In 2011, Feliciano Paredes watched a documentary called “The Harvest” about farm workers migrating from the South to the Midwest — facing risks along the way — and he had an idea.
“I was watching the documentary and seeing their struggles as they were going from state to state and seeing how the farmers didn’t have work or housing for them, although they’d traveled thousands of miles.
“I started thinking, ‘Well, we have apps that can help you find a restaurant or store. Why do we not have an app that allows this population to have (what) they need — work, food, housing and other services?’ There wasn’t anything out there.
“That was the point when I said I was going to do something about it,” he said.
The resulting mobile application, AgHelp, became available for free download in the iOS App Store on July 26.
Paredes, who migrated with family from San Antonio, Texas, around 20 years ago for farm work, now lives in Belding and works in talent acquisition at Spectrum Health. But he keeps his roots in mind.
“Even to this day, the farm workers go through the same issues,” he said. “Nothing has changed in that ecosystem.”
Brainstorming for possibilities, he initially wanted to build a web directory of farms that need workers and agencies that offer Spanish-language resources. He began cold-calling organizations and trying to crowdsource information for a database. He soon realized that approach had too many complications.
Paredes took the shell of an idea and pitched it at a 5×5 night hosted by Start Garden in fall 2016. Although he wasn’t selected as a winner, his pitch inspired an audience member who had connections.
“Linda Chamberlain, who is in entrepreneurship and technology at GVSU, she saw it and was really interested in what the idea was about. She said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get you in front of a professor?’”
Jonathan Engelsma, a professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems at Grand Valley, happened to be teaching a graduate-level class in computer information systems, and students needed capstone project ideas.
Paredes connected with Engelsma, presented to the class and, within two days, found a student willing to develop his app.
Xiaomei Huang, an immigrant from China, said she was struck by the idea immediately. She began work on the project in December, and beta testing began in April. Huang finished her master’s degree in computing and information systems in May.
“It’s my first mobile application,” Huang said. “It feels very good to bring this kind of vocation to bear and how it will help people in the future.”
Huang currently works as a stay-at-home mom and is hoping to use her degree and experience on the app to land a full-time development role.
For now, she plans to stay on at AgHelp LLC, the company Paredes formed, for ongoing support and upgrades to the app.
Paredes said the app works like Yelp or Foursquare, using location services to provide lists of category-based services for the user.
The categories include immigration services, educational services, employment and training, legal services, migrant health centers, social services, agriculture and others.
It’s designed to help three distinct but related populations find and help each other.
“A worker, if they’re looking for … the nearest migrant education program or migrant health clinic, they can pull the app up and it will show (those) within 50 miles of their location. Then they can connect with them through email, by phone or through the app. Then they can also follow those agencies to receive notifications.
“(It’s the) same thing with the employer side. They can find agricultural employees within a certain radius or throughout the country. They can connect with a grower and have them apply through the app and hire directly through the app.”
Huang said it allows agencies and farmers to post information in a hub that functions like a bulletin board.
“It’s very easy to use,” she said. “Put in your information, and they can find each other. The farmers can tell about any news or events and the workers can be notified. This is a streamlined guide.”
Paredes said agencies can use it to reach migrant workers who are mostly mobile, demonstrate on grant applications how many individuals they serve and reduce the necessity for travel to migrant labor camps to find clients.
Paredes and Huang have funded their own startup and labor costs to get the app in the store, and since it’s free to download, it is not yet generating revenue. In 2018, the pair plans to keep the app free for agencies and migrant workers but to start charging farmers a subscription fee for using its job posting and candidate screening and hiring features. They also hope to launch an Android version.
AgHelp has applied to several venture capital funds and angel investors throughout the U.S. that specialize in agriculture investing, such as Cultivian Sandbox Ventures and Innova Memphis.
In the meantime, Paredes is getting a local assist.
“We’ve connected with Varnum Law and Rehmann accountants, and they are going to be providing services for free. Varnum, through MiSpringboard, is giving us $2,500 in free legal services.”
In April, a combination of 45 to 50 government agencies and nonprofits — including the Migrant Education Program in the Michigan Department of Education and, at the federal level, the Migrant Education Program and the Employment and Training Administration — from 45 states and Puerto Rico signed up for accounts as beta testers. As of Aug. 1, 60 unique users (excluding beta testers) downloaded the app. Paredes and Huang expect that number to grow as word gets out.
“The need is there; it’s just a matter of letting the right people know,” Paredes said. “It’s a market that hasn’t been tapped.”