The UN World Food Program is looking for a unicorn to help end hunger by 2030
HBO's Silicon Valley turned startups "saving the world" into a punchline. These small companies are actually trying to do it.
Justin JaffeManaging editor
Justin Jaffe is the Managing Editor for CNET Money. He has more than 20 years of experience publishing books, articles and research on finance and technology for Wired, IDC and others. He is the coauthor of Uninvested (Random House, 2015), which reveals how financial services companies take advantage of customers -- and how to protect yourself. He graduated from Skidmore College with a B.A. in English Literature, spent 10 years in San Francisco and now lives in Portland, Maine.
The pitches contain the same buzzwords you'd hear at any tech event in Silicon Valley: blockchain, AI, big data. But while many startups trafficking in such of-the-moment technologies claim to be "making the world a better place," these companies are doing exactly that.
On Tuesday evening, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) held its first Innovation Accelerator pitch contest in the US at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. Sesi Technologies -- a company based in Kumasi, Ghana, that makes a grain moisture meter -- won the jury's prize for "most impactful pitch."
Coming from India, Iraq, the US and other countries, Sesi was one of eleven startups on stage showing off a diverse set of concepts. The ideas included a portable refrigerator that runs without electricity and a hydroponic platform for growing food in harsh environments, such as deserts, slums and refugee camps.
Bernhard Kowatsch, head of the Innovation Accelerator, characterized the WFP's mission as an inversion of the typical Silicon Valley objective -- getting a billion-dollar "unicorn" valuation. The UN says that 821 million people around the world don't have enough to eat on a daily basis. "We want to get to zero," said Kowatsch.
That won't be easy. Though the number of hungry people has decreased over the past 30 years -- there were more than one billion in 1990 -- a combination of increasing political instability and climate change threatens to slow or reverse that progress.
Given the enormous challenge it's undertaken, the UN is looking to technology for help. For the past four years, the WFP has been recruiting and cultivating entrepreneurs in the US and abroad who can address hunger-related issues in the world's poorest countries including Bangladesh, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
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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
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.
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 to the frivolous missions of some blockchain 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.