; a lot of potato varieties, cacti, seeds that have good protein content. If we can produce these in a larger scale and manufacture premium products for export, people could eat a nutritious food produced locally while this premium product could lead development of the region.”

Navarro began developing the model in high school, shortly after a family trip through La Guajira, an underdeveloped region in northern Colombia. The landscape was picturesque, she said, but what struck her most was the wealth gap, as demonstrated by the luxury hotels standing amid disadvantaged communities, such as those of the indigenous Wayuu people.

“Everyone should have the same opportunities, to have the best shot at being successful and to make the best impact possible.” – Laura Navarro ’22

Last year, she began exchanging data with the governor’s office in La Guajira, to discuss how the region could benefit from mass cultivation of the nopal cactus, a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine, cosmetic products and medicines.

“As I explained more about my idea, they were really willing to talk about it. I think they recognize the need for that sort of investment in the region,” she said.

In addition to her research, Navarro has been honing her professional skills. She spent six months this year as a business analyst intern at McKinsey & Co., based in Bogota. She worked on projects in education, banking, and oil and gas, and a pro bono case for a group that helps Venezuelan immigrants settle in Colombia.

After studying remotely from home for most of 2020, Navarro is spending this fall semester at Duke University’s Durham campus, where she plans to connect with classmates old and new.

For her senior-year Signature Work project, she’s creating an economic model for the cost of war and plans to write a case study on the long-term effects of the Vietnam War on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, looking at the possibilities for conciliation and the reparation process. She developed an interest in the issue while working as a volunteer teacher in Laos in 2019, when she met people affected by chemical weapons and land mines.

Navarro, whose own country has witnessed conflict between government forces and various paramilitary and guerilla fighters since the 1960s, said that, through her research and work as a Kirchner Food Fellow, she hopes she can help guide policymakers, investors and the public toward a more sustainable and equitable future.

“Coming from Colombia, I feel I’ve seen lots of contrast. Latin America in general is one of the most unequal societies,” she said. “Everyone should have the same opportunities, to have the best shot at being successful and to make the best impact possible.”

Source: Duke Kunshan