Forum Institutional

How Food Innovation Hubs will scale technology to transform our food system

A mobile phone application shows movements of a John Deere 5503 tractor, installed with the Hello Tractor technology that connects farmers with vehicles' owners, in Umande village in Nanyuki, Kenya February 4, 2020. Picture taken February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi - RC2F7F9WHWYX

Food Innovation Hubs will drive technology solutions to meet local challenges and scale impact. Image: REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

Saswati Bora
Head of Food Systems Innovation, World Economic Forum
Bernhard Kowatsch
Head, Innovation Accelerator, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)
Noopur Desai
Programme Lead, Food Innovation Hubs, World Economic Forum
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  • Innovation can make food systems inclusive, efficient, sustainable, nutritious and healthy.
  • To ensure everyone in the global food system can benefit from technological advances, we need local innovation ecosystems to increase investments, create policy incentives, build capacity and develop smart partnerships.
  • The World Economic Forum, UN World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners are developing regional Food Innovation Hubs to drive solutions to meet local challenges and scale impact.

Imagine Sandra, a smallholder farmer in Utopia, providing for her family of four by growing maize and tomatoes. She struggles to make ends meet and sometimes depends on assistance programmes. She wants to improve her income and the soil health of her farm, which has been deteriorating due to frequent droughts.

Start-up Precis.IO has a precision agriculture technology that uses big data and machine learning to help farmers plan and apply the optimal inputs. These tools could help Sandra improve yield and even lead to significant reductions in GHG emissions. However, Precis.IO is struggling to scale up their impact and reach smallholder farmers like Sandra.

Meanwhile, Company Inc. has invested in IOT technologies to reduce food loss for farmers across the tomato supply chain but is struggling to meet processing requirements as the produce from farmers like Sandra does not meet the sustainability standards needed for procurement. Company Inc. needs partnerships with NGOs, farmer-producer organizations and financial institutions to deploy better inputs, financing, manage risk, advise and train farmers for better production practices.

Michael is an affluent urban consumer in Utopia who uses an app, Idea.IO., which scans food labels and provides information on the product’s environmental footprint. He likes that the tomatoes from Sandra’s farm have lower GHG emissions and he is willing to pay a higher price for them, but he wants to ensure that farmers are receiving this premium. But Idea.IO needs investors or partners to develop this feature.

The key priorities of the Utopia government is addressing food security and nutritional goals, and dramatically reducing the environmental footprint of food production. It recognizes that technology innovations can provide leapfrog opportunities, but physical and technological infrastructure are needed to unlock such investments. It also wants to ensure equitable access to benefits for farmers like Sandra.

As Utopia illustrates, technology and innovation provide enormous opportunities to make food systems inclusive, efficient, sustainable, nutritious and healthy. However, no one stakeholder is able to navigate the complexities of food systems on their own to meet the necessary scale and impact.

How to scale technology in the global food system

Approximately 40% of the world’s agricultural land is degraded. Globally, almost 2 billion people do not have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, and 690 million suffer from hunger. Food loss and waste costs the global economy $940 billion annually and emits 8% of GHGs. Now, COVID-19 threatens to push 270 million people to the brink of starvation.

With fewer than 10 years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to fundamentally change the way food is produced and consumed. This includes changing the practices of more than 500 million smallholder farmers and the consumption patterns of 7.7 billion individuals.

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When deployed appropriately and rooted in local needs, innovation has the potential to solve several of these challenges – from cutting across the production cycle with advances in logistics and ingredient development, to enhancing market and consumer access. Mobile phones can facilitate complex financial transactions. Blockchain can help safeguard quality in end-to-end supply chains and lead to fairer prices and financial accountability. Remote sensing and artificial intelligence are helping farmers in developing countries plan and use optimal agricultural inputs in real-time. To leverage the role of technology innovations, The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has an Innovation Accelerator which sources, supports and scales innovation to achieve a world without hunger.

Yet, the food and agriculture sector is decades behind in adoption and delivery of technology, and there has been a historic lack of investments in food and ag(riculture) tech.

Technology and innovations can help identify bottlenecks and accelerate cooperation, both of which are needed at an unprecedented scale. However, we need to move beyond specific technologies, initiatives or stakeholders, to take an ecosystem view that recognizes all key actors in the system, and looks to solve overarching challenges.

What is needed is a deliberate and coordinated effort towards developing a vibrant local “innovation ecosystem” – an environment focused on increasing investments, creating policy incentives, building capacity and developing smart partnerships – that can enable solutions to meet local challenges and achieve scalable impact.

Silicon Valley hails “unicorns” – startups with a billion-dollar valuation. Imagine if we elevated “social impact unicorns” – startups that could positively impact millions or even billions of people’s lives?

Introducing Food Innovation Hubs

The World Economic Forum, UN World Food Programme (WFP) and several other partners have been working to catalyze regional Food Innovation Hubs focused on strengthening local innovation ecosystems. Building on the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose initiative, the Food Innovation Hubs aim to create human-centred and purpose-driven networks that are locally owned and leveraged for scale and impact.

With country-led approaches, the Hubs will drive both high-end and low-cost grassroots innovation that could have scalable impact, as well as innovations encompassing supply chains, partnerships and business models that can enable systemic change.

The Food Innovation Hubs will be multistakeholder platforms – neutral coordinating entities that are pre-competitive and work with governments, private sector, innovators, farmer organizations, investors, donors and civil society. They will link those who need technology and innovations, those who are developing it, and those who might finance and scale it.

Further, the Hubs aim to connect various ecosystem actors to enable co-creation, develop linkages and alignment and generate innovative and inclusive governance models that enable collaboration and unlock barriers to scale. In doing so, the Hubs aim to unlock investments and enable policy incentives, improve resiliency of food systems and mitigate unintended consequences. In addition, the Hubs will work towards capacity development for farmers and incentivize consumer demand for more sustainable outcomes and practices.

More than 20 organizations are leading on the Food Innovation Hubs with work already underway in Colombia, India, ASEAN and several countries in Africa. With the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 as a key milestone to deliver action and broader engagement, these Hubs are working with local stakeholders to forge partnerships that develop impactful innovations. For example, in Zambia, initial work is focused on providing financial, advisory and capacity-building support to smallholder farmers to move towards more sustainable agriculture practices. An interoperable data and analytics platform in development will generate insights for Zambian farmers.

Over the next year, the Hubs will also develop a community of innovators and entrepreneurs across geographies to share learnings and build capacity, including through more South-South collaborations.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

At the core of the Food Innovation Hubs is a vision to empower stakeholders across the food value chain with the necessary tools to ensure that the 7.7 billion people currently in our food systems can collectively benefit from the promise of innovation.

We invite other stakeholders to join us in exploring the potential of technology and innovation to bring transformational change to food systems.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalFood and WaterIndustries in DepthFourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
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