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'Let Us Beat Swords into Ploughshares' - a statue by Evgeny Vuchetich at the UN headquarters in New York. Image credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

AgFunder, GROW, and UN Development Programme team up to align tech with impact in agrifood

March 26, 2020

Editor’s Note: Based in Singapore, John Friedman is a director of AgFunder’s Asia operations and a director at GROW, the global agrifood tech accelerator backed by AgFunder and supported by Enterprise Singapore.  AgFunder is AFN’s parent company.

Having received nearly 500 entries from startups and academic R&D teams across the globe, applicants to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) Cultiv@te challenge have now been shortlisted down to 55.

Organised by the UNDP’s Global Centre for Tech, Innovation, and Sustainable Development in Singapore, the year-long initiative is designed to bring scalable technology and innovation in the field of agriculture to the developing world. (See AFN’s recent interview with Bradley Busetto, the UNDP Global Centre’s director.

In its inaugural edition, Cultiv@te aims to work with 13 local offices in countries as far ranging as Armenia and Uruguay to address challenges unique to the state of agriculture in each nation. Problem statements from increasing crop production in the face of climate change, to dealing with a declining rural workforce, and integrating urban agriculture into public housing have been defined as areas where  tech adoption can play a transformative role.

Working together with the UNDP Global Centre to select the successful entries is the team from AgFunder and its Singapore based GROW Accelerator.

The opportunity to combine AgFunder and GROW’s domain expertise in agrifood technology and innovation strategy with the UNDP’s scope of implementation is an exciting prospect: one where we can apply globally-sourced, innovative technology with on-the-ground local knowledge, to really move the needle in the places that need it the most.

“We are very excited about this partnership and the opportunities it will present for the sector,” says Joshua Soo, head of innovation and strategy at GROW.

“With the rise of the conscious consumer, people are paying more attention to the production, traceability, and authenticity of food. In line with that, the aspect of sustainability is increasingly front and centre when exploring new agriculture and food technology,” he adds.

“Our three organizations share similar values and we are proud to be pursuing a common objective.”

Proposed solutions

Renewable energy farming systems, wastewater treatment systems for aquaculture, blockchain for produce and livestock traceability, and up-cycled bioherbicides are just a few examples of the proposed solutions we’ve seen during the review process. In terms of technology distribution by category, Rainfed Agriculture received the highest number of applications, followed by Livestock Farming & Aquaculture and Urban Agriculture.

Besides focusing on commercial feasibility for the startups selected, Cultiv@te ties in well with the UN’s sustainability agenda. For me, looking at a business through this ‘triple bottom line’ framework makes total sense. While mainstream acceptance of impact investing is still in its infancy among the broader investor base, it is a vision that I believe we must continue striving towards; not just for the pursuit of sustainable profits, but for the long-term sustainability of our food production system and ultimately the planet.

As a member of the AgFunder investment team, I’m enjoying the chance to discover more about the ‘qualitative’ aspects of startups – in this case, Cultiv@te applicants – especially when one of the evaluation criteria is the solution’s impact and sustainability alignment.

In fact, when one considers the ‘impact’ metric in the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I struggle to think of another industry that ticks as many boxes as food and agriculture: from SDG2 (‘Zero Hunger’) to SDG12 (‘Responsible Consumption and Production’), the list goes on.

And the need is great. In Asia alone, an estimated $800 billion of investment over existing levels is required by the year 2030 to address growing population demand, according to a report published by PwC, Rabobank, and Temasek in 2019.

Sustainability guarantee

On this point, Armen Harutyunyan, senior advisor on digital and sustainable agriculture at the UNDP Global Centre, says that “sustainability is the guarantee of development, prosperity, and security, and development is essential to ensure that all people have access to basic needs.”

Cultiv@te is “an attempt to achieve sustainable agriculture development, by investing into innovations and technologies [to] help farmers and producers around the world to adopt more productive and sustainable practices,” he adds.

As a next step, we’ll be narrowing down the 55 shortlisted teams to 24 finalists by the end of April. These teams will then have the opportunity to trial their technologies in situ with support from the UN’s country offices.

Even in the face of current global concerns – and regardless of which direction the stock market is lunging by then – these finalists can feel good about the fact that they are making a positive and lasting change to communities and the environment, while working towards profitability at the same time. That’s three ticks in my box.

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