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VOL. 133 | NO. 98 | Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Davos on the Delta Puts Memphis At Center of Agriculture World


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The annual raucous Memphis in May Festival has arrived for its 41st year. And in its shadow is the much more sedate second annual Davos on the Delta conference at the nearby Peabody hotel, within earshot of the festival and olfactory stimulation of its sprawling barbecue competition.

Dr. Charles Mulli, a Kenyan entrepreneur leading several ag initiatives in Africa, is one of the speakers at Davos on the Delta this week in Memphis. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

While Memphis in May needs little introduction, Davos on the Delta does.

Co-founder John D. Santi with iSelect Fund said the name Davos references the annual international economic conference held in February in Davos, Switzerland, where economic heads of nations meet to hammer out policies and direction. Memphis’ Davos gathering focuses on agricultural technology innovations and implementation, ranging from crop genetics to transportation logistics and beyond.

iSelect, an early-stage venture firm that invests in companies that are addressing critical global issues, in large markets, and with financially attractive business models, is hosting Davos in Memphis.

Almost 250 farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs and others interested in ag technology have paid as much as $1,000 to attend the three-day event that ends Thursday. They are hearing presentations made by dozens of ag technology experts on a wide variety of topics in the burgeoning discipline. Among them is Dr. Charles Mulli, a Kenyan entrepreneur who has been at the forefront of various African agricultural initiatives as well as other entrepreneurial endeavors.

“It’s a highly interactive, intimate conversation,” Santi said. “Davos is about making Memphis the center of ag technology in the world.”

He suggests equating Memphis in that role with Silicon Valley in the role of the world’s computer technology and innovation center.

While that may seem a steep hill to climb, it makes perfect sense for a number of reasons, according to Santi. First and foremost, agricultural technology is a fast growing sector where billions of dollars of investment are fueling myriad efforts; and the arena has a hungry clientele – primarily growers – seeking every advantage they can implement to increase yields on their acreage.

Acreage brings up another reason Santi foresees Memphis’ future as the center for agricultural technology: For the premier conference last year, growers who owned 1 million acres of farmland and managed 75 million more were present.

Simply put, Memphis is at the center of millions and millions of acres of farmland. And Memphis has traditionally been a center of agricultural production and trade – think cotton. But other row crops – corn, soybeans and even rice – have crept into the mix, holding their own in worldwide commodities markets.

And while Davos offers plenty of innovation opportunities for producers of those traditional, staple crops, the conference also offers opportunities to explore alternative crops.

“Russian dandelions as a row crop,” said Lyman Aldrich, founder of Memphis in May and executive vice president in charge of international advisory services for Cushman Wakefield Commercial Advisers. Aldrich attends the Davos meetings as “a strictly interested party in what has been a traditional industry in Memphis.”

Russian dandelions hold a high concentration of latex (rubber) in its natural form; natural rubber is superior to petroleum-based synthetic rubber and is more desirable in many applications from tires to surgical gloves. Aldrich said he realizes Southeast Asia, where the Para tree is cultivated for its latex, is presently the singular source for natural rubber.

“If farmers can make money out of it, that’s a new product,” he said of the Russian dandelions.

Mark Yates, chief vision officer for the Black Business Association of Memphis, attends Davos on behalf of his membership.

“We’re a member organization looking for any and every opportunity members (can participate in),” Yates said. “How can African-Americans benefit, be part of the process and at the table?”

Yates is also serving as Mulli’s host during the conference; he shepherded the Kenyan visitor Tuesday on a visit with Memphis Catholic Bishop Martin Holley, to a local television talk show and on a tour of the Memphis Fairgrounds, where Yates hoped to gain from Mulli some insight into the facility’s redevelopment.

Aldrich admitted his curiosity about Davos is driven by “enlightened self interest.”

“With the opportunity the city has bringing ag technology in,” Aldrich said, “it gives us an opportunity to redevelop an industry here.” Those opportunities, of course, could involve ag tech companies setting up headquarters in various available Memphis buildings.

Santi added that scheduling Davos on the Delta during Memphis in May was no mistake; he and other organizers wanted to ensure conference attendees also had a “fun” element to enjoy, a short walk from the Peabody.

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