How universities are sowing the seeds to Feed the Future

Habiba Tukhtaeva shows off the vegetables she grew in her family's kitchen garden with assistance from Feed the Future. In Tajikistan, Feed the Future works with small farmers to help them to grow more nutritious food. Photo by: Sayora Khalimova / USAID / CC BY-NC-ND

A chimney solar dryer, which dries fruits and vegetables twice as fast as a traditional solar dryer, and a zero energy cool chamber that prolongs the life of fresh produce sit in a demonstration garden on the campus of the University of California, Davis, part of a lab funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“We do research and adapt and modify technologies to make them more feasible for resource poor farmers who farm on a small scale in the developing world,” said Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis.

There are 24 Feed the Future Innovation Labs at universities in the U.S. that partner with developing country research institutions as part of the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Five of those labs are at UC Davis — the most labs at a single university —  and it is home to a number of examples of how this investment in research, and collaboration with higher education, is furthering efforts to end hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

Want to understand the promises and limits of Feed the Future? Look to Tanzania.

Tanzania has received more Feed the Future funding than any other country. Food security experts are looking to the country for lessons that can shape the initiative's future.

“Feeding the future begins with the present,” said Robert Bertram, chief scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, said at a recent event at UC Davis.

While great progress has been made, a lot more work remains to eliminate hunger, he said. The innovation labs are a key part of the collaboration and capacity building that is central to the Feed the Future approach, he added.

The labs at UC Davis focus on a variety of topics, from market access, to climate resilient chickpeas and millet to genomics to improve poultry and horticulture. The labs at different universities collaborate, either individually or through broader partnerships. Through CGIAR, for example, the labs collaborate with researchers and scientists across 15 global research centers on areas ranging from developing animal vaccines to increasing access to nutrient dense foods.

One of the problems the labs have addressed is the issue of postharvest loss.

Step inside a tin shed at the Horticulture Innovation Lab demonstration garden in Davis and you will go from 73 degrees Fahrenheit to 43 degrees Fahrenheit, all because of a small black device, and a few wires, that trick a standard air conditioner, causing it to work harder so that it turns the unit into a sort of refrigerator.

It is the CoolBot, a technology invented by a farmer in upstate New York who could not afford a walk-in cooler. From UC Davis to the University of Nairobi, which is a Horticulture Innovation Lab partner, postharvest loss researchers saw the gadget as a compelling low-cost solution for post harvest losses in developing countries. They are working to make the CoolBot a better fit for those markets — from using solar panels for energy, to using chicken feathers for insulation.

“There’s one part of the supply chain that has been neglected and that is what happens to this produce after it has been harvested,” said Jane Ambuko, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, who received a grant from USAID/Kenya to pilot the technology among farmers in her country.  

Elizabeth Mitcham at the Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis. Photo by: Catherine Cheney

While technology plays an important role in boosting the productivity of smallholder farmers, there is a key difference between what is technically possible and what is realistically doable in developing country contexts, Michael Carter, director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access, or BASIS, said at the UC Davis event.

“We try to think about the constraints and what prevents people from taking advantage of what opportunities are already available to them,” he said.

Carter and his team are focused on ways to reduce risks that reduce farmer incomes, destroy assets and prevent them from moving out of poverty. One example is a study conducted during the catastrophic 2011 drought in northern Kenya comparing the impacts of an index-based insurance product and a cash transfer program in pastoralist households, he said.

“If you’re willing to spend $15 on a family every couple of months, would you spend $5 a year that reduces the risk that puts people into that situation?” Carter said. “Not only is it potentially cheaper to keep people from falling into extreme indigence, but most would rather be in charge of their own destiny and have the dignity to produce for their family, not rely on a handout.”

The Kenyan government is now scaling up index-based livestock insurance, which was developed by a team of researchers from UC Davis, Cornell, and the International Livestock Research Institute, a CGIAR partner headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is a particularly good example of collaborative problem solving between research institutions and the field, Carter said.

That collaborative approach, and an emphasis on discoveries that can immediately benefit smallholder farmers in the developing world, is central to the Feed the Future innovation labs model.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.

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