Next generation innovation

2021 pitch competition sees agri-food startups vying for $10,000 prize

MEDA’s 2021 Reimagining Food Systems pitch competition saw diverse startups from Canada, the US and Ghana compete for a $10,000 prize to help their agri-food focused firms make a global impact.

Five finalists recorded five-minute videos that were shown at MEDA’s annual convention, then answered questions from a judging panel.

The annual competition, held to encourage and foster innovation in the spirit of MEDA’s mission, is funded by MEDA supporters Ron and Barb Schlegel and their family.

A Canadian company that uses food waste to make pet treats, and a firm that hopes to bring lower-cost fresh produce to remote communities by using indoor vertical farming systems were this year’s winners.

EarthPup founder Lucy Cullen

EarthPup, which won the $10,000 US first prize, grew out of founder Lucy Cullen’s disgust at the level of food waste in the hospitality industry, where she worked for a dozen years.

Her Toronto, Ontario-based firm produces dog treats that are mostly made from rescued plant materials and bone broth. The women-owned and led firm focuses on “a sustainable future for pups, plants, and people.”

As much as 40 percent of food in Canada is wasted, Cullen said. Juice production alone results in 600 million pounds of nutrient-dense pulp being discarded annually.

EarthPup addresses this issue by turning food otherwise destined for landfill into healthy dog treats.

EarthPup’s products are currently sold in 44 stores across  Canada. The firm is committed to being a plastic negative pet food brand, by partnering with a Kenyan organization to recycle twice as much plastic there as its products contain. (see story, page 11)

Cullen thinks EarthPup can grow to the point where it will create 20 jobs and recover 60,000 pounds of food waste over the next 24 months and expand into the US. 

In addition to the cash prize, Cullen wins an all-expenses paid trip to MEDA’s 2022 convention in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she will be a judge in the 2022 pitch competition.

Sky-Acres founder Ishaan Kohli promotes vertical farming

Sky-Acres Agro Technologies, an innovative vertical farming concept, won a $5,000 second prize and will be partnered with a successful business professional for mentorship opportunities.

Sky-Acres is working towards a pilot project in Fort Albany, a small community in Northern Ontario, to grow food indoors. It will use a stackable, modular system to deliver a nutrient-rich mist of water to plants which are suspended in air.

The system requires 94 percent less water than traditional farming, said founder Ishaan Kohli. A 35,000 square-foot facility filled with this system could produce as much food as 96 acres, supplying 8,000 people year-round, Kohli said.

He plans to sell high-quality produce directly to grocery stores, where he estimates that it will be sold 40 percent cheaper than produce that is flown into the community.

Other finalists in the competition were: 

  • YYC growers and distributors, which works to connect farmers and consumers in Alberta. 
  • Muket, which tracks livestock methane emissions and provides suggestions for making beef and dairy farming more sustainable by reducing emissions.
  • Sommalife, a social enterprise that markets shea and cocoa butter and other products on behalf of rural Ghanaian women.

How does the competition work?

MEDA’s pitch competition is open to start-ups in the agri-food market systems space, where at least 51 per cent of the company is owned by a person under the age of 40.

Participating teams must be less than five years old and have raised less than $100,000 in funding, grants, or prize money.

In order to be eligible, a startup must propose a solution related to agri-food market systems. The solution must address one or more of several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that relate to MEDA’s work:

  • #1 No Poverty
  • #2 Zero Hunger
  • #5 Gender Equality
  • #8 Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • #13 Climate Action
  • #17 Partnerships for the Goals

The UN SDGs are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by UN member states in 2015.

A 911 service for Africa

Pandemic restrictions prevented MEDA from holding a pitch competition in 2020. The following is an update on the progress that Emergency Response Africa (ERA) has made since winning the 2019 competition.

ERA co-founder and CEO Folake Owodunni

ERA is saving lives by building a network of first responders, emergency vehicles and hospitals across Nigeria, all connected to those in need, company co-founder and CEO Folake Owodunni says.

The company uses vans and lower-cost ambulance tricycles to serve people who cannot afford regular ambulances. The service is “kind of like a 911 (emergency service) for Africa,” Owodunni said in a video presentation at the 2021 MEDA convention. 

The $10,000 prize that ERA won in MEDA’s 2019 pitch competition in Tucson, Arizona allowed it to pilot its more affordable ambulance service in Lagos, Nigeria in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.

“We learned a lot of lessons about how our solutions can save lives, as well as the challenges of implementing technology-based solutions in the developing world,” she said.

Since that time ERA has secured over $100,000 in grant and investment funding to launch. It began offering its services in March 2021. 

The organization has received and addressed over 450 requests for help, added more than 45 emergency service providers and ambulances to its network, and generated over $10,000 in revenue.

“Those who have used our service most appreciate the efficiency and the empathy shown by our first responders,” she said.

ERA was recently selected as one of 50 African startups to receive funding from the Google Black Founders Fund. The money will help ERA expand its services outside of Lagos to several other Nigerian states over the next six months: Ibadan, Enugu, Owerri and Abeokuta.

The firm recently graduated from the Google for Startups Africa Accelerator program.

“Every day, there’s still people dying needlessly from poorly managed medical emergencies, and in spite of our best efforts to make our service affordable, many can still not afford to use our services.”

“We will continue to work with partners like MEDA until our vision for an Africa where everyone can receive medical help in 10 minutes or less is realized,” she said.

To learn more about ERA, visit their website:


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