Why USAID is looking to Silicon Valley for food security partners

By Catherine Cheney 22 August 2016

A woman at her vegetable stall in a market in Ghana. The Bureau for Food Security is working in partnership with USAID's Global Development Lab to explore how tech entrepreneurs and investors might advance its efforts to promote global food security. Photo by: John O'Bryan / USAID / CC BY-NC

The team behind Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global food security initiative, is preparing their vision for the next five years — and making sure that Silicon Valley’s technology entrepreneurs are a part of it.

The Bay Area is home to a growing number of agriculture technology, or agtech, startups, ranging from robotics to predictive data analytics to the “Internet of Things.” Members of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Food Security spoke with Devex during a recent visit to San Francisco. Building on the momentum of the Global Food Security Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last month, they are working with USAID’s Global Development Lab to explore how Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs might adapt and scale agtech in developing countries.

While these conversations are in their early stages, Danielle Cass, USAID’s tech sector liaison and the key organizer behind the listening and engagement tour, said she has never seen the agency move so quickly from conversation to implementation.

Planting the seeds for partnerships

“Whenever I’m tapped on the shoulder from Washington, D.C., I first ask, ‘So what does success look like? What are you trying to achieve?’ And then I map that to my Rolodex,” said Cass, who joined USAID in January 2015 with a mandate to engage the tech sector, and is now working to turn many of those relationships into real partnerships.

“The way Silicon Valley relates to things is you tell them, ‘This is the problem. You have the technology. How can we fix it together?’” she said.

Because the Bureau for Food Security team wanted an updated snapshot of agtech startups and investment, Cass connected them with Rob Leclerc, cofounder and CEO of AgFunder, an online marketplace for agricultural investment. Because they wanted insight into who is investing in the agricultural sector, she set up a meeting with Roy Steiner, senior director of impact and learning at Omidyar Network, who previously worked on the agricultural development initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

USAID’s goal is not only to identify those companies that are ready to partner with Feed the Future, but also to draw in unlikely allies who might not otherwise consider — or know about — the opportunity.

The representatives from the Bureau for Food Security met with Planet, the San Francisco-based company launching CubeSats in space, which is already partnering with the United Nations, the World Bank, and global philanthropies to monitor global agriculture. But they also met with Andreessen Horowitz, a leading venture capital firm, where they learned about investments in startups such as Soylent, the meal replacement beverage.

“USAID is exploring a wide range of technologies, many of which go far beyond what is relevant for smallholder farmers, but within that they might find a technology that can be adapted or find a partner that is interested in creating a new technology that could be useful,” said Jessica Heinzelman, principal at Reach.

Silicon Valley investors tend to focus on rapidly scalable technology solutions, which can be tough to translate to developing countries, due to a range of challenges from regulation to infrastructure. USAID is convening one-on-one meetings, intimate forums, and trips to introduce Silicon Valley to the unique challenges and opportunities in these markets. The agency is a partner in Geeks on a Plane, an investor tour led by the accelerator 500 Startups that will bring Silicon Valley investors to Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa in March 2017.

“Innovation comes from the private sector, but investment isn’t going to materialize for such a diffuse demand from a disenfranchised customer,” said Adam Wolf, the CEO of Arable, a hardware and software company focused on crop management. “So the government is the customer in some ways.”

In June, he participated in a workshop on low-cost sensors USAID convened at Omidyar Network. The agency wanted to identify obstacles and consider possible collaborations to ensure that sensors realize their potential to improve agriculture and food security. It was the first public signal that USAID is looking to Silicon Valley for food security partners.

Later that month, Cass made sure that agriculture was on the agenda at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, after being one of the most vocal proponents of bringing the summit to Silicon Valley. A panel on applying digital technologies to improve agricultural outcomes featured startups such as Akorion, a Uganda-based company working with USAID to engage youth in agribusiness.

The August meetings built on those events — and will inform the lead up to others, such as the African Green Revolution Forum in Nairobi, the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, and the United Nations General Assembly.

“Silicon Valley loves big meaningful challenges, and using technology to support local agricultural communities throughout the world with the potential to revolutionize the global food system is nothing short of an enormous challenge,” said Darren Sabo of Orange Silicon Valley, a San Francisco-based innovation center for the telecom Orange Group.

He mentioned the Senekela Orange Mali Initiative, which provides farmers with data on commodities via text and voice — and was conceived in partnership with USAID — as an example of how government and industry can come together to promote agtech. The private sector develops or invests in technology tailored to the needs of the consumer, the government understands the laws and regulations and stakeholders needed to bring these solutions to market, and the private sector tests and refines these technologies to ensure long-term sustainability.

A discussion on how technology can support farmers and help improve food security. Photo by: Beth Dunford

Making agriculture more investable

When Feed the Future first came online in 2010, it was difficult for USAID to make the business case for agtech in the developing world. But that is changing, due in part to the rapid spread of mobile technology throughout the 19 Feed the Future focus countries.

Feed the Future countries have seen an 800 percent increase in smartphone adoption over the last five years. And the developing world in general has experienced a 400 percent increase in mobile money products. So the 1.5 billion smallholder farmers are now more likely to use the technology powered solutions Silicon Valley companies can provide.

But that alignment does not happen automatically.

“Despite the rapid growth and uptake of digital technologies, we have found they’re not yet positioned to serve the most underserved,” said Christopher Burns, who is the senior coordinator for Digital Development for Feed the Future. He is working to integrate coordinated digital technologies into the global food security initiative so that the same kinds of tools helping farmers in developed economies find their way to smallholder farmers and their families in rural and remote areas.

Burns shared a story about a meeting with an “Internet of Things” company in Silicon Valley. The chief technology officer said he had never considered how systems of connected devices might be translated to Africa or Latin America or Asia until that meeting with USAID. The interaction pushed Burns to work with Cass to deliver the message that, while these regions might not be your next markets, they could be your next next markets.

The agency wants to convince Silicon Valley that emerging market economies might offer the most impactful applications of their innovations, said Pam Fessenden, ‎director of the office of market and partnership innovations in the Bureau for Food Security at USAID.

“There is so much innovation here, but it requires some creative thinking, or even a little incentivizing, to get the private sector to go to the farmers we care about,” Beth Dunford, deputy coordinator of Feed the Future, told Devex ahead of a meeting with the Farmers Business Network, which just raised $15 million in a round led by Google Ventures and is looking to scale its analytics dashboard globally. “We have networks that can help these technologies enter new markets and thrive.”

On the other hand, if entrepreneurs see a viable way to make an impact on global food security while also building a successful business, then the market will take care of itself, Leclerc of AgFunder told Devex.

“USAID needs to create the right incentives to get our best entrepreneurs tackling these problems,” he said. “It's not enough that a problem should be solved, but also whether there's a way to build a real scaleable business.”

Incorporating homegrown solutions

As USAID draws Silicon Valley farther into its five-year vision for global food security, the agency cannot lose sight of the entrepreneurs who are solving their own problems, said Josette Lewis, associate director of the World Food Center at the University of California Davis, who formerly worked in agriculture at USAID.

“How can USAID understand the solutions that are out there and use those as examples to seed solutions that are more homegrown?” she said. “Maybe what needs to happen is more innovation within the developing world as opposed to trying to get Silicon Valley to invest or engage more directly.”

While Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors are behind a range of new products and services that might be adapted to promote global food security, their excitement about what is possible can sometimes overshadow their understanding of what is needed. They need to carefully consider the constraints to adoption in resource limited markets, and whether they are willing to make the investment in time and money required to bring products and services to market, Lewis said.

“They are way ahead of where we are on the ground,” Joseph Mabonga, a program manager for Restless Development in Karamoja, Uganda, told Devex of the agtech innovations he associates with Silicon Valley. “We are still working on the basics.”

Silicon Valley can be too quick to host a hackathon without thinking through how these information and communication technology tools might actually work in a developing country context, said Mark Bell, director of the International Learning Center at UC Davis. He teaches the “ASK ME” framework for working more effectively with farmers. Start with audience and needs, identify solutions that might be relevant, consider key messages people need to hear, and finally think about the message form and delivery, while evaluating throughout the entire process.

It is an exciting moment in time for government, industry, and academia to come together to solve the access problem, how to get these technologies to farmers, as well as the information problem, helping farmers figure out how to use these technologies, said Marshall Burke, a professor at Stanford University. He participated in the listening and engagement tour to discuss applications of statistical models, machine learning, and satellite imagery for global food security.

“They were very honest about their need for more data and analytics to understand whether they are having impact and targeting the right people,” he said of the Bureau for Food Security team. “And they were clearly very interested in building the partnerships with industry and academia that would help them solve these problems.”

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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