Technology and food security: access matters

“New food substitutes and ingredient development have been accelerating in the last few years and represented $423M VC investment since 2015 just in the US. From brand new ingredients and food categories to enhanced production processes, innovations are deemed to answer the challenge of feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050. To put this in perspective with current methods, food industry production would have to increase by 70% in such a timeframe.”

From: L’Atelier BNP Paribas June 2017 report, Can Technology Be The Magic Food Ingredient?

One of the greatest challenges to food security for the 9.6 billion people in the world is not food production exclusively — it is access to the means of food production for farmers locally, and access to affordable food for consumers locally. If we don’t solve the access problem, we don’t solve the food security problem.

This is a massive undertaking and requires a system-based approach to achieve transformational change — but I’d like to highlight one important end user and customer from a product and business perspective:

the smallholder.

Smallholders represent a major market in the agriculture sector either in a B2B or B2C context. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 80% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is managed by smallholders. In the same regions, smallholders provide up to 80% of the food supply. Further, of the 2.5 billion people in poor countries living directly from the food of the agriculture sector, 1.5 billion people live in small holder households. Yet for my generation, small-scale farming is no longer a reliable source of livelihood. Families that have committed generations to local farming and food production are now leaving the sector for construction and service-based work.

Challenges to small-scale farming production require solutions related to: seasonality, resource management, market information, value chain access, property rights, etc. The number of pain points is truly endless, which leaves prospects for new technology and enterprise equally endless. There are exciting trends out of India and sub-Saharan Africa like UjuziKilimo that are pioneering smallholder-centric agtech solutions.

However, so much more can be done to incentivize and support prospective entrepreneurs to continually innovate and take risks in this industry. This can involve some of the following:

  1. Public sector support for agtech and foodtech innovation that is home grown. This means creating rural based tech labs, building funds that offer flexible and smart capital, and linking local entrepreneurs to rural market opportunities. Again, I think India has great examples of this that I’ll list here sometime soon.
  2. Innovation teams in international development organisations. Dedicated teams sourcing and partnering with agtech and foodtech enterprises around the world for pilots and large scale integrations for agricultural programs. Can we apply lessons in US ag/food tech innovation to smallholder production?
  3. Knowledge transfer and sharing. This means local and international public-private sector financing of learning expeditions between agtech and foodtech companies to industry leaders and smallholders in home countries.
  4. Risk sharing in a high risk industry. Co-investment is key in the agriculture sector, which is why I always emphasise partnership-based and flexible financing models.
  5. Prioritising the youth of smallholder families — how do we engage the next generation of farmers and design around their needs?