This is part of a Techonomy series about female innovators in agtech. It’s produced in partnership with From Farms to Incubators.
Martha Montoya never imagined that her journey from Bogota, Colombia to California would take her into a thriving agtech career. Montoya is founder and CEO of AgTools Inc., a food supply platform offering real-time news and information to farmers and agriculture buyers, on everything from distribution to pricing. The company’s product aims to help growers, especially small farmers, manage market volatility, increase profitability, and reduce food waste in the supply chain.
Montoya compares AgTools’ subscription-based platform – which can be accessed through mobile apps –to the Bloomberg terminal. In fact, AgTools takes account of some 67 variables, including politics, weather, travel, commodity prices and farming infrastructure. The information is curated by a team of AgTools’ representatives and country managers, many of whom are scientists, researchers and agronomists. They pull the data from a variety of sources, including the Federal Departments of Agriculture, Transportation and Defense.
Montoya grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Colombia. Her father founded the first night schools in Bogota, offering continuing education for the capital city’s working people. She recalls traveling easily between the city’s relatively wealthy and impoverished neighborhoods—an experience that informs her current work. She planned to follow her father’s footsteps in education, and graduated with a degree in biology and chemistry from La Salle University, in Pennsylvania, with plans to be a teacher.
With political strife and drug cartels wracking Colombia, Montoya left in 1989. At 25 and newly married, she initially passed through Los Angeles on her way elsewhere. Later, homesick for a community of Colombians, she returned to Los Angeles and settled in Orange County, Calif.
Montoya attributes her work ethic to her father, whose mantra was that no assignment was out of the realm, “as long as you work and they pay you.” Even as she applied for jobs, she cleaned houses. Through classified ads she found a position at a school library.
In a bit of a twist, it was her passion for cartooning (at one point she wanted to be a professional cartoonist) that led her to agriculture. She answered an advertisement from a trade company seeking a receptionist figuring the job would afford her the time to pursue her cartooning outside of work.
In reality, the job extended far beyond answering phones and included buying ingredients globally. The position tapped into her knowledge of chemistry, language, and her love for travel and working with folks from all over the world. Montoya built a vast network in the agricultural sector, especially in Latin America. It helped that she’s bilingual in English and Spanish.
In 2010, Walmart tapped her as a supplier to source fruits and vegetables from smaller farmers. “Every time we had a crop, I would think about the social ramifications of that crop and the impact to society,” Montoya recalls. She saw first-hand the struggles faced by growers, especially small farmers, including lack of up-to-date and relevant information. She began brainstorming ways to help.
She tapped two of her brothers, both with engineering backgrounds, to help build the platform. She started the company in 2017 and introduced a product the following year, at the Produce Marketing Association’s annual conference.
So far, AgTools has been sold to some 20 fruits and vegetable shippers and producers. The company now aims to work with up to 17 industries, including transportation, banking, insurance and government. AgTools is available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Montoya recently partnered with Charter Communications and the Western Growers Association to launch a pilot program that trains female farmers to use AgTools on their farms. In October, Montoya held a training with the pilot group of farmers in Gonzales, Calif.
Says Montoya: “The bottom line is: can they make more money with this tool?” She notes that female farmers remain a minority in the Salinas Valley and throughout California. If successful, Charter may help extend the program to several hundred female farmers.
Agtech’s female entrepreneurs continue to face barriers, Montoya observes, including capital, age, experience, sex and race. “The investment world believes more in younger generations with ideas than mature, seasoned businesspeople. Add in factors of gender and race, and our opportunities for funding are much smaller,” she says. Her key to success has been finding other women and other non-traditional investors who believed in the cause, she says. Luckily, there are many of them.
Here’s a short video from the author, Amy Wu, and From Farms to Incubators.