Technonlogy

Unreasonable Impact: how the Barclays partnership aims to tackle the world’s food crisis

Croatia based startup Agrivi is providing farmers with data to make wise decisions

Disrupting food sounds almost ominous. The purists among us likely do not feel there’s much of a need to innovate their favourite steak or to reinvent the way we eat in pubs, restaurants or canteens. But the food industry is a sector in need of a sea change. This has a lot to do with the way food is produced – the question being whether the industry can adapt to meet the needs of a constantly growing global population in a sustainable fashion.

In February 2017, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that, without a wave of innovation and retooling In food production, our planet will not be able to sustainably feed its population over the coming decades, predicting that more than 600 million people could be undernourished by 2030.

Unsurprisingly, that unfolding food crisis would affect the poor and more vulnerable segments of the global population the hardest. What is most infuriating is that, as FAO itself underlined, this is not inevitable: the planet can actually solve this issue, if it finds creative and innovative ways to tackle the crisis.

That is why Unreasonable Impact – the partnership between Barclays and Unreasonable Group aimed at scaling up high-growth companies with the potential to solve moonshot-level issues – has been encouraging several visionary entrepreneurs working hard to crack the food issue.

The Future of Food and Agriculture was one of the main themes discussed at last September’s Unreasonable Impact World Forum in London, the first event that brought together entrepreneurs from the three past Unreasonable Impact programmes.

The challenge ahead can be tackled from multiple angles. Croatia-based startup Agrivi, for instance, is taking on the problem from an efficiency perspective. The vast majority of the world’s farms are small-plot, family-run businesses which often struggle to make the most of their resources. Agrivi founder Matija Zulj experienced this first-hand whilst working as a blueberry farmer. He realised that farmers often lacked the necessary data to make a wise decision: information was scattered around, hard to consult and unclear.

That is what Agrivi is out to solve: Zulj’s management software brings all the relevant farming data – sales, expenses, cash flow – in one single solution. It also harvests crop-yield data which helps to detect pests and diseases across every field in the farm.

The company is already active in more than 160 countries, working with about 40,000 farmers worldwide to increase their productivity.

“If we help small-plot farmers to attain industrial farming level, we’ll solve the world’s food crisis,” Zulj said during his talk at the Unreasonable Impact World Forum.

Khethworks solar-powered pump is helping to solve the issue of seasonal irrigation in India

That is something that also resonates with Katie Taylor, CEO of Khethworks and another Unreasonable Impact alumna. A Tata Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Taylor realised that small-scale farmers in India were mainly wrestling with one issue: irrigation. As Taylor mentions, more than 30 million farmers in eastern India can rely on the monsoon season to irrigate their plots – but during the dry season, they depend on expensive diesel pumps to get the water they require. That means that, in many cases, vast portions of land – in what is one of the most populous countries on Earth – stay uncultivated for most of the year.

To solve that, Taylor and her co-founders Victor Lesniewski and Kevin Simon designed a super-efficient solar-powered pump. The machine’s efficiency means that it needs just a third of the photovoltaic panels needed to power similar devices – making the pump portable and significantly bringing down its cost.

Now based in Pune, India, Taylor hopes to bring the Khethworks technology to as many farmers as possible.
“Irrigation in India is a massive food security issue,” Taylor said. “Khethworks’ solution is affordable, efficient and it has doubled its users’ annual profits.”

But food security is not simply about creating enough resources to feed everybody – it also means having access to food that’s healthy and free from chemicals and harmful substances.

Through sustainable, edible cutlery, Bakeys is rejecting the notion that plastic cutlery has become a way of life

One usually overlooked food-security problem has to do with plastic cutlery, explained Unreasonable Impact alumnus Narayana Peesapaty, managing director of Indian startup Bakeys Foods. “We have accepted plastic cutlery as a way of life,” he explained in his talk. “Even if plastic contains bad chemicals and toxins which can leach into food and cause cancer.” Not to mention the carbon footprint of producing millions of throwaway plastic forks, knives and spoons every year.

Bakeys’ solution? Edible cutlery, baked using sustainable, pesticide-free millet flour. This material can withstand high temperatures and soaking, allowing Bakeys to produce utensils including soup spoons. These are safe to eat or throw away, as they will decompose within some five or six days of using. Peesapaty said that, since he launched the company in 2010, he has been inundated with emails from restaurateurs eager to adopt this new, non-polluting cutlery.

Farming efficiency, water scarcity and harmful chemicals are such complex and far-reaching problems that it almost seems unreasonable to try and solve them. But maybe, as the entrepreneurs at the Unreasonable Impact World Forum demonstrated, a group of unreasonable people is exactly what the planet needs to meet one of its direst challenges.

For more, see unreasonableimpact.com


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