• The world is facing a food crisis that threatens lives and livelihoods around the globe, as well as our planet.
  • Here are five innovative solutions from social innovators, from creating meatless meat in Asia to empowering farmers across Africa.

If the world’s population grows to 10 billion by 2050 as projected, the world will need to produce 70% more food. Increases in agriculture and deforestation necessary to do so would result in a catastrophic increase in greenhouse gas pollution.

To address this growing crisis, we need to transform food systems and ensure that the solutions posed are innovative, scalable and sustainable.

From creating meatless meat in Asia to empowering farmers across Africa using mobile technology, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s community of social innovators is pioneering solutions to address the multi-dimensional challenges of the food and farming systems. Here are five initiatives:

1. Eating for the environment

Eating a vegan diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on the earth, a recent study at the University of Oxford suggests. Cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73%. However, meat is a cultural staple in many communities across the globe – how can we get rid of it?

When David Yeung moved from New York to Hong Kong in 2003, he found life as a vegetarian particularly difficult. “Shopping for plant-based ingredients was difficult, and most restaurants didn’t offer vegetarian options,” he said. That’s when the idea of Green Monday - which encourages people to skip meat once a week - came about.

The Green Monday movement launched on Earth Day in April 2012. Its mission is to tackle climate change, food insecurity, poor health and animal welfare using an innovative and diverse platform that empowers individuals, communities and corporations to operate sustainably, healthily and mindfully.

Today, Green Monday is one of Asia’s leading plant-based food companies. In 2018 the group created a meatless pork alternative, OmniPork. OmniPork debuted in mainland China, which consumes 50% of the world’s pork, via Alibaba in 2019, and Green Monday has partnered with fast-food restaurants including Taco Bell and White Castle as well as local restaurants to expand its footprint. The organisation has also been ranked as number 32 by Fortune Magazine in its 2020 Change the World list of companies doing good in the world.

2. Turing waste into biofuel and fertilizer

Each year, farms around the world generate billions of tonnes of manure – a huge problem not only for farmers but also for the environment as agricultural waste contaminates groundwater and emits greenhouse gases.

Biogas systems that capture methane from waste and turn it into energy and fertilizer have become increasingly popular. But in many developing economies, where food is produced mostly on smallholdings, farmers can’t afford the technology and don’t have the know-how or training to use it.

This is where Sistema.bio comes in. Alex Eaton founded this Mexico City-based social enterprise that manufactures, distributes and services affordable biodigesters that convert waste into cooking fuel and fertilizer.

Image: Sistema.bio

Eaton says his tubular biodigester system is simple – not dissimilar to the fermentation process that takes place in the stomach of a cow. This is a modern version of a technology that has been around for a long time. Historians think the Assyrians may have used biogas to heat bathwater in the 10th century BC, and the anaerobic digestion of solid waste may also have been used in ancient China.

“The idea of turning waste into natural gas is something that's existed for a long time,” says Eaton. “We just realized that it wasn't being done well and it wasn't being done in a scalable way.”

3. Using mobile technology to empower farmers

Africa’s smallholder farmers are on the front line of climate change, facing a warming world and increasingly frequent droughts. Their produce feeds the continent, but they often lack the finance to invest in vital seeds and fertilizer to make their fragile agricultural holdings sustainable.

This is where MyAgro comes in. Anushka Ratnayake founded myAgro, a social enterprise based in West Africa that enables smallholder farmers to gain financial independence and lift themselves out of poverty by investing directly in their farms. Through its mobile layaway model, myAgro offers an innovative savings model like prepaid mobile airtime models. Farmers buy a scratch card and send a secret code, which allows funds to be saved in the myAgro account.

It can deal with small amounts of money on a mobile technology platform that provides a comprehensive set of services: access to fertilizer, seed and other agricultural packages on mobile layaway, on-time delivery, as well as technical training. Last year, myAgro worked with 89,000 farmers in Senegal and Mali, 60% of whom were women, and next year aims to reach 120,000 smallholder farmers and more than 600,000 dependents.

Image: myAgro

4. Bringing forgotten foods to the global market

Across the world, indigenous peoples’ food systems are biodiverse, nutritious, climate-resilient and low carbon. They play a critical role in the food security, cultural identity, health and wellbeing of some 370 million to 500 million indigenous people.

Equipped with the knowledge that Indonesia has a wealth of agricultural and indigenous resources, Helianti Hilman started an enterprise to support indigenous farmers and food artisans by providing artisanal and organic food and products — from sugar and rice to salt and beans and baskets. She called it JAVARA. “Javara means champion because we are bringing champion products from champion farmers,” explains Hilman.

JAVARA works hand in hand with more than 52,000 smallholder farmers and food artisans to bring forgotten foods to the market. The company sells more than 800 artisanal products (of which 250 are certified organic), serving more than 700 businesses (retail outlets and foodservice industry) in Indonesia and exports to 22 countries. The company intervenes along supply chains to strengthen supplier production capacity, improve workplace safety and market products nationally and internationally, securing premium prices for farmers and processors.

However, Indonesia is currently facing yearly farmer reduction, where every year, as many as 500,000 farmers quit. This drove Hilman to also create Sekolah Seniman Pangan, a programme that is attended by the farmer’s children, fishermen, and Orang Rimba people. Through these schools, she educates these children to help make Indonesia’s produces known internationally.

5. Providing meals for school children

More than 11 million children in the United States live in "food insecure" homes, as per the United States Department of Agriculture. Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Tobey founded Revolution Foods to fix this problem.

Revolution Foods has dramatically transform school lunch and close the access gap to healthy food for millions of low-income children in America - serves about 2 million meals a week to school kids and families. Seventy percent of the meals served by Revolution Foods are for children enrolled in the free- or reduced-price lunches (FRL) programme, which serves children living at or just below the federal poverty line.

As schools shut during the COVID-19 crisis, Revolution Foods is pivoting to provide emergency meals for children who might otherwise lack adequate nutrition Revolution Foods partners with more than 2,500 schools and organizations nationwide.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators address the world’s most serious challenges ranging from inequality to girls’ education and disaster relief that affect all of us, but in particular vulnerable and excluded groups. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand proven and impactful models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

Meet the World-changers: Social Innovators of the Year 2020. Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.