7 Tech Innovations Changing the Global Hunger Conversation

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My favorite Don Draper line from the television series Mad Men is “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”

For years, the world debated whether Africa’s smallholder farmers were the problem or the solution to a persistent hunger crisis shaped by a popular but false assumption that many were too backward to succeed.

Over time, both evidence and experience debunked this dangerous myth. Africa’s rural farmers became the focus of the continent’s future with the understanding that global efforts to connect them with local markets and the larger economy would be the key to solving hunger.

Now, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Sam Dryden of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation argue that digital technology has the power to fundamentally shift how African farmers work together to turn small plots of land into lasting economic opportunity and food security.

Theirs is a timely call-to-action that positions technology at the heart of innovations designed to galvanize progress and reshape what is possible, from the drought-ridden fields of Ethiopia to the climate change conference in Paris.

“Until now, it has been very hard to get information to or from smallholders, preventing their efficient integration into the broader economy,” write Annan and Dryden in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. “But mobile communications can shatter this isolation and enable the creation of a new food system suited to contemporary needs.”

At World Food Program USA, we’ve compiled a list of seven tech innovations beyond the realm of possibility in Don Draper’s era that are changing the conversation about how to creatively and efficiently tackle the global hunger challenge.

1. Projecting food security and climate change vulnerability

What could the globe look like in 2080? Debuted at the climate change conference in Paris, the UN’s food insecurity and climate change vulnerability map examines how climate change could increase hunger across the globe based on whether and how the world’s leading countries take corrective action.

Incorporating five years of research among WFP’s food security experts and scientists from the Met Office Hadley Centre, users can select a time — present day, 2050s and 2080s — and take a glimpse into the future to see how the fight against hunger would look according to variations in future adaptation efforts and levels of emissions. It’s an exciting new tool to help policymakers contextualize how the decisions of today may impact the possibilities for tomorrow.

2. The Share the Meal app

As civil conflicts rage in countries far from the United States, one challenge is how to help everyday people connect with the fight against global hunger.

In November, WFP launched Share the Meal — a smartphone application to help individuals support significant relief efforts across the globe through their mobile phones. With the tap of a button, anyone with a desire to give back can “share the meal” to support children and families in the most critical hunger hotspots.

At a time when smartphone users outnumber hungry children by 20 to 1, the power to change the world is now in our pocket. Since the launch of the app, more than 3 million meals have been shared through WFP’s first mobile app to support Syrian refugees living in Jordan. This specific campaign has so far reached 70 percent of its goal, and it’s the newest way to harness the power of the smartphone for good.

In the West Bank town of Jericho, Basmah buys fresh food through the WFP e-card system. (©WFP/Quique_Kierszenbaum)

3. E-cards

In countries like Jordan, as profiled in last year’s 60 Minutes profile on WFP, Syrian refugees are shopping for food in local markets using electronic food cards, or e-cards.

Designed to replace traditional staple foods and commodities like rice and corn with funds that food assistance recipients can use to purchase fruits, vegetables, and grains from local markets, e-cards are delivered and redeemed using cell phone technology so refugees can decide what to cook for their families.

By easily recording and tracking transactions, e-card technology improves transparency, eliminates the cost associated with food distribution and storage, and helps boost the local economy through the support of vendors that accept them.

A boy in the suburbs of Mauritania consumes a sachet of Plumpy’Sup, a peanut paste formulated for the nutritional rehabilitation of moderate, acute malnourished children. (©WFP/Agron Dragaj)

4. Plumpy’Sup

Because no single food crisis is the same, a nimble relief operation relies on a variety of tools that help local communities and their partners respond to what is needed on the ground.

Plumpy’Sup is one type of Ready-to-Use Food (RUF) typically used in emergency situations and to prevent and treat moderate malnutrition for children under five years old. It’s a tech innovation in nutrition science that infuses a peanut paste with a long list of micronutrients that can be consumed from the comforts of one’s home.

Plumpy’Sup is packaged in one-day sachets, are ready to eat, and can be consumed in small quantities to supplement one’s regular diet. In areas without electricity or clean water, RUFs like Plumpy’Sup give hungry families better options to fight hunger and malnutrition.

A SAFE stove in West Darfur, Sudan. (©WFP/Marco Rattini)

5. SAFE stoves

One criticism of the Green Revolution that spread across Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s highlighted the unintended consequences of environmental degradation that came from the adoption of agricultural practices boosting worker productivity and plot yields. Ever since, many entrepreneurs have explored how tech innovations can help balance progress and wise environmental stewardship.

In countries such as Sudan, Uganda, Haiti, and Sri Lanka, women have historically used firewood to cook food within their homes and support local school feeding programs.

Inspired by UN recommendations on Safe Access to Firewood and Alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings (SAFE), fuel-efficient stoves are designed to lessen the environmental degradation that comes from cutting down trees and reduce the need for cooking fuel, while in the process reducing violence against women who travel long distances to collect firewood and lower the health risks associated with smoke and indoor pollution.

Farmers in Ethiopia grow carrots for home use as well as for market production. (©WFP/FAO/IFAD/WFP/Petterik Wiggers)

6. Going digital in Ethiopia

In their Foreign Affairs piece, Annan and Dryden also highlight two projects in Ethiopia designed to equip millions of local farmers with “cutting-edge, highly tailored” information: The creation of an agricultural hotline and a digital soil information system.

The hotline, created in 2014 by Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, has received nearly 6.5 million calls from local farmers. Through text messages and automated calls, roughly 500,000 users receive updated agronomic information to their cell phones to help plan their operations.

The same agency has plans to integrate this system with the Ethiopian Soil Information System, a digital soil map “analyzing the country’s soils down to a resolution of ten kilometers by ten kilometers.”

7. Culturally competent, digital education

Have you ever searched YouTube to find the right video to learn a new skill?

Annan and Dryden also highlight the work of Digital Green, an organization that connects local farmers with their peers via video training conducted in local languages.

Exploring topics ranging from crop rotation to good water management, Digital Green’s goal is to enhance farmer extension programs by marrying the power of digital with the credibility of local community leaders who can boost adoption rates of these new tools and concepts.

It’s a new twist on ongoing efforts like WFP’s Purchase 4 Progress program, which helps smallholder farmers improve their crop quality and boost agricultural production through better financial training, tools and assistance. WFP then purchases these surplus crops to source feeding programs in nearby communities, thus providing a stable market and tackling local hunger at the same time.

The world has made incredible progress in the fight against hunger since Don Draper’s day — and thanks to technological innovations like these, a future of zero hunger is finally within our grasp.

Learn more about WFP’s work and join the tech revolution to help end global hunger.

— Ash Kosiewicz, World Food Program USA