If I Could Change the World
Entrepreneur Walter Ribeiro Works for a Better, Greener Future
Walter Ribeiro dreams big. In fact, he'd like to change the world, if it's not too much to ask, but he'd settle for leading the state of Minnesota into a role as a world leader in sustainable energy production through organic fuel sources, like renewable natural gas and hydrogen. He also wants to level the playing field for small communities by fostering a new industry of energy that could create thousands of jobs and promote regional energy independence.
And while he's at it, Ribeiro would like to reduce the financial hardships of farmers and agricultural operations by minimizing fuel costs and expanding income opportunities, eliminate more than 20 percent of annual landfill waste production, and create a business model that could scale to any population and serve as a template for the rest of the world.
It's a tall ask of one lifetime, but, you see, what's at stake is his son's future. What's already lost are the friends and family who died fighting for causes greater than themselves. What's left is a man on a mission and his six-legged mascot, the dragonfly.
First-World Beauty, Underworld Problems
Ribeiro grew up in Brazil, surrounded by a life of beauty and brutality. For fun, his aunt would take the kids to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Back then, the unspoiled surf was devoid of litter and loiterers – but that was decades ago.
"I was able to do that," Ribeiro remembers, "But my son? He will never see that." His father always told him that he was the future, but if nothing changes, "What kind of future have I provided?" he asks.
He joined the Brazilian military around the age of 18, for lack of better options, serving in the military police. As he watched friends and compatriots fall to violent conflict, he wrestled with an uncomfortable conclusion: "I saw that it was a war I could not win," he says. Drugs, violence, desperation – the pursuit of money and power a common thread. He'd had enough.
A sister in the United States encouraged him to leave it all behind, and he moved to the American east coast, New Jersey, ultimately enlisting in the U.S. military and becoming an aircraft technician for the Department of Defense.
And it was all well enough until doctors discovered Ribeiro had a serious medical condition related to his heart. Multiple complicated surgeries saved his life, but the condition compromised his fitness for duty. He was retired from the military, he was lonely, and he wrestled with post traumatic stress and losses he could never fully leave behind.
"They deserve that I keep pushing," Ribeiro says. "There is not a single day that I don't regret that I was never able to deploy and to face what I was supposed to face – like the other soldiers."
Life lurched to a halt after years at a break-neck pace. He found himself plastered to a seat in front of a television.
"Bored out of my mind," as he puts it.
A Better Way of Living
The dragonfly is a guiding light for Ribeiro. Splashing water at them as a child, he was amazed by their ability to navigate away from harm. During their lifecycles, the small creatures spend time on land, in water, and about the air. They live a sustainable life at no monetary expense, and their presence in an ecosystem often indicates drinkable, life-sustaining water.
"Humans have the bad habit to relate size to capabilities," Ribeiro observes. He calls the dragonfly one of the most perfect creatures, having endured since prehistoric times and preying on pest insects that can prove harmful to humans. "The only creatures that may be able to eradicate those beautiful creatures are us humans," he says.
After the collapse of his career amidst the opulence of the east coast, Ribeiro was encouraged to move to Minnesota by a friend who would become his wife. He was taken aback by the slower pace, the practicality, and the sense of community and purpose.
Remembering his commitment to a better future, he formed a sustainability startup, The Dragonfly-e, Inc., and began recruiting stakeholders toward the creation of anaerobic digester facilities capable of reducing organic waste (manure, food scraps, sewage, etc.) into low-carbon fuel and high-nutrient fertilizer – a concept he'd seen his uncle employ at a smaller scale in Brazil decades ago.
Just this year, the Dragonfly-e headquarters were relocated to Fergus Falls following the launch of the Greater Fergus Falls (GFF) Foundry. Ribeiro says he was drawn by the beautiful building and supportive team. He's participated in entrepreneurial training and business development coaching through GFF and sees the city as the perfect size for accomplishing his long-term plans.
Working with an international software developer, his company hopes to launch a prototype version of a carbon mitigation and sequestration app later this year. The software will help companies, municipalities, and individuals progress toward reducing their carbon footprint – his company profiting by selling carbon credits following successful mitigation efforts undertaken through the app's guidance.
If it all works out, Ribeiro envisions a near future where Fergus Falls and Otter Tail County might produce a significant portion of fuel and energy through the manufacturing of renewable natural gas and hydrogen derived from waste products and water. The new economy could bolster smaller farming communities and farmers themselves and perhaps serve as a blueprint for the rest of the world on a path toward reducing greenhouse gases.
There's a lot of work ahead, and Ribeiro believes that if he can do it, anyone can.
"I am an immigrant; I am [a] minority; I have no money – I'm using the ecosystem, and the ecosystem is providing everything that I need to push this forward. Even if I'm not the right person for this job, at least I'm paving the way," he says. "I'd like to see Minnesota be the head of the spear in this transition from fossil fuels to a sustainable economy."
- R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls
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