REDWOOD CITY, California — On June 2, 2016, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hosted the Low-Cost Sensors for Agriculture workshop at the Omidyar Network in Redwood City, California.
The workshop assembled participants from the private sector, NGOs and the government who work at the intersection of technology and agriculture. These participants identified obstacles and potential opportunities for collaboration to accelerate the impact of sensors on improving agriculture and food security in developing contexts. Their meeting sent a powerful message to the public: USAID is looking to Silicon Valley for partners to tackle global food insecurity.
Thanks to the increase in smartphone adoption in the developing world over the last five years, the world’s 1.5 billion smallholder farmers are now more likely to use the technology-powered solutions Silicon Valley companies can provide. The rise of technology has also changed the outlook on global food insecurity through new strategies for investments, loans and credit.
The new partnership to solve global food insecurity is another example of USAID’s commitment to relying on entrepreneurship to fulfill development goals. After the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, USAID pledged $38 million to help innovators fight global poverty.
According to Darren Sabo of Orange Silicon Valley, a San Francisco-based innovation center for the telecom Orange Group, “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.”
Silicon Valley is known for its rapidly scalable technology solutions, which can sometimes be difficult to translate to developing countries due to a range of challenges from regulation to infrastructure.
“They need to carefully consider the constraints to adoption in resource-limited markets,” said Josette Lewis, associate director of the World Food Center at the University of California Davis.
To convince Silicon Valley to join the search for global food security solutions, USAID convened one-on-one meetings, intimate forums and trips to introduce it to the unique challenges and opportunities in emerging market economies.
According to Stanford University professor Marshall Burke, “[The Bureau for Food Security team] is very honest about their need for more data and analytics to understand whether they are having an impact and targeting the right people.”
One example of a successful project is the Senekela Orange Mali Initiative, which provides farmers with data on commodities via text and voice messages. USAID understands the laws, regulations and stakeholders needed to bring the solution to market and is helping translate the technology into real opportunities to ensure long-term sustainability in developing countries.
The agency also expressed its hope for the emergence of more homegrown entrepreneurs in the developing world. Such entrepreneurs could revolutionize how food is provided and how solutions are financed, distributed and sold.
USAID is partnering with the accelerator 500 Startups to host an investor tour, “Geeks on a Plane,” in 2017. Silicon Valley leaders will visit Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa to identify potential homegrown innovators in whom to invest.
The agency also hopes to draw more allies into this inclusive network of agriculture innovators and build long-term collaborative relationships with companies in Silicon Valley to seek solutions for global food security.
According to Alison Eskesen, director at Grow Asia, an organization working to enable sustainable and inclusive agricultural development, “Partnering with the private sector is not about funding; it’s collaboration, aligning interest and trust.”
– Yvie Yao