The harvest does not wait. And American agriculture has faced a labor crisis for decades, resulting in food wastage worth $ 3.1 billion.
Farm labor employment has declined 75 percent over the past seven decades, according to the USDA. Filling a crucial gap, migrant workers make up the majority of the agricultural workforce. In recent years, fewer workers are migrating to the United States, and those who come have to go through the onerous H-2A program, a process studded with inefficiencies.
Co-founders Michael Guirguis and Jordan Taylor set out to solve this problem with Seso, a startup that connects farmers who need workers and migrant workers who need jobs.
“Farmers want to cultivate. They’re not good at paperwork, ”says Guirguis, whose startup is digitizing recruiting and payroll processes in the agricultural sector, most of which to date is done with pen and paper.
Seso provides farmers with visa automation for migrant workers, government regulatory compliance, an employee database, and management tools to facilitate a complicated administrative documentation process. The startup issued H-2A visas to 5,500 agricultural workers in 2021.
Almost a year after the job market launch, Seso announced Thursday that it has raised $ 25 million in a Series A round led by Index Ventures with the participation of Founders Fund, NFX and K5 Ventures.
Founded in 2019, the company has 35 employees and 77 customers, including some of the largest farms in the country. Farmers using the startup’s technology to recruit and manage migrant workers span a broad spectrum, including a South African ostrich farmer, shepherds in Utah, and a bee farmer in North Dakota.
Farmers have traditionally relied on middlemen to bring H-2A workers. Mistakes in the tedious visa application process have led to late arrivals of workers and, ultimately, billions of dollars in wasted crops. “The program requires you to work with four or five different government agencies,” says Gurguis. “It’s so complicated, it was never meant to be successful. It’s a broken system ”.
BT Loftus Ranches, one of Yakima Valley’s longest-running hop farms, uses Seso’s technology to communicate with returning employees, many of whom live in rural areas with no cellular service. Seso, which also has employees in Mexico, helps organize the transport of migrant workers to reach the consulate safely and, as a result, has reduced the work that falls on the human resources department by 70%.
“The logistics of having to locate workers was definitely a big hurdle we had to overcome every year,” says Alex Munoz, director of human resources at BT Loftus. “Having a recruiter who targets workers across different platforms has definitely made our contracting process smoother.”
Before creating a workforce management portal for the agricultural industry, the 32-year-old CEO worked in the White House on the National Economic Council, developing employment and housing policies. Gurguis, whose parents are Egyptians, graduated from Stanford University in 2011 where he studied labor policy and economics. “I realized that I don’t want to be a political decision maker, I want to use technology to create jobs. So I knew that at some point I would start a startup on the job market because that was my passion. “
Elizabeth Ortiz Zarate is a 28-year-old migrant worker from Mexico who works for plant retailer Bonnie Plants in Utica, New York. She came to the United States on an H-2A visa, the only unlimited visa in the country. The H-2A program allows American farmers to recruit seasonal workers from other countries for up to 10 months, only after they have proven they cannot find domestic work to fill the position.
In Mexico, Zarate worked as an industrial engineer, earning $ 450 per month, but in the United States she is able to earn around $ 3000 per month as a seasonal worker. She sends most of her income home to her grandparents. “The H-2A program allows you to enter the country without risking your life through the illegal immigration process which is dangerous and can lead to extortion,” says Zarate. “It gives you the opportunity to earn an honest salary and learn new skills.”
Seso charges farmers approximately $ 5,000 in compliance software and demand fees for its services, although the fee varies depending on the services the farmer uses. The company achieved sales of $ 3 million in 2021, says Guirguis Forbes.
“Seso has built so much trust within agriculture that its customer base is turning to them to automate their workflow more and more, which is a distinctive present in some of the top vertical software companies,” he says. Nina Achadjian, partner of Index Ventures.
Migrant workers, one of the most exploited populations, remain largely without banks and have to be paid by check. With the new round of funding, the startup plans to incorporate financial and payroll functions into its technology so workers don’t have to lose 10% of their paycheck in remittance fees.