Innovations to jumpstart the agricultural revolution

By Sophie Edwards 20 April 2017

A jackfruit vendor in India. Photo by: Sayamindu Dasgupta / CC BY-SA

Indian farmers growing jackfruit as a meat alternative for American consumers, solar-powered food carts serving hygienic street food, a shared tractor service for farmers, and rearing insects to feed animals — these are some of the innovations showcased at this year’s World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings, each with the potential to transform global food and agriculture systems.

The world needs a “revolution” to fix the food system so that it produces enough food, improves nutrition and health outcomes, provides jobs, and does all of this in an environmentally sustainable way, according to World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva.

Speaking at a session Wednesday titled “Jumpstarting the Next Revolution in Food and Agriculture,” Georgieva said current agricultural practices are failing. Though hunger is “the world’s most solvable problem,” 800 million people go hungry every year and 155 million children are stunted due to poor nutrition. At the same time, obesity is a growing problem in both rich and poor countries, while farming practices are depleting the environment, with agriculture using 70 percent of the world’s water.

“Revolution, not evolution, not progress but a transformative change is what we need if we want to face up to the challenges that are so dramatically impacting the lives of so many people,” she told attendees.

The session is an example of how the World Bank sees its role as changing in the development space. The bank is trying to move from being a traditional lender to becoming a convener with the ability to translate and transfer technology between governments, said Juergen Voegele, senior director of the food and agriculture global practice at the bank.

The range of approaches highlighted at the session is part of the bank’s shifting emphasis from “solely looking at productivity increases to a much broader approach that includes really looking at sustainability — climate, water, land, biodiversity and more — in a much more meaningful way,” he said.

During the session, young entrepreneurs were invited to showcase their innovations, which have the potential to improve food quantity and quality, increase revenues for farmers and food vendors, and reduce negative impacts on the environment.

“We’re profoundly convinced that agriculture and the food system as a whole urgently needs innovation — innovation for a purpose — that makes the food system more sustainable, generate better jobs and produce better health and nutrition outcomes,” Voegele said.

Here are the highlights from the panel.

1. Tractors for hire

Africa is home to 60 percent of the world’s currently uncultivated land suitable for crop production. Experts predict an additional 280 million hectares of land will be needed to feed the global population by 2030 — much of this will need to come from Africa.

To meet growing demand, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa need tractors; but current levels of mechanization across the region are among the lowest in the world. In response to this problem, U.S. entrepreneur Jehiel Oliver founded Hello Tractor, which connects tractor owners with nearby farmers in Kenya and Nigeria in need of help. Farmers can request tractor services via SMS text messages and then pay the owner approximately $75 per hectare, about one-third of what manual cultivation would cost and much faster, he explained.

The tractors are also “smart” — each one is fitted with a low-cost sensor which is in turn connected to the Cloud. This not only enables the owner to track what work has been done, but the data can also be used to help banks’ monitor the tractor’s activity and assess the likelihood the owner will default on their loan.

Oliver said Hello Tractor has the potential to provide a “leapfrog opportunity to develop technology the world can learn from.”

2. Plant-based meat alternatives from India

Annie Ryu founded The Jackfruit Company in 2011 after a visit to India, where she learned that while jackfruit grows plentifully and is the highest yielding tree crop in the world, about three-quarters of the fruit currently goes to waste because of a lack of processing options and poor connections between farmers and markets.  

She founded a company to build an international supply chain for the fruit, and her company is now the number one jackfruit brand available in the U.S. One product line involves using unripe jackfruit as a nutritious meat alternative, and one which requires relatively little processing, she said.  

Ryu talked about the multiple benefits created by the project — harvesting jackfruit can increase a farming family’s income by between 10 to 40 percent a year, jackfruit farming can reduce deforestation and promote reforestation, and it can reduce overall intake of meat by providing an alternative with a very low carbon footprint, she said.

“This is a product which is pure and simple and great for you … it’s just money growing on trees,” she said.

3. Solar-powered street vending units

More than 80 percent of street food vendors in Uganda are women, according to Nataliey Bitature, co-founder of Musana Carts, a low-cost solar-powered vending cart currently available in Uganda. However, many street vendors currently work in uncertain conditions as unlicensed operators, often using polluting cookstoves, and in unhygienic conditions which put vendors and customers at risk.

Musana Carts was developed to offer an alternative — each cart is equipped with two solar panels, a battery back up and an improved clean cookstove designed for street vendors. The carts enable operators to work at night, since they can power a light, which also means they can charge mobile phones and offer mobile money services, Bitature said.

Three months after using the carts, vendors doubled the amount of money they earned, she said. Those using the carts are also licensed to operate by the city council.

4. Mimicking nature by feeding animals with insects

Proteins are an essential part of the food system — every year farmers use approximately 150 millions tons of proteins in animal feed. However, we also waste an estimated 120 million tons of proteins per year.

Kees Aarts founded Protix in 2009, with the idea of rearing insects — which can survive on the wasted produce — and then be turned back into protein, which can feed animals, and potentially humans, he said.

The organization has developed technology which can produce tons of this insect-based ingredient for feed on a weekly basis, and has plans to scale it internationally, he said.

“We are going to produce these natural ingredients which are extremely nutritious, very high quality, and through this scale we can make them affordable. And the beauty of it all is it’s not only natural, but they have the lowest footprint of any protein source,” he said.

“We can start giving back to animals what they seek in nature,” he added, saying that chickens eating their insect-based feed live longer and produce “tastier” eggs.

Devex is on the ground at the World Bank Spring Meetings April 18-22. Read our daily coverage and analysis and tune in for our Facebook Live series. Follow @devex, @Sophie_Ed1984 and @AlterIgoe for their live reporting.

About the author

Edwards sopie
Sophie Edwards

Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.


Join the Discussion