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M 2 Labo: A faster, fresher, friendlier approach to agribusiness VEENA YOSHINO M 2 Labo. Co. President Yuriko Kato O RCHARDS, tea plants and vegetable farms stretch across the rolling landscape of Shizuoka Prefecture, one of Japan’s top producers of green tea, wasabi and mandarin oranges. It’s only natural this would also be the birthplace of the next innovation in agribusiness efficiency – all as a result of one woman’s drive to put fresher vegetables on the table for her kids. M 2 Labo is an agriculture think tank founded in 2009 by Yuriko Kato, whose concern for the quality of the food she put on the table for her two children motivated her to combine her degree from the University of Tokyo’s Department of Agriculture with her years of manufacturing industry experience, applying them to the business of farming. Even the name, M 2 , refers to ‘mama,’ revealing her hope that the company’s initiatives will play a positive role in the day-to-day lives of her children. M 2 Labo aims to develop a more efficient system of product flow for Japan’s small growers. Japan’s standard farming arrangement places multiple distributors between growers and retailers, and communications down the line are limited at best, often occurring only by phone or fax. “IT plays almost no role,” Kato says. But she’s working to change that. M 2 Labo supports small farming operations through business- matching services and marketing tools, as well as managing an online farming data system. M 2 Labo’s Field Server is a high- capability camera that not only captures live images of farm conditions at ten-minute intervals, but also measures temperature, humidity and solar radiation in real time. All the farms monitored by Field Server can then be tracked online. The regular stream of information allows retailers to make more accurate predictions of delivery dates, meaning they can initiate communications earlier in the growing process. On-the-spot, end-to-end transparency creates an agricultural system that enables farmers to more effectively meet retailers' needs. Of course, all the solutions aren’t high-tech. M 2 Labo uses phone calls and manual data entry to ensure that feedback from retailers is immediately communicated to producers, while its Vegi Provider program aims to form a strong link between producers and sellers. “We try to strengthen the person-to-person connection,” Kato explains. “We encourage retailers to visit farms, and farmers to experience being on-site as a retailer. In this way, they are each able to understand the other’s position a little better.” The Vegi Provider program also offers monthly producers’ meetings, where consumer trends and retailer requests can be discussed, while specialists are invited to speak on product developments, farm management and land cultivation techniques. M 2 Labo’s efforts have resulted in a decrease in the time needed for produce to reach the shelves, which also means that vegetables are fresher and waste is significantly reduced. In 2012, Kato was awarded with the Grand Prize at the 1st New Business Plan Competition for Women Entrepreneurs, hosted by the Development Bank of Japan Inc. With such feathers in her cap, what’s next for this leader of ‘agrinnovation’? “I want to be able to expand our business overseas,” Kato says. “Through the internet, producers and retailers can even be connected internationally. I want to share Japan’s fruit and vegetables with more people.” Kato is a woman working to connect Shizuoka with the world. JANUARY 2014 | 19