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The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies Of 2015 In Latin America

From affordable food vending machines to a risk-taking clothing brand, the most innovative companies in Latin America.

[Photo: Flickr user Nicolas de Camaret]

1. Algramo

For serving staples in the most underserved neighborhoods. When Jose Manuel Moller moved as a student to a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, a few years ago, he found himself having to buy food staples from tiny local shops. These came in small quantities, which is affordable on a daily basis but works out to cost much more than larger supermarket sizes in the long run. He calls this the "poverty tax," in that low-income families are ultimately forced to pay more for less. His solution: Algramo, a vending machine that dispenses bulk staples including detergents, rice, beans, and lentils. His company fills the vending machines and installs them for free in small neighborhood stores, splitting profit 50-50 with shopkeepers, who can then compete with supermarkets. The shorter supply chain cuts out the excess packaging, labeling, and middleman, and products cost 40% less than the packaged versions on shop shelves. Moller has installed 125 vending machines in Santiago in six months, reaching an estimated 15,000 people. Algramo will soon expand to Colombia, with plans to expand to all of Latin America within a decade.
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2. Banco Galicia

For growing a banking system in an under-the-mattress economy. In Argentina, where spiraling inflation and widespread distrust in banks means many people keep cash under their mattresses, the bank Banco Galicia is bringing a new generation into the financial system. Its new product, Galicia MOVE, launched in April for university students, and counts 35,000 clients across Argentina so far. In a first for the country, Banco Galicia is offering the product and all related services 100% digitally, which means users never have to go to a physical bank. A mobile app allows users to send and receive money, administer spending, save for special occasions, geolocate ATMs, and more. And customer service is available through social networks. MOVE clients automatically register with the Netherlands-based International Student Identity Card, which offers international student benefits for cardholders, such as travel and educational discounts.

3. Lowe SSP3 Colombia

For reaching out to the previously unreachable. As Colombia works toward peace from a half-century of armed conflict, Lowe SSP3 Colombia is helping lead Colombian guerrillas home from the jungle. In 2014, the well-known ad agency launched an unprecedented campaign to share hopeful stories of demobilized FARC fighters and the lives they now lead after deserting. The campaign, which featured print, radio, and video spots intended to reach active revolutionaries, was launched in December in Algeciras, Huila, a small village that has historically been a breeding ground for FARC fighters. In previous years, Lowe SSP3’s campaigns brought Christmas to the FARC by placing holiday trees in the jungle, and offered a path home by sending glowing plastic balls, filled with gifts and messages from family, down rivers that the revolutionaries typically travel. Meanwhile, the agency also handles large global consumer clients like Unilever.

4. Insitum

For being global brands’ Latin American translator. This Mexico City-based consultant is a risk evangelist—a much-needed perspective in Latin America, where many large brands are still marketing traditionalists. And the message has caught on. Last year, Insitum grew 30% and opened a new office in Spain—its first in Europe and its seventh overall. And it completed over 180 innovation projects for more than 50 companies across Latin America, in both the public and private sectors. Rather than introducing shiny new products for clients, Insitum invests heavily in research and training. Months spent inside the government of the city of Buenos Aires, for example, led to the production of a comprehensive innovation training toolkit for city officials, spotlighting where design thinking and improved processes could better impact citizen experience.

5. Reserva Group

For going its own way and encouraging everyone to do the same. This clothing brand, which has 36 stores across Brazil, has a history of brazenly turning bad PR to its advantage. When, for example, a notorious drug trafficker was photographed wearing one of its shirts, the company hired the guy for a campaign. And when one of its stores was burglarized, it used the footage in ads. It has pulled out of Fashion Week events, announcing that its clothing is made for real people. In September, it unveiled a different kind of rebellious attitude: Its campaign Rebels With Causes highlighted "rebels"—heads of NGOs, transformational social organizations, and so forth—who helped their community. And the celebration helped Reserva bring in an estimated revenue of $79 million.

6. Tappsi

For providing safe rides in unsafe cities. It’s dangerous to hail a taxi on the streets of many Latin American capitals, so Tappsi was built to deliver safety as the paramount feature. It developed its own protocols and security filters to screen every driver, created a secure chat function so that drivers and passengers can coordinate without exchanging phone numbers, and enables users’ family and friends to track their taxis. The company launched in Bogotá in 2012, and now has more than 1 million users. Last year it expanded to Peru and Ecuador.

7. Elemental

For a natural solution to a natural problem. Chile was hit by an 8.8 earthquake in 2010. A tsunami followed, destroying the city of Constitución. Architecture firm Elemental was given just 100 days to come up with a master plan for the city’s reconstruction, which would also provide protection against future natural disasters—not only tsunamis, but also seasonal flooding. Elemental has become known in Chile for the design of flexible and beautiful low-cost housing for low-income families, under the idea that "the city is a shortcut to equality." The firm works on housing, public space, transportation, and infrastructure projects. Elemental delivered a natural solution: planting a forest that would protect the city from future floods. The forest would require overtaking private land along the city’s riverbank, which created a host of political problems, but they’ve since been resolved: Today, four years after the earthquake, the master plan is being implemented, and Constitución will hopefully be safer for it.

8. Virtual Market

For helping mom and pop run their store. Every time a chain convenience store opens in Latin America, 35 mom-and-pop shops disappear. That isn’t necessarily because shoppers prefer the chains, though. As Mexico-based Virtual Market has discovered, it’s often because small shops simply aren’t set up to compete. Virtual Market offers these stores a free tablet-register combination that helps manage their daily business, including features that take stock of items, make direct product orders, process bill payments, and even process customers’ credit and debit card purchases. In return, Virtual Market earns commission from product companies, like Coca-Cola and Unilever, for coordinated bulk sales. So far, 1,000 terminals have been installed; 85% of stores kept them. This year, Virtual Market hopes to expand throughout Latin America and into Asia.

9. Tambero

For helping even the most disconnected farmers connect with their land. Tambero is the first free, web-based global system for dairy cattle farming, beef cattle, and agriculture, and is used in over 150 countries. (It was developed in rural Argentina; tambero means "dairy farmer" in some countries in the Southern Cone, including Argentina and Uruguay.) The software helps farmers around the globe, even in very isolated places, use technology to improve production yields. Users can manage animals directly from the field with a phone, tablet, or notebook, and see comparative reports, plus use QR codes to manage land parcels and display them with satellite images. In 2014, Tambero launched an API that allows other agritech startups to integrate with the Tambero platform and offer a wider suite of products. Late last year, Facebook invited Tambero to be part of its Internet.org program in Colombia, giving Colombians free and easy access to the app, even without a data plan.

10. CAP Mining

For bringing a rare sustainable approach to mining. This 60-year-old Chilean mining and steel holding company is being lauded for its pioneering sustainability in, of all places, a new mine. Its new iron-ore mining site, Cerro Negro Norte, launched in December, and uses 100% desalinated seawater to help preserve fresh water in the notoriously dry Atacama Desert region. It also uses solar energy for certain hours of the day. Ore and water are transported from the mine to the port via a concentrated pipeline instead of on roads, which means less impact on infrastructure and the surrounding environment. According to the company, the solar-powered plant, which will produce 4 million metric tons of iron per year, will prevent more than 135,000 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions annually, equivalent to removing more than 30,000 cars from the road.