Xavier Niel launches Hectar, a free agricultural school



After tech, Xavier Niel is focusing on another sector of the future: agriculture. The boss of Free is partly financing a free agricultural school which will open its doors in September 2021. Presented as the largest agricultural campus in the world, Hectar will train 2,000 students each year for free. It will be aimed at students and people in professional retraining wishing to train in agricultural trades and take over operations.

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Alongside the boss of Free in this project, a former agricultural advisor to Emmanuel Macron, Audrey Bourolleau. This converted wine lobbyist will run the establishment and own the majority of the shares in the company S4H, created for the occasion. According to information from Capital magazine, the latter is owned 51% by Audrey Bourolleau and 49% by NJJ Exclusive, Xavier Niel’s personal company.

Train the farmers of tomorrow

No official communication has yet been made. However, the outline of the project was unveiled by Capital in February. The project took shape in Lévis-Saint-Nom (Yvelines), 50 km from Paris. In 2019, the S4H company bought the Domaine de la Boissière there with its castle, farm buildings and 600 hectares of land.

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By training the farmers of tomorrow for free, Xavier Niel is banking on a profession of the future. According to the Mutualité sociale agricole (MSA), half of the farmers will retire within ten years and it is often difficult for them to find a buyer. Will Hectar be the solution to the lack of candidates? In any case, this is the reasoning that the billionaire had when he launched the “42” school in 2013, faced with the shortage of computer developers.

This new kind of school, completely free and accessible without qualification requirements, now has 29 campuses all over the world, including 4 in France. These establishments operate according to a participatory teaching method, without a teacher and without lessons. Students learn to code by doing projects. Could Hectar adapt this method to agriculture? For the moment, the mystery remains about the training that will be delivered there and whether or not they qualify for a diploma. To set up as a farmer, it is necessary to obtain at least the agricultural professional capacity (CPA).

Investments in foodtech

The billionaire’s interest in the sector did not fail to stand out, in particular his positions in favor of agriculture that respects the environment and animal welfare. In early July, he initiated a petition for a shared initiative referendum (RIP) on the animal cause to demand the end of intensive and cage farming.

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I had grandparents who were farmers and ranchers, but it is not transmitted in the DNA. I also have two children aged 18 and 20, who show me to what extent society is changing: one of them stopped eating meat at 16, that caught my attention ”, explained Xavier Niel in January during a meeting with the Association of Economic and Financial Journalists.

For several years, the billionaire has been investing in technological food and the development of alternatives to meat. Latest project to date: the start-up of the first plant for the production of plant-based meat substitutes in France, last September via the start-up “New Farmers”. With his partners Matthieu Pigasse and Moez-Alexandre Zouari, Xavier Niel would also be interested in the takeover of the Grand Frais chain.

A “mix of genres”

Professional agricultural organizations do not hide their lack of enthusiasm for entrepreneurial projects. “Is leaving a defender of RIP breeding, with such dogmatic postures, to train our future farmers compatible with a neutral agricultural education, the foundation of our Republic and guarantor of agricultural diversity?” , questioned in a press release the FRSEA, the Chamber of Agriculture and the Young Farmers of Ile-de-France who questioned “On the ideological finality” of the project.

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