How the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s inspired Sara Menker to build the world’s largest climate data platform

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 4, 2024 6:03 AM EDT
Sara Menker. Photo credit: Gro Intelligence

Although Sarah Menker grew up in what could be described as a middle-class family, she lived a life where everything was rationed during the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. As young as she was at the time, Menker remembers many of her countrymen suffered from famine, poverty and civil unrest while attending a private school in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

“Fuel was rationed, sugar was rationed. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor,” Menker said about living through the Ethiopian famine.

The famine left an estimated 1.2 million dead, displaced more than two million people and left nearly 200, 000 children orphaned. While still a youth, Menker immigrated to the United States and as fate would have it, secured a Wall Street job But the knowledge that there were millions of people all over the world starving did not leave her. This is how she was motivated to develop Gro Intelligence, the world’s largest climate data platform to forecast agricultural trends.

Menker felt that she owed it to her family to do well in life. Her parents – a mother who was a seamstress for Ethiopian Airlines and a father who worked with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa – sacrificed absolutely everything so that she could succeed. But Menker wanted more than statutory success because she wanted to affect lives.

After Mount Holyoke College, Menker decided to work in commodities risk management at Morgan Stanley. She believed it was the only section of finance that was connected to the real world and the areas she was passionate about. She switched to trading gas after a while, got promoted, and took over that business. Despite being excellent at her job, Menker ultimately didn’t have a passion for the work after a while.

Food security was constantly on Menker’s mind while at Morgan Stanley. And when the 2008 financial crisis hit, she noticed that she reacted differently from those around her. While one of her colleagues bought guns and gold to protect himself from the world collapsing, Menker reasoned that food was of superior importance in a crisis. She started researching the price of farmland in Ethiopia and investigating the country’s agricultural system. Menker discovered a broken system, with plenty of arable land that wasn’t producing the expected yields. However, her search for explanations was impeded by a lack of accurate data.

And just like that, a personal interest grew into a complete obsession.

In 2014, Menker launched Gro Intelligence to fill the information void by using AI to analyze and forecast agricultural activity around the world. The company draws on more than 170,000 datasets from hundreds of public and private sources with machine learning filling in the gaps of missing data. It has generated some 2.9 million new data series on topics such as the yields of and consumer demand for specific crops and climate risks like fires and floods. The Gro platform encompasses the world’s largest agriculture and climate-related database.

“Answers lie in the data, because when you connect the dots between price and demand and supply and climate, you start to learn and pattern recognize, and you can start to ingest and create live predictive models that actually help you forecast these relationships,” Menker explained on the relationship between agricultural factors of production.

Menker considers it her obligation to make Gro’s powerful data and analytics accessible to impact humanity. Consequently, the company’s platform includes user-friendly applications, such as a drought index and an agricultural price-inflation tool, and predictive models that can help organizations and governments forecast agricultural trends. It has also created tools for the general public, such as the Food Security Tracker for Africa which delves into the status of staple crops in forty-nine countries.

Gro Intelligence is both a mission-driven and for-profit company. The company balances selling its services and providing open-source information for social good. Commercial clients like insurers, hedge funds, and food-and-beverage companies pay for annual subscriptions. On the other hand, academics and NGOs working on food security and climate change have free access.

In addition, Gro works with governments and large food companies to analyze hundreds of trillions of data points from governments and private sources. The data is then combined with satellite imagery and creates over 1,000 models a day. The company’s software makes this agricultural, weather and climate data easy to understand for its clients. It consequently informs companies on what and where to sell products and provides support to policymakers and insurance companies.

Although the details of Gro’s success stories are often confidential, Menker takes pride in her company’s lifesaving work. She has helped governments contemplate food security, plan agricultural policies and make better economic decisions. The company is currently working to establish a more comprehensive picture of climate risk across sectors by merging its data with that of other industries such as real estate and mining.

Co-headquartered in New York and Nairobi, Gro has raised more than $115 million in venture capital funding.