Fernando Russo

“As long as we do not have regenerative systems, nobody can be 100% holy in their food choices”

Fernando is a Brazilian impact investor, based in Amsterdam. After selling his company in 2015, he embarked on a journey of change. Whilst completing his MBA at INSEAD, he became an active mentor for social enterprises in Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. He then, together with his father, started a family office dedicated to impact investing, with a focus on creating a 100% impact portfolio aligned with the planet's ecosystem.

How did you get into impact investing? 
Working with micro-finance farming in Cambodia was my eye-opener: it showed me that I could devote my skills and experience in marketing and entrepreneurship for good. I became inspired to invest in nature and the future of sustainable food production, through regenerative agriculture and soil health. When then selling my company coincided with my father selling his, an incredible opportunity presented itself to do something meaningful and sustainable here; doing business in partnership with nature (and family!). 

Why did you decide to move to the Netherlands? 
I was recommended to Pymwymic quite early on, which prompted me to come to the Netherlands to learn. It’s now been 5 years! The Netherlands is an amazing hub for impact investing, and Pymwymic became the first fund I invested in. I am based in Amsterdam, but our family office is headquartered in São Paulo - we invest in Brazil, using the knowledge and technology available in the Netherlands and beyond.

What does impact investing look like in your native country - Brazil? Is there an awareness of impact investing and social enterprises? How do you see your role there? 
A lot has developed in the impact space in Brazil during the last 5 years, but most enterprises are still urban start-ups, not rural ones. Personally, I am passionate about investing in rural Brasil, in particular the Amazon region. So I created my own regenerative agricultural farm; a converted cattle farm that is now a biodiverse ecological space of 1200 hectares - the size of the center of Amsterdam. But I also manage a portfolio of (European) impact funds, for which I help to find pipeline deals in rural Brazil, and I invest in an accelerator of bio-economy startups in the Amazon. I take my role as a connector very seriously here, because there are a lot of gaps in knowledge. For example, people investing in the Amazon often do not realize that 23 million people live in this region, so any investment is not just environmental, it also has cultural and social impact. 

Your passion is biodiversity and regeneration, how do you believe we can best achieve results here? 
I believe transition finance is an important tool in moving towards a bio-economy. We need to help farmers get out of the poverty trap, and help them grow with nature instead. Farmers only use chemicals because they are scared of losing their crops. So we can tell them not to, but we will only convince them if we can provide a climate-smart solution that also increases their ways of making money. Currently, I am working to support Amazon-based alternative proteins scale internationally, without destroying the local ecosystem. It means adopting a completely different set of rules, like investing in perennials over annuals and rethinking agricultural systems in collaborative terms. It also means philanthropically supporting the social parts of our investments, such as protecting indigenous rights. I think this holistic mindset is how we achieve lasting results. 

What tips do you have for someone starting in impact investing? 
It is actually new for me to be an investor, and looking back, I think I would have done things a bit differently. I would have invested in impact funds to gain experience and only later have considered direct investments. It often makes more sense, especially if you are running a family office, are responsible for a lot of different things and you want a 100% portfolio. Focussing on small enterprises is just not very time efficient. So, based on my experience, I would recommend investing in funds and joining networks like Pym and Toniic. 

Also, don’t study too much or just ‘flirt’ with impact. Start small, and learn by doing. Another thing I would advise is to look at making your own business more sustainable. Sometimes that is the best way to make impact. 

What are you excited about right now? 
My focus is food technology through innovative agriculture and I am currently very interested in entrepreneurs that are making healthier food more accessible. I was recently in Israel, where I saw the future of meat alternatives, which focus not just on being a vegetarian alternative but also on being healthier for people and planet. During my visit, I met companies manipulating plants to have more properties with fewer resources, and cellular farming enterprises that allow one to pick the specific cells and fibers one wants and needs. Initiatives like this will allow us to slowly get rid of life stock farms, so animals can become a participant in healing the land rather than an accessory in destroying it. On top of this, it will give us more space for high-quality crops and smart greenhouses, etc. 

Custom-made meat and fish, modified vitamin-rich plants - the future has a lot in store for people and planet! 

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