Despite adversity, AFRE grad team places in top four at IFAMA world conference competition

AFRE graduate level team placed fourth in their division in the Student Case Competition at the International Food & Agribusiness Management Association (IFAMA) 2022 world conference. There were 25 teams in total.

Sometimes you need to think on your feet, and when that happened for four Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE) graduate students on their way to the IFAMA World Conference, these Spartans rose to the occasion and placed fourth out of 25 global teams in the Case Competition, despite flight delays and missing team members.

Fernanda Alfaro-Gonzalez, José Quintero and Ian Fisher were supposed to compete with Luke Muller as part of a four-person team in the Graduate level division of the 2022 IFAMA Case Competition in Costa Rica. Plane delays forced a quick change of plans when Muller ended up at the global conference on time without his three teammates, who were stranded in a hotel in San Jose. Undeterred, Alfaro-Gonzalez, Quintero and Fisher were ready in the hotel lobby at 5 a.m. the next morning to virtually participate in the Case Competition based on Shared-X, an agriculture and biotech company focused on smallholder farmers in South America.

Through Zoom, the team presented their SWOT analysis of the company, noting that a growing shareholder demand for environmental and social responsibility was an opportunity for expansion, but that smallholder engagement with new sustainable practices could be improved. Given these circumstances, the team focused on the question of how to accelerate smallholder farmer income using sustainable practices.

Brent Ross, Associate Professor and Associate Chairperson for Undergraduate Programs in AFRE, spearheaded the entire trip, encouraging the students to form a team and helping them prepare. He said of the competition, “It’s a tremendous opportunity for students to get involved and look at real life problems, and to be put under a pressure situation to make decisions. It’s a real credit to the programs we have at MSU that our students excel in these situations, and particularly in this case…the level of resilience and perseverance of our students is incredible, and we’re all very proud of them.” Ross, along with PhD student, and previous competition winner, Carolina Vargas, mentored the students throughout the competition process.

FYnPIXrUEAAOTfTFour teams made it to the third and final round, including Alfaro-Gonzalez, Quintero and Fisher. They were able to present their third-round findings and recommendations directly to the leadership of IFAMA and the CFO of Shared-X. With some quick problem solving, the team presented two possibilities for the company: option 1, to expand operations into Africa, or option 2, a producers’ cooperative.

Option 2 presented more upside, including high profits from value-add operations, increased farmer engagement, and alignment with the company vision, “To help catalyze the global impact farming movement.”  By suggesting the creation of a farmer cooperative organized through Shared-X, improved profits for farmers were paired with the company’s regenerative agricultural model. The team created a recommendation where overall profits were increased through post-harvest processing while prices were kept low for cooperative members.  

That evening, at the conference dinner, Alfaro-Gonzalez, Quintero and Fisher were presented accolades along with the other Case Competition finalists. “It’s fantastic to represent AFRE and MSU, it’s a great personal accomplishment,” said Fisher. “We put in a lot of time, 25 to 30 hours practicing, leading up to the competition for the previous month. So as a team it was a huge win. I think it shows the strength of the preparation that AFRE has for students.”

While the rest of the team was competing virtually, Muller joined an ad hoc international team with three other students from Costa Rica, New Zealand and Texas A&M. Without any previous experience as a group, they successfully completed the first round and made it to the second round. Teams from North America, Central and South America, Oceania and Europe all participated in the competition.

The IFAMA world conference gives MSU students a feel for the job market and current industry issues, like trade and the COVID-19 pandemic. With learning sessions, competitions and networking opportunities the IFAMA conference provides a powerful opportunity for MSU students to experience the industry from an international perspective.

“We’re standing up in front of everyone at the conference,” said Fisher, “at the closing dinner, shaking the hand of the president of IFAMA and the senior leaders, Brent was there, it was just a cumulative moment of all of the work that we put in, and to be recognized under the name of Michigan State was a really proud moment.”

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