Unlocking the Potential of the Next Generation of Food & Ag Innovators

Christine Gould
Mar 12, 2019 · 8 min read

Empowering the next generation to sustainably feed the planet is our mission at Thought For Food. We have built a unique program that catalyzes young people around the world to innovate and solve the challenges facing our food system, equips them with the skills, mindsets and global community they need to make a lasting impact, and provides them with (pre-seed) funding and industry connections to take their ideas and startups to the next level.

There couldn’t be a more exciting time to be doing what we are doing. The challenges our world faces are tremendous — which means so are the opportunities. 2018 was a record-breaking year for money flowing to foodtech and agtech startups, with investments jumping by more than 40% to $17bn. Most of these investments were concentrated in the USA, however — but other parts of the world such as China, India, and Brazil also saw an increase in the amount of funding and in the number of deals.

Food and agriculture is a global industry, and we must continue to foster innovation and investment opportunities in every part of the the world. The challenges we face and the limited time that we have to solve them is reason enough to develop a radically different approach to how we develop and accelerate ideas that can improve our food system. We need to focus on relocating investment dollars to where it’s needed and necessary, and open a space for more collaboration to happen. It’s crucial that we tackle this now, with the right approach and the enough commitment to make real change.

Here are three key reasons why:

1. The Next Generation Represent An Enormous Opportunity for Economic Growth and Food System Transformation

Of all the macro-trends transforming the world as we know it, one deserves specific merit: the largest youth population in human history is alive today and moving towards adulthood.

There are currently 1.8 billion people on the planet between the ages of 15–29, and around 90% of them are in developing countries. This so-called “youth bulge” represents an unprecedented force for economic growth and human advancement, provided we do what is necessary to ensure they become healthy, educated and productive citizens.

Today’s youth are not only the largest, but also the most diverse, well-educated, technologically-savvy and globally-connected generations the world has ever seen. With these characteristics, young people have the opportunity create a tidal wave of innovation that can transform our food system to sustainably feed and nourish 10 billion people by 2050.

As innovators and consumers, they can play a critical role in growing economies. The 2018 Goalkeepers Report from the Gates Foundation points out that investing in youth has the potential to increase the GDP of countries in sub-Saharan Africa by 90 percent by 2050. And, Will Warshauere, CEO of Technoserve, points out that: “Just 10–15 years ago, such (youth) populations were approached with charity. Now they’re seen as the high-growth markets.”

But, if we don’t support and invest in next generation, they could also face a bleaker future — one marked by instability, social unrest and even violence. Right now, 64 million youth are unemployed around the world, and another 145 million young workers are living in poverty. We have the chance to change this. Young people are searching for not only for jobs, but also for meaningful work. They are looking to entrepreneurship as the way to create the opportunities they need. What sector is as filled with as much opportunity and meaning than food and agriculture? It’s imperative that we support our youth’s efforts, and nurture their entrepreneurial talents and skills to build a better future for all.

2. Emerging Economies Are the Next Frontier for Food and Ag Innovation

Emerging markets are no longer waiting for innovations to reach them from mature markets — they leading the way in creating breakthrough solutions themselves. Countries like Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, China, Peru, Colombia and Chile are leapfrogging to the latest technologies and business models, without having to upend existing infrastructures or deeply embedded legacy systems. In addition, as mentioned above, they have massive youth populations who possess an inherent passion for entrepreneurship, and are predisposed to be collaborative, open, inclusive and diverse (the key attributes of innovation).

Emerging economies face many challenges — such as food insecurity — which provide ample spaces for solution development. Governments, NGOs and other groups are stepping up to build enabling policies and ecosystems to support innovation, and entrepreneurs are bootstrapping their way forward by leveraging DIY approaches, online resources and digital communities.

And, let’s not forget the incredible market potential these countries hold. Emerging economies will add nearly 3 billion people (more than 40% of today’s entire global population) to the middle class by 2050 — these consumers will be spending more money on food, and care more than ever about how it is produced.

With all this in mind, it is clear that emerging economies represent a mosaic of exciting and valuable opportunities for innovation. It makes sense to dedicate more resources — technical, human, and financial — to support them in creating higher levels of prosperity, social equality and a stronger foothold into the global economy.

3. Next-Gen Food and Ag Startups Require a Different Approach to Acceleration

There is a often a mismatch between existing investment vehicles and the requirements of (early-stage) food and agriculture companies. Due to the complexities of the sector and the conservative nature of the market, acquiring customers, de-risking technologies, and meeting necessary regulatory requirements can take a much longer time than is the case for innovative areas, such as tech. This does not align with the risk expectations of many investors, and as a result, promising companies are often starved of capital during their critical growth stages.

A large number of incubators and accelerators have emerged in recent years to help solve this. Most of these follow a “ traditional” approach, where they invite entrepreneurs to spend a period of time at a physical location to develop hard business skills such as strategies for fundraising, go-to-market, IP and legal . These accelerators focus on getting as many companies funded as quickly as possible to feed their business model, which sometimes misses the bigger picture of how to best create true and lasting impact.

Unfortunately, this type of approach is also not fit for purpose when it comes to meeting the specific needs and expectations of young, early-stage, food and ag entrepreneurs from emerging economies. First of all, it can be difficult and expensive for these young people to obtain admission to such programs, or to spend several weeks or months away from school or work. Also, many accelerators don’t possess specific food and ag domain expertise or understand locally-relevant nuance and realities. On the other hand, if they do work with industry experts, they can have tendency to focus too much on “me too” solutions or to perpetuate entrenched industry thinking (“we’ve already tried that” or “that will never work”).

Lastly, and perhaps even most importantly, business as usual simply won’t cut it in today’s world. As any business leader should know well by now, increased transparency and consumer empowerment means that people everywhere are more conscious, curious and critical when it comes to food and how it is produced. In this context, being successful in the market comes not only from having sound business strategies, but also by articulating a clear purpose and having broader environmental and social impact. This is especially important for Millennials and GenZs, who are dubbed the “purpose generations.”

The food and agriculture sector faces systemic challenges which require radically different types of solutions that integrate many ideas and technical building blocks owned across many parties. Going forward, we must find ways to foster more collaboration, know-how sharing, technology transfer and cross-licensing to ensure that beneficial innovations can be integrated to scale their impact more quickly and efficiently. We need to foster an investment paradigm that supports this, versus the current model that incentivizes overly-strong use of IP.

With all this in mind, the next generation of food and ag companies require a new approach to traditional startup acceleration. This should incorporate more training in 21st-century “soft skills,” such as communications, purpose-driven leadership, collaboration and partnership-building. To keep up with the pace and pressures of our world that is changing faster than ever, young entrepreneurs should also be coached and mentored in areas like emotional resilience and working in and managing (virtual) teams. Luckily, this can be done efficiently and effectively by leveraging digital tools and networks that young people are already comfortable using.

So, what’s next?

TFF is stepping into the world of opportunity that the next generation of food and agriculture innovation represents. We bring new minds, new creativity and new energy into a sector that desperately needs it, and provide a powerful platform and global community that encourages collaboration and experimentation with new types of business models that are open and inclusive. To date, we have helped create thousands of breakthough ideas and launched more than 50 impact-focused startups from all parts of the world which cover a wide variety of innovation spaces, including biotech, vertical farming, logistics, new foods, and appropriate tech for smallholders.

For the 2019 TFF Challenge, we will be launching a new asset in our suite of programs: the TFF Digital Labs. This is our rich and interactive online “accelerator” program that is accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere. The TFF Digital Labs is specially-designed to meet the specific needs of the next generation of food and ag entrepreneurs in every part of the world, and features two levels of participation: Level 1 is for people who want to develop a new idea and business plan; Level 2 is for existing startups who want to turbocharge their businesses “the TFF way.”

The TFF Digital Labs offers access to some of the the world’s most amazing mentors, partners and perks. It integrates inspiration and learning from all kinds of relevant fields — from science to tech to design and the arts. It focuses on cultivating 21st-century leadership skills such as openness, collaboration, leadership and resilience. And, it provides a clear entrepreneurial roadmap — underpinned by structure, accountability, and velocity. Oh yeah, it’s also lots of fun!

Anyone who signs up for the 2019 TFF Challenge will be able to access the TFF Digital Labs, and eventually have the chance to win a trip to the in-person TFF Academy and TFF Summit in early 2020. We will share more about all of this in due course.

For now though, I hope that I have convinced you of the value and relevance of our work at Thought For Food. We are motivated to change the course of humanity by unleashing the incredible innovation power of young people everywhere. This isn’t just important, it is necessary.

Thanks to Jana Stolz

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