Growing Food for Growing Cities: Opportunities and Challenges for Agtech in Emerging Markets

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Editor’s Note: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is a non-partisan think tank focused on convening leading global voices and conducting independent research on global challenges and opportunities.

Formed in 1922 during US isolationism on the back of the First World War, its founders believed the war had catapulted the country onto the international stage and so arranged to meet to discuss foreign affairs and policy.

It developed from there, attracting more, and younger, members and very high-profile, political speakers from all over the world.

Today, the Council has stepped up its activities in the sphere of public education and has heightened its emphasis on trends and themes, including the global economy, democratization, sovereignty and intervention, global institutions, and a changing America. It’s also shifted emphasis to the emerging markets of the world and recently held a forum entitled Growing Food for Growing Cities, to coincide with the release of a report on the topic.

Here Marcus Glassman, a research associate for the Global Food and Agriculture Program at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, shares his key takeaways from the event and the report.


By 2100—well within the lifetimes of people born today — the world’s top 10 largest cities will all be in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Each of those 10 will be home to more than 50 million people, while Lagos, Nigeria, will be the world’s new largest city, with 88 million people — nearly three times the size of Tokyo.

That’s huge.

The opportunities and challenges presented by that scale of urban growth are vast. In the United States, rural-to-urban migration trends are well understood, but the scale of urbanization witnessed historically in the United States does little to help one conceptualize the forces at play today in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This urban population boom raises many questions, but most basic of all: how will we feed these cities?

To address the many facets of that very question, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently released its report “Growing Food for Growing Cities: Transforming Food Systems in an Urbanizing World” at its annual Global Food Security Symposium. This event brought together stakeholders from all disciplines to discuss transformations necessary to the global food system to feed these growing cities, including the role the US and foreign governments can play to help build strong, resilient food systems; the real opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs; and the immense need for new agricultural technologies.

To entrepreneurs in agricultural technology, in particular, the propensity of these rapidly transforming regions to “leapfrog” entire technological eras in their rush to modernize, presents great opportunity. Many rural areas in Africa, for example, never built landline telephone infrastructure—they went directly from a phoneless era to mobile technology. In these countries, where growth potential and need are both at staggering scale, leapfrog innovations are needed for all hosts of infrastructure, and present a unique chance to those entrepreneurs who see the opportunities inherent in this transformation.

Road and rail networks in many developing countries, for example, are either scarce or of poor quality, and the cost to build this infrastructure, to connect people and integrate regional and rural markets together, is prohibitive. But the benefits of connectivity are great, and entrepreneurs and investors are busy finding solutions: one example is airships, also known as blimps. Airship technology has undergone a renaissance in recent years, and engineers are now producing models that can transport goods deep into roadless regions. Means to power these airships with solar, wind, and hydrogen power are in development, with the aim to drastically reduce the cost and environmental impact of shipping and moving goods from cities to and from the deep countryside.

What’s another infrastructural hurdle to feeding cities in need of a reboot? Cold chains. Cold chains are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in economies where the majority of electricity is derived from fossil fuels and where supply chains are heavily dependent on diesel-powered, refrigerated trucks. This challenge presents an enormous possibility for a clean-technology leapfrog solution. Options like cryogenic energy storage technologies in lieu of traditional refrigerants could expand cold chain capacities while minimizing the carbon footprint of supply chains.

Banking, similarly, is ripe for a leapfrog intervention. Mobile banking, commonly referred to as mobile money, has become hugely popular across sub-Saharan Africa. It involves the transfer, storage, or use of electronic funds transmitted through a mobile phone, generally via SMS text messages. It began as an impromptu currency—people would trade the serial numbers of purchased mobile minutes via text message like cash — has exploded in recent years: there are now 225 formal mobile money services available in 89 countries, with 100 million users worldwide as of 2014, up 30 million users from 2013. Demand for banking innovation and accessibility are only slated to expand along with supply chains, markets, populations, and cities. This presents those entrepreneurs with the right ideas the rare opportunity to practically reimagine banking for an entire continent.

Food safety is another area in need of innovation: as much as one-fourth of the world’s harvests are contaminated by mycotoxins, toxic substances produced by fungi. Contamination is often the result of poor storage practices, and developing countries are often especially vulnerable. Innovations exist that address everything from harvest and storage capacities to the bacterial environment in farm soils, but the problem remains large and multifaceted—every angle is an opportunity for solutions.

The urban markets of the near future represent a sea change for agricultural development. Everything, from the issues above to energy and impact investing, hold pending challenges that present global and US investors, companies, and entrepreneurs, with tremendous growth prospects. It is the kind of opportunity that calls upon technology to fulfill its promise to change the world for the better, and calls everyone in this space to heed the challenge.

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