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agriculture innovation

How the United Nations World Food Program is Supporting Agriculture Innovation

August 9, 2016

In recent years, agriculture innovation and technology has proven its ability to help farmers produce food in a more efficient, sustainable, and insightful manner. Many of the technologies and innovations that have become integral components in US farmers’ operations might also prove beneficial for helping address a very serious problem that affects 795 million people on the planet: global hunger.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) recently held an event to launch its agriculture Innovation Accelerator, a program announced in 2015 and designed to foster innovative approaches and mindsets to reducing global hunger. Based in Munich, Germany, the WFP Innovation Accelerator is funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the German Federal Foreign Office, and the State of Bavaria.

The WFP’s mandate is to end global hunger by providing frontline assistance during emergencies, coordinating with local governments, and tapping the talent of individuals. With the goal of fostering food security and helping food insecure regions achieve self-reliance, the WFP has tasked itself with achieving “Zero Hunger” by 2030. It’s adopted the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, 17 goals that are intended to transform the world, as the rubric for this mission.

Currently supporting more than 12 projects in 10 different countries, the agriculture innovation accelerator does not make direct investments in the companies because of UN procedures and protocols. Instead, the program offers contracts for services or licensing agreements to use the projects’ innovations in its fight against hunger. Meanwhile, the companies can still pursue funding from other sources.

“Take, for example, a smartphone app solution that we want to pilot in a country,” Bernhard Kowatsch, head of the Innovation Accelerator, told AgFunderNews. “We would pay the startup ‘X’ amount of dollars to actually operate the innovation for three months in a pilot phase, and then we would agree on a licensing arrangement to license the innovation from the company.”

Agriculture innovation accelerator pitch event

The accelerator selected eight projects developed by WFP employees in field offices and other UN locations around the planet to make a four-minute pitch at the launch event. The jury members included Humanitarian Innovation Fund ELRHA adviser Claire Dusonchet, The Boston Consulting Group’s senior advisor Heino Meerkat, Allianz SE’s head of corporate responsibility Katharina Latif, Barclays’ Director of Business Innovation Zowie Richardson, and one of the WFP’s own project managers, Emmanuel Sevrin.

“I really think that the opening event was able to capture the way we anticipate working at the Innovation Accelerator,” says Kowatsch. “We bring together entrepreneurs from inside WFP, external startups, NGOs, private sector partners and have all of us working on a join purpose.”

A variety of impressive business concepts pitched at the event, but connectivity stood out as a common goal among them. Finding ways to connect people in rural, food insecure regions to one another as well as the global farming community may help them access the wealth of new decision support technology and data available to farmers while also increasing their collaborative networks.

The eight projects that pitched at the event include:

  • mVAM – A mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) tool that collects food security data remotely through short phone surveys, SMS, live telephone interviews and interactive voice response systems (IVR) to map and analyze food security across localities.
  • AgriUp – Born out of WFP Guatemala, the low-bandwidth smartphone application gives Guatemalan farmers with location-specific information on market prices, weather, and farming tips tailored to their individual and often isolated regions.
  • Transformers – Aiming to take a bite out of food waste, this startup repurposes food that would otherwise wind up in landfills for school meals.
  • WeFarm – This peer-to-peer knowledge network hopes to provide smallholder farmers with access to agricultural information, traditional markets, and weather data. Users ask farming questions and share tips via IVR or SMS.
  • ShareTheMeal – This smartphone app allows users to “share their meal” with children in food insecure areas with a simple tap on their phone screen. Each tap makes a $0.50 donation to help feed a hungry child.
  • Digital Green – Branding itself as a “YouTube for rural India’s farmers,” this startup trains farmers to make and share videos showcasing farming solutions for common problems.
  • Akorion – This for-profit company uses information communication technology services to offer marketing and training tools to Ugandan farmers.
  • Welthungerhilfe’s Digital Farmer Field School – This startup is focused on creating a Digital Farmer Field School for cocoa farmers. The digital learning environment groups farmers together for educational activities and offers certificates and field training.

Although many of these startups and concepts seem like common types of technologies that are cropping up in the agtech field, Kowatsch warns that innovating to resolve global hunger isn’t the same as innovating for general agtech solutions that US and European farmers may use.

“You need to think about where hunger is right now and in which countries. If you are not already coming from a developing country, you need to make an extra effort to understand the people’s problems. If you come from a developed country, you have to identify the proper technology or business model to tackle that problem,” explains Kowatsch. “We see this coming together where people from Uganda are applying smartphone app technology and people from the US will develop something they are testing in Jordan. These are the extra efforts you want to make.”

The Innovation Accelerator is also looking for more projects, with the goal of accelerating up to 20 innovations. Companies interested in applying must keep in mind, however, that tech-based solutions to address hunger are not always obvious. It’s not simply about taking something that already works in the US and merely transferring it to a food insecure region, warns Kowatsch.

What does the agriculture innovation accelerator look for?

“We are constantly looking for people who first of all know the problem of the people facing hunger, who are really motivated to tackle some of those issues and who have ideas,” he explains. “It may be even involve mentoring some of the entrepreneurs or providing technologies. So, if someone is interested in partnering up or providing advice we are very open to broadening our network in that regard.”

Following the pitches, a panel of international experts and stakeholders fielded questions regarding the importance of bringing agriculture innovation to the fight against global hunger. The five members included German Aerospace Center CEO Pascale Ehrenfreund, Welthungerhilfe secretary general Till Wahnbaeck, Singularity University’s chief impact officer Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency CEO Khalid Bomba, and director and head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship Katherine Milligan.

When it comes to creating ideas, the panelists agreed that the solutions need to originate close to the farmers with a focus on truly understanding their problems. In many cases farmers take innovation into their own hands, cobbling up all sorts of quick fixes and backyard contraptions to help address their issues.

At the same time, innovators cannot always expect farmers to be able to pinpoint their problems with complete precision. Sometimes an objective, outside perspective can provide a refreshing new take on a farmers’ oldest pain point.

Scalability and sustainability as key markers and co-dependent concepts are also important for developing successful innovations. They urged innovators to take a more active approach to working with local public sector partners. According to Milligan, entrepreneurs and businesses should not take an ideological approach when deciding whether to partner with someone.

How to measure success

Because the Innovation Accelerator has such a clear mission—achieving “zero hunger” by 2030 – it has made measuring results a key component. According to Kowatsch, the accelerator’s success will be largely measured on the number of people they can lift out of hunger. And while the bulk of the currently enrolled projects originate from within the WFP, the program is open to working with startups or entrepreneurs from outside the organization to foster agriculture innovation.

Ultimately, the launch event lived up to Kowatsch’s expectations, and he is optimistic about the agriculture Innovation Accelerator’s future.

“Having this platform and opportunity to feature innovations from across the globe was really good especially because one of the two winners was the startup from Uganda that we invited,” he explains. “This highlights the power of tech in today’s times. Somebody from Uganda can create an app and develop a business model that is scaling, and you can see the success even after the first year of operation.”

Are you a startup focusing on emerging markets? How does your technology differ to those being developed in the US and Europe? We want to hear from you! Email [email protected].

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