A small global team, one big idea to save water

woman using a tablet in a greenhouse surrounded by tall plants woman using a tablet in greenhouse surrounded by tall plants
Swirl pattern

When PepsiCo made its annual call for The Next Big Idea, hundreds answered. Among them, five women from five countries who had big ideas about sustainable agriculture. By researching emerging farming techniques and leveraging technology, the team is providing a sustainable route to agriculture and business.

Vanishree GV was several months into her new role as lead engineer and developer at PepsiCo when she heard about The Next Big Idea, an annual competition for PepsiCo employees. The competition helps to spur innovation that solves business challenges or creates entirely new products through internal collaboration.

Vanishree immediately thought back to her youth. She grew up in India, where constantly running water faucets in her community were the norm. She would knock on neighbors’ doors and ask them not to waste water, trying to create an awareness of limited resources.

Later at boarding school, she experienced times without water. “There would be no water for a couple of hours at a time. And that was inconvenient, but I started thinking about people who only have half a bucket of water for a whole day. How do they deal with that?”

Although Vanishree’s experiences helped her become aware of water scarcity, “We need not experience the crisis to feel its importance,” she says.

So she submitted a water-saving proposal to The Next Big Idea.

logo for The Next Big Idea contest by PepsiCo

Culti-Wate: More crop per drop

According to a report by the United Nations, by 2025, nearly 1.8 billion people in the world will be living in water-scarce areas, and by 2040, roughly 50% of the world’s population may no longer have drinking water. That is the expected result if current water-use trends remain unchanged.

This is where Vanishree saw an opportunity for PepsiCo to be a global leader in water conservation.

“Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s accessible freshwater,” says Vanishree, “and 60% of that is wasted due to traditional irrigation systems.”

Her idea was simple: Use modern technology and farming techniques like greenhouses to save water. The name of her idea, Culti-Wate, came from her goal.

View inside a large greenhouse with farmers collecting data and checking on plants

“Culti from ‘cultivation’ and ‘wate’ from ‘water,’” says Vanishree. “For cultivation, we’re working to ensure a consistent and sustainable supply of raw material (like potatoes and corn) without major changes in price. And with water, we’re looking to conserve as much as possible by using innovative technology in farming.”

Vanishree submitted a write-up of her idea on The Next Big Idea platform, and within a day, several PepsiCo employees were asking to join her endeavor.

The team grows to five

The first to sign on was Gabriela Matus, a project manager from Mexico City who firmly believes technology can help create a sustainable future. She recently started growing a small garden of her own in the city.

Next was Felicia Curtis, a supply chain manager from Plano, Texas. She tries to live sustainably, always sorting recyclables at work, composting at home and growing her own vegetables in a community garden plot.

Career Insight

PepsiCo supply chain associate: This is the place to start if you’re interested in supply chain. This position lets you see the full length of logistics through various assignments in production, warehouse operations, maintenance, quality, planning, transportation engineering, customer integration, commercialization and supply chain strategy.

Zeinab Yassin, reliability manager from Cairo, also has her own garden and wanted to contribute to an idea that she felt could have a big impact, both for PepsiCo and the planet.

As a new mother, Sandra Galeano from Colombia, based in Panama City, felt the urgency of the global water shortage and wanted to be a part of the team that was addressing it head-on. As a productivity Lean Six Sigma Black Belt manager for the Latin American region and as a project management pro, she knew she could support this team.

Together, these five women from different corners of the world make up the Culti-Wate team.

Portraits of each of the members of the Cultiwate team side by side.

The Culti-Wate team from left to right: Vanishree GV in India, Gabriela Matus in Mexico, Felicia Curtis in the United States, Zeinab Yassin in Egypt, and Sandra Galeano in Panama.

Our motto is: More crop per drop.”

Vanishree GV

Lead Engineer and Developer

Solving sustainability with tech

“I remember the first time we all talked,” says Yassin. “We knew there were lots of benefits to the project, but we needed to make it easier to implement.”

As a manager of eight beverage and snack plants in Egypt, Yassin had plenty of experience in streamlining and scaling projects. “We got to work, each of us in different time zones, researching water conservation techniques and greenhouses, and current PepsiCo initiatives in our respective countries.”

Two farmers inside a greenhouse looking at the growth of a potato plant

Innovative farming and modern tech create a path to sustainable agriculture and business.

In Mexico, the team talked to plant managers who are using greenhouses and hydroponics for their potato growth.

In the United States, the team interviewed Burgess Davis, VP of global sustainable packaging and sustainability strategy, who also connected Culti-Wate with agricultural and business leads within PepsiCo.

Career Insight

VP of Global Packaging and Sustainability Strategy: “Sustainability, and our work in building a sustainable food system, is incredibly important to PepsiCo,” explains Burgess Davis, VP of global packaging and sustainability strategy. “We are actively working to drive positive impact for both the planet and people.” For a career in sustainability, she suggests looking for opportunities that develop problem-solving skills, drive collaboration and open your mind to systems thinking.

“We acted as owners, as if we were driving our own business,” says Matus, “scheduling calls with several different experts within PepsiCo. We got to tap into the experience and knowledge of all these people in such a unique way.”

Over a few months of research and development, they found that greenhouses have the potential to increase crop yield and improve water consumption given the sealed environment. Other ways to increase yields included soil optimization and less dependence on external factors like rainfall, all of which can be aided by technology.

View of a row of plants growing inside a greenhouse and the irrigation system that controls water supply for each plant.

Perhaps best of all, these changes wouldn’t be a burden to farmers. With the help of technology, each acre of land could improve labor efficiency.

From top 20 to top 3

By August, Culti-Wate was ready for peer voting, but it was just one idea among more than 600 ideas that were sent in for consideration.

“All 600 PepsiCo teams were given fake, virtual money to invest,” says Matus. “That was a big milestone for us, when we were voted into the top 20 by our peers.”

“We kept refining from there,” says Curtis. “Luckily, each of us had something to contribute to the team or to the idea that’s different from the other people’s, and it all synced.”

On November 2, the team learned they made it into the top three. “This meant come early 2021, we would present to members of senior leadership, from our Chairman and CEO Ramon Laguarta to VPs from across the world,” says Yassin.

“To prepare, we were paired with experts who helped us make our project viable,” says Vanishree. “We had sessions with R&D teams. We had sessions with our sponsor and our business coach, who helped guide us throughout the creation of our business case.”

Sowing the seeds of teamwork

While the Culti-Wate team didn’t win this year’s competition, they’re reflecting on months of learnings, many of which they can implement in their gardens, and others that they can apply in their work. PepsiCo’s Sustainability team will also consider the team’s thinking and learnings as it develops future farming initiatives. 

“Even though we didn’t place first in The Next Big Idea,” says Matus, “we’ve still gained a lot in the last few months.”

Triptych showing Gabriela, Zeinab and Felicia working in their gardens at home.

Some of the Culti-Wate team members in their home gardens. Clockwise from top left: Gabriela Matus, Zeinab Yassin and Felicia Curtis.

I’ve learned more in the last six months at PepsiCo than I’ve learned in the past five-and-a-half years of working in tech.”

Vanishree GV

Lead Engineer and Developer

“The Next Big Idea gave us a rocket launch,” says Vanishree, “a platform I could never have imagined. It allowed us to explore and learn about something outside our everyday roles and really think about how to make a positive impact.”

“We have limited resources on this planet,” says Yassin. “We have to sustain them. Exploring new ways to deliver sustainable agricultural solutions isn’t just good for PepsiCo; it’s good for the planet, it’s good for farmers, it’s good for people.”