The pitches include the exact same buzzwords you’d hear at any tech occasion in Silicon Valley: blockchain, AI, huge information. But while lots of start-ups trafficking in such of-the-moment innovations declare to be “making the world a better place,” these business are doing precisely that.
On Tuesday night, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) held its very first Innovation Accelerator pitch contest in the United States at Google’s head office in Mountain View, California. Sesi Technologies — a business based in Kumasi, Ghana, that makes a grain wetness meter — won the jury’s reward for “most impactful pitch.”
Coming from India, Iraq, the United States and other nations, Sesi was among eleven start-ups on performance off a varied set of principles. The concepts consisted of a portable fridge that runs without electrical power and a hydroponic platform for growing food in extreme environments, such as deserts, run-down neighborhoods and refugee camps.
Bernhard Kowatsch, head of the Innovation Accelerator, identified the WFP’s objective as an inversion of the common Silicon Valley goal — getting a billion-dollar “unicorn” evaluation. The UN states that 821 million individuals worldwide do not have enough to consume every day. “We want to get to zero,” stated Kowatsch.
That will not be simple. Though the variety of starving individuals has actually reduced over the past 30 years — there were more than one billion in 1990 — a mix of increasing political instability and environment modification threatens to slow or reverse that development.
Given the massive difficulty it’s carried out, the UN is aiming to innovation for assistance. For the previous 4 years, the WFP has actually been hiring and cultivating business owners in the United States and abroad who can deal with hunger-related problems worldwide’s poorest nations consisting of Bangladesh, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
In addition to funding and operational support in the field, the Innovation Accelerator gives startups exposure to people and resources that may be scarce in their countries. This week, the WFP teams consulted with some of the world’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, machine learning and hardware manufacturing from Google and other Bay Area tech firms.
“This experience has been amazing,” said Isaac Sesi, co-founder of Sesi Technologies. “Raw materials, equipment and talent are hard to come by in Ghana. We are pioneering the hardware industry from scratch there.”
Tech startups team up with the United Nations to tackle worldwide hunger
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Kowatsch said the organization fielded roughly 4,400 applications over four years and disbursed more than $60 million to 66 teams, including some that have come from within the WFP. (The organization doesn’t take an equity position in any of the startups it funds.) Investors and institutions have followed, giving eight of the WFP teams more than $69 million in additional funding.
That’s real money. And yet it’s a drop in the bucket for the World Food Program, which operates on a staggering scale. The organization has 17,000 staff in 83 countries. It raised more than $7 billion in 2018, including more than $2.5 billion from the US government, which is, by far, the largest contributor. In addition to nurturing startups, the WFP sponsors projects covering a wide range of activities, including providing food, building roads and bridges, digging wells and disbursing cash — more than $1.7 billion in 2018 alone — to vulnerable communities.
The magnitude of the program’s audacious goal — eliminating hunger by 2030 — is difficult to comprehend. But the WFP’s startups help crystallize the specific, multifaceted challenges people are facing in the world’s poorest regions — and the incredibly meaningful implications of the technologies and solutions they’re working on.
Some of them take the shape of what you would expect to see from a typical startup, though profits are subordinate to the larger mission. ShareTheMeal, the WFP’s homegrown fundraising app, has collected donations from more than 1.5 million people to pay for more than 45 million meals. The organization says it can deliver a $10 return on every $1 donation, as measured by education, health and productivity gains.
Others are less conventional. Borne out of a student project at MIT, the Fenik Yuma 60L cooler keeps fruits, vegetables, beverages and dairy products cold without electricity. A modern take on the ancient zeer pot, the Yuma uses evaporative cooling, a process that requires only water, to extend the shelf life of food by 3 to 5 times, according to the company.
Fenik has raised more than $80,000 for the project on Kickstarter. The cooler retails for $150 in developed countries, and Fenik uses some of the proceeds to subsidize the price for disadvantaged customers in Morocco, where it has piloted the technology.
Another WFP company, H2Grow, has developed a hydroponic platform for growing food in “impossible places,” such as Algeria and Chad. It requires no soil and uses 75% less space and 90% less water than a traditional farming plot its size. For an initial investment of $100, it can produce enough fresh barley to feed 10 goats per day. Without it, the goats would eat garbage, passing on toxins and other potentially harmful substances to the people who drink their milk and eat their meat.
In contrast toof some companies, the WFP says it has found real-world uses for the cryptographic technology. The organization’s Building Blocks initiative has leveraged blockchain technology to manage the logistical and financial data underpinning the delivery of food assistance to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Sesi and his team are scheduled to fly back to Ghana on Friday. When they return, they’ll continue their work on developing the GrainMate, a project with the potential to help the nearly 7 million Ghanians who live below the poverty line. In a technology landscape cluttered with many mindless, narcissistic and self-serving pursuits, Sesi’s mission is unassailably worthy.
When asked about the likelihood of achieving the UN’s goal of ending world hunger by 2030, Kowatsch displayed the optimism characteristic of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “I believe we can get there,” he said.