Solving the World’s Food Insecurity Crisis Requires Technology

  • From satellite soil-monitoring sensors in Pakistan to blockchain in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s coffee bean cherry production, technology is reshaping the agricultural sector.
  • But at a World Economic Forum session in Davos, a far simpler solution to solving world hunger issues was put forward: improved infrastructure and access to basic technology like cell phones.
  • These easy fixes could create more equitable supply chains and drastically transform the world’s agricultural sector.

Food insecurity is a long-standing issue that requires a combination of technology and real-world solutions to solve.

This was the message put forward by Ishmael Sunga, CEO of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU), on the last day of the World Economic Forum conference in Davos.

At least 720 million people worldwide are thought to be hungry today. And although food supplies have been disrupted by the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot pin these world events on the continued problem of global hunger, he told the room.

“The ones that are feeding the world are themselves hungry,” said Sunga, who joined fellow panelists from Nestlé, the Indian government, and chemicals company Yara International in a panel discussion.

During the session, which sought to discuss how technology can drive food security, he called for equity and fairness in distribution, as well as improved infrastructure for the world’s agricultural sector. “Technology plays an important role,” Sunga said. “But context matters. Technology should be at the service of farmers, and it should be able to help solve their problems.”

Many of those problems are simple and require simple solutions. “And yet those solutions can be very profound,” he told attendees.

Technology as a solution 

Technological advancements offer a promising opportunity for farmers around the world to improve their output and avert the negative impacts of climate change.

“Our founder was the first one that came up with the innovation to sequester, and get nitrogen out of the air, and turn it into fertilizer to feed a growing population,” Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of Yara International ASA told the panel.

“Our agricultural universities are working on hybrid seeds,” added Mansukh Mandaviya, minister of health and family welfare and minister of chemicals and fertilizers for India.

And from satellite soil-monitoring sensors in Pakistan to using blockchain to build food trust in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s coffee bean cherry supply chain, Nestlé executive vice president, Leanne Geale outlined the myriad ways the conglomerate is leveraging technology in the agricultural space.

These innovative measures may prove fundamental in reshaping the world’s agricultural landscape. But new forms of technology must come at a low cost to the individual farmer. And that often means the most simple forms of technology, could prove the most transformative.

Back to basics 

“If you deploy simple technology, which could be providing cell phone technology, it is going to do things at scale, it’s going to do things at speed, it is going to empower people to make decisions,” said Sunga.

Tore Holsether agreed, telling Davos attendees that this approach has proven to be effective.

At the start of the pandemic, his company worked with farmers in East Africa to figure out how to rapidly increase food production. They used cell phones to provide economic advice and connect digitally with 2 million farmers. 250,000 of those farmers were also given fertilizer, and through the program, they were able to triple their maize yields in the first season.

An integrated approach that combines technology, and practice-based reward systems — like Nestlé’s Income Accelerator project, which gives incentives to farmers who adopt agricultural practices like pruning and using shade trees to build more resilient crops — may help to empower farmers and move toward ending global hunger.

But above all else, Sunga argues that access to equitable value chains for all farmers has the biggest potential for impact. This means that better infrastructure for the world’s poorer agricultural communities is critical, especially information and communication infrastructure.

“Issues around the areas you are farming on might influence your amount of input. Maybe you think your land is one hectare, but maybe it’s half a hectare,” said Sunga. When you input the data for that one hectare, you end up with waste. “Yet you can measure the size of the land with technology,” he said, adding that “those basics are so fundamental to fix.”

“The moment the value chain becomes more equitable, fair, and distributes fair work, and fair pay for the ecosystem role that management farmers play, you will see a big change,” he said.