Inspire! Invest! Innovate!

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“If your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

If you have been following our blog series on Food Systems Innovation Hubs, you will have learned all about the pressing nutrition problems facing low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) (read the blog here), read up on how bolstering a country’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) (read the blog here) can foster good livelihoods, realized how important media campaigns are to enabling healthy food choices (read the blog here), and considered how policy can help or hinder positive change in our food systems (read the blog here). You may also have discovered how food fortification can make our bodies and our planet healthier (read the blog here) and joined us in celebrating entrepreneurs who are true nutrition heroes (read the blog here). After all of that, you may now be asking yourself how we can address these challenges in a holistic way, bringing the multiple approaches and solutions highlighted in these texts together into one cohesive strategy. Not only are food systems complex, but each is also unique to the geography and culture it is supposed to nourish. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all solution clearly does not exist, and the approaches used by high-income countries (HICs) cannot be expected to work in the same way for LMICs.

Our aspiration is that the transformation of failing food systems lies in Innovation Hubs. Operating in a variety of different locations, they will be able to mold themselves to the needs of their specific nations and communities by engaging directly with its people, its culture, its entrepreneurial talent, and its unique climate. This will be achieved by focusing on three key actions: Inspire! Invest! and Innovate!

Inspire!

We will encourage existing exceptional food and technology companies with market prowess to expand into the Global South, with the goal of growing market interest, aligning with a range of investors, and developing and testing new products. For example, when nutritious crops such as teff in Ethiopia are aggregated in one place from hundreds or thousands of smallholder farmers, then milled on a large scale, it opens the possibility of making it affordable to the poor. It also allows for the addition of vitamins and minerals during the processing and for producing a safer product by eliminating the carcinogenic aflatoxin.

Invest!

We will facilitate investment in local companies that have the potential to scale, as well as in technology transfer, in nutrition, food safety, and consumer studies to prove market viability and show latent existing demand for nutritious foods. As an illustration, farmers in Kenya currently indicate a willingness to use climate-smart approaches such as insects for animal feed. Impact evaluations may convince other entrepreneurs to enter the market or help broker a partnership between a global insect feed company and a local feed company.

Innovate!

We will stimulate innovation throughout the value chain tailored to Global South markets and draw additional investment into scaling up and innovating new technologies, which will be especially impactful to the SMEs and start-ups that dominate food production there today. These SMEs also face unique binding constraints compared to their developed-nation peers. A fully automated temperature sensing insect-control greenhouse, for example, may save on costs in the Netherlands, where energy and skilled labor are relatively cheap but are unprofitable in West Africa, where backup electric generators and replacement parts are far more costly.

Food Systems Innovation Hubs are a bold, new initiative that will accelerate innovation, streamline processes, and support nature-positive, biodiverse agriculture to better nourish the nations and communities they serve.  Join us in this coordinated effort to improve the world’s food systems. We welcome you to bring your unique skills and resources to bear in helping solve these unique challenges.

Watch this engaging webinar discussing the importance of a Food Systems Innovation Hub HERE.

 

Helping Entrepreneurs Helps Us All

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“Once in a blue moon, exceptional ideas turn into great companies that change the world” – Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin

In a recent Global Entrepreneurship Report, Africa was shown to be the region that reports the most positive attitude towards entrepreneurship, with three-quarters of working-age adults considering entrepreneurship a good career choice. This is heartening since youth unemployment and underemployment are concentrated in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), which are home to 87 percent of the world’s unemployed youth — 62 million young people, according to the International Labor Organization.

Distribution of capital invested in new ventures – capital availability for entrepreneurs in the Global South is abysmally low. Source: https://startupsusa.org/global-startup-cities/

Today’s youth are more entrepreneurial than ever, starting twice as many businesses as the baby boomer generation. However, capital availability in the global south is abysmally low, hampering these talented self-starters’ capacity to get their innovations off the ground. Since 2016, Sight and Life has been running our Elevator Pitch Contest, which helps refine, support, and launch the inventions of talented young people who are working to develop new agricultural and nutrition technologies. 

Sight and Life catalyzes theme based innovations through the Elevator Pitch Contest

Take, for example, Nicholas Myers, a chemist and pitch contest winner. His Paper Analytical Device – a lab-on-paper that measures iodine levels in salt and urine samples – helps monitor iodized salt programs at a low cost in real-time. But just because a better solution to a problem exists, like Myers’ invention, does not necessarily mean that it will be adopted. With a shift from the nutrition field to public health, Myers found additional uses for his innovation, adapting the iodine test card to also measure levels of penicillin-class antibiotics present in pharmaceuticals with greater than 95% accuracy to detect breaches in medicine compliance.  Such discoveries of multiple uses accelerate the adoption of an invention.

EPC, Sight and Life, Elevator Pitch Contest“At the time of the contest, my invention was making its way through the “Valley of Death,” which is a relatively low funding period between R&D and commercialization. The contest provided a platform on which I, a chemist, reached hundreds of experts in the micronutrient sector, and these multi-disciplinary connections are critical to pushing an invention through the “Valley of Death” and to commercialization.” – Nicholas Myers (Read the full interview here)

 

Several other barriers exist to scaling up nutrition interventions in LMICs, like access to high-quality products in a particular area, inflated costs of public health goods and services, erratic cash flow, and public health facilities that are difficult to reach, underfunded, understaffed, and understocked. To overcome these barriers, Sight and Life has studied sustainable social enterprises that integrate nutrition interventions at scale to benefit large numbers of underserved communities.

Why consider social business models and entrepreneurship when it comes to public health? Over four billion people carry the burden of a “poverty penalty” and are forced to pay more for lower quality basic public health goods and services due to market inefficiencies. Of these people, only a tiny fraction can benefit from government or humanitarian services, and even then, these resources are often plagued with piecemeal or inadequate funding. This large percentage of the world’s population is often referred to as the Base of the Pyramid or BoP. Grant-funded humanitarian projects may have limited reach and finite intervention periods, but the BoP represents a five trillion-dollar market value. Models that tap this market could simultaneously improve the quality of life for the poor and outlast the sporadic, albeit well-meaning injections of charitable sources. Enterprises with sound business models can make quality public health goods available and affordable.

My team and I have witnessed such success in improving food systems by supporting entrepreneurship and promoting effective business models in the Global South. We are doubling down, initiating Food Systems Innovation Hubs in emerging markets. The hubs will nurture entrepreneurs in these rapidly growing economies by establishing sound business models and forming partnerships with investors, donors, government, and companies in the localities where they operate.

There is a massive well of untapped entrepreneurial talent in the developing world, and Sight and Life is committed to helping them help us all in our quest to alleviate malnutrition. To learn more about Food Systems Innovation Hubs, watch the recent webinar and learn how to be part of the coordinated effort to improve the world’s food systems. Read further on the topic by clicking HERE

Fortifying Our Food to Fight Climate Change

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Fortification Definition: The practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient, i.e. vitamins and minerals (including trace elements) in a food, so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.

In recent decades, two very modern elements have radically transformed the world’s food systems: rapid technological advancement and global warming. Giant leaps in technology have been possible as innovations rapidly build on each other. In most cases, they have been tremendously efficient and beneficial. For instance, the cost of DNA sequencing per genome was US$100 million in 2001. Today it costs just US$1,000. Smart agricultural technologies such as low-cost sensors for soil, irrigation, and cloud computing have empowered farmers to make data-driven decisions, access best practices in real-time, and minimize the use of inputs, putting them in a position to conserve resources while improving productivity. Advances in genome sequencing, aerial and satellite coverage, and mobile platforms for precision farming also benefit smallholder farmers.

Despite these positive developments, climate change has proven to be a formidable challenge. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere not only heat up the globe, creating drought and other weather shocks that significantly impact crops, but they also reduce the concentrations of essential micronutrients and protein in major food staples such as rice, wheat, maize, pulses, and potatoes. This could potentially compromise the nutritional intake and consequent health of future generations.

How can we wield humanity’s considerable capacity for innovation to combat climate change’s devastating effects on the world’s crops?

We have already seen some new technologies developed which allow growing cycles to be reduced, enabling food to be grown by anyone, anywhere – even in tiny urban spaces. Another surprising solution may be food fortification. In the wake of the 2019 EAT-Lancet Report on Food, Planet and Health, Greg Garret and colleagues raised an intriguing concept: Can Food Fortification Help Tackle Climate Change? Data to support this notion is still limited. Still, given the massive contribution of food production to greenhouse gas emissions, along with the fact that food and micronutrient production will need to increase to meet the needs of 10 billion people by 2050, this question certainly deserves further exploration.

While global warming is most certainly a global problem, its effects are keenly felt in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). These regions also have seen less widespread fortification of their local food staples than high-income countries (HICs). Therefore, fortification could be an effective “one-two-punch” against both dietary micronutrient deficiency and the climate change shocks experienced by food systems.

Sight and Life believes that targeted investment and technology transfer from HICs to LMICs will be crucial in sharing and adapting existing techniques, like food fortification, to new markets. To that end, we are initiating Food Systems Innovation Hubs in Africa and Asia to accelerate this process. These hubs will share both capital goods and knowledge resources with partners in developing countries, allowing LMICs to access productivity and sustainability enhancing innovations, which will be key to fortifying local diets and strengthening their fragile food systems.

To learn more about Food Systems Innovation Hubs, watch the recent webinar and learn how to be part of the coordinated effort to improve the world’s food systems. Read further on the topic by clicking HERE

 

Progress through Policy

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“Red tape will often get in your way. It’s one of the reasons I often carry scissors.” – Richard Branson

The lack of harmonized regulations and standards prevents the most vulnerable populations from accessing high-quality and affordable nutritional products like MMS. Photo Credit: Vitamin Angels

Several low- and middle-income countries that see significant levels of maternal anemia and low birth weight newborns are considering the introduction and scale-up of Multiple Micronutrient Supplements, or MMS, to provide mothers the nutrients they need for healthy pregnancies. This is an admirable goal, albeit one that is frustratingly impeded by significant regulatory challenges. For example, there is little consensus on how a nutritional product is classified in different countries or by international agencies; it can be considered either a dietary supplement and regulated as a food or a therapeutic product regulated as a drug. In addition, regulatory agencies worldwide set different manufacturing requirements and quality standards for nutritional products, which are not always harmonized. This then presents challenges when a nutritional supplement is imported into or manufactured in countries with different regulation levels, ultimately preventing the most vulnerable populations from accessing high-quality and affordable products with the potential to improve health outcomes significantly.

A country’s food system is an equally complex machine, with the interplay between farmers, consumers, regulators, testers, manufacturers, and distributors. Inefficiencies or problems anywhere in this ecosystem can cause a domino effect felt along the value chain. Sadly, authorities in many countries in the Global South currently lack the capacity to create and enforce regulatory frameworks conducive to providing safe, nutritious, and accessible foods. Many producers also struggle to comply with the regulatory frameworks in place due to a lack of testing capacity and compliance support, leading to products that do not meet national or international standards or align with label claims.

There are systemic hurdles to delivering proper nutrition to those who need it. What can be done?

One of the most important steps in inducing a transformational change in food systems is integrating nutrition in sectors beyond public health, bringing private sector players into the nutrition fold. How can governments achieve this? Let us take the example of large-scale staple food fortification in India, such as rice or edible oil. Given that fortified variants are usually slightly more expensive to produce than unfortified products, voluntary fortification does not present a strong business case for the private sector, and compliance can quickly evaporate when there is a change of corporate management or leadership in the governing body—making fortification mandatory would increase compliance. The government is also poised to assist companies by educating their citizens on the health benefits of choosing a fortified food. This assistance, or “carrot”, creates a market incentive to balance the “stick” of mandatory regulation.

 

The Indian government roped in the most popular cricketer in the country, Virat Kohli, for a brand-agnostic campaign to create a consumer pull for fortified foods and incentivize the private sector to sustainably introduce fortified variants in the market. Source: Food Fortification Resource Centre

As demonstrated by this example, government regulators and the private sector can find ways to support the health of their population and consumers in a coordinated manner.

The challenges highlighted earlier can seem intractable, but Sight and Life believes that a new initiative can lead to real progress – Food Systems Innovation Hubs. These hubs, which will operate in rapidly emerging economies in need of regulatory assistance, can share expertise and resources to foster capacity-development and address existing gaps in regulations and standards. They will also provide testing monitoring support to allow producers and processors to improve the quality of their output. The Food System Innovation Hubs will focus on accelerating technology transfer, and investment from the Global North to the Global South, enabling the kind of knowledge sharing that can contribute to increased standardization across borders.

Everyone benefits when food systems prioritize good health.
 

Food Systems Innovation Hubs are a bold, new initiative that will accelerate innovation, streamline processes, and support nature-positive, biodiverse agriculture to better nourish the nations and communities they serve.  Join us in this coordinated effort to improve the world’s food systems. We welcome you to bring your unique skills and resources to bear in helping solve these unique challenges.

Watch this engaging webinar discussing the importance of a Food Systems Innovation Hub and be part of the coordinated effort to improve the world’s food systems. Read further on the topic by clicking HERE

Small and Medium Enterprises – Key to Good Nutrition

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According to our estimates, 600 million jobs will be needed by 2030 to absorb the growing global workforce, which makes SME development a high priority for many governments around the world[i].
(The World Bank)

Small and Medium Enterprises, commonly referred to as SMEs, constitute approximately 90% of all businesses worldwide, accounting for nearly 50% of total employment[i]. They are also the most significant actors in many developing countries’ food systems, and yet SMEs often struggle to attract interest and investment. Most high productivity technologies rest with conglomerates in the global north who benefit from large consumer markets and, more importantly, pools of venture capital to develop disruptive innovations. These innovations are vital to boosting nature-positive production of agricultural goods while preserving and advancing equitable livelihoods. The disparity of investment between conglomerates and the SMEs of low and-middle-income countries (LMICs) limits the latter’s ability to stay ahead of the innovation curve[ii]. This in turn caps a community’s economic development and stifles its citizenry’s upward mobility, making access to affordable and good nutrition more challenging.
 
If we want to help improve the nutrition levels and health of a population, we should therefore look to bolster its SMEs.

Room for improvement

Sight and Life has long been interested in finding ways to boost the productivity and income of SMEs in LMICs and has researched different business models which can be most effective. Recently, we investigated constraints in egg production in four countries – Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, and India – and identified five business models that are viable and sustainable (read more on why we love eggs here). Of those five, the Egg Hub model has proven to be the most successful. An ‘Egg Hub’ is a centralized unit providing high quality affordable inputs, extension services, training, and market access to small and medium farm enterprises (out-growers) involved in layer farming.  This approach showed rapid increase in egg yields, achieved self‐sufficiency, reduced the price of eggs, and provided a high income for the farmers, a majority of whom are women. We found that this model was successful in improving hen productivity from an average of 40 eggs per bird to 270-300 eggs – an outstanding result.

It should be noted that private companies were the ones to develop the Egg Hub model, and although the commercial players did not see any immediate profit, they will have long‐term sustainable gains through increased market share, justifying their initial capital investment.[iii]

20% lower egg prices “We now eat eggs frequently as they are easily accessible, unlike in the past.” – Young mother
3X more income “We are very happy as we are able to support our family through the business.” – Smallholder farmer
2x more eggs “We have raised the bar in our standard of living. Even our children will be able to find jobs through the same business of raising chicken.”  – Farmer

This study demonstrates how impactful the right kind of efforts can be on SMEs, the livelihoods they support, and food systems. To enable more of this sort of targeted investment all along the value chain, Sight and Life is initiating Food Systems Innovation Hubs in rapidly emerging markets such as Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Rwanda. These hubs will work to alleviate malnutrition through corporate partnerships, impact investors, and government collaboration in the context of a robust entrepreneurial culture in these geographies.

Food Systems Innovation Hubs can help unlock the full potential of SMEs by using proven strategies and increasing capital flow to LMICs. We encourage you to join us in this effort by joining the upcoming webinar on February 2 to learn more about this initiative and how you can contribute.


 
 Read further about our ideas for the Food Systems Innovation Hub HERE

References

[i] The World Bank
[ii] https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/smefinance. Accessed online on January 17, 2021
[iii] Beesabathuni K, Lingala S, Kraemer K. Increasing egg availability through smallholder business models in East Africa and India. Matern Child Nutr. 2018;14(S3):e12667. https://doi.org/10.1111/mcn.12667

Valuing Nutrition

 

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“It would be easy to give the public information and hope they change behavior, but we know that doesn’t work very satisfactorily. [If it did] none of us would be obese, none of us would smoke and none of us would drive like lunatics.”
– Ian Potter, Director New Zealand Health Sponsorship Council

Why do we choose the foods that most commonly make it to our tables? Are they the cheapest options? The tastiest? The easiest to grow? Are they perhaps infused with nostalgia or promoted by an irresistible advertising campaign? Not surprisingly, a multitude of factors are at play, although their hierarchy is naturally affected by a person’s buying power and economic status.

Consider, for example, the habits of consumers considered to be Bottom of Pyramid (BoP). Fully two-thirds of the world’s population fall into this category, many living in the Global South’s rapidly emerging economies. Some of these booming communities continue to struggle with malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, even as their buying power increases. It turns out that increased availability of nutritious foods by itself will not generate change on the scale necessary to meet national and global commitments related to hunger and malnutrition. Interestingly, it has been demonstrated that BoP consumers are ready to pay more for nutritious products if they deem them to be valuable. For example, mothers will want to give their children the best food they can afford, selecting something they perceive as higher quality, not necessarily the cheapest product on the shelf. [i]

Understanding the consumer

Encouraging a shift towards nutritious, safe, and tasty and affordable foods in the developing world will require social marketing campaigns to generate demand for these diets by shaping the consumer’s understanding of what is valuable. How can we best support efforts to empower consumers to make healthy choices?

Sight and Life has studied the ways alternative protein brands have chosen to engage with their consumers in High-Income Countries. Two American companies, for example, appealed to certain narrative “archetypes” – The Hero and The Innocent – providing the brands a more human feel and allowing their consumers to identify either as a climate change fighting Hero, or as a person free from any societal guilt, ie. an Innocent. (You can read more on this study here). But would these archetypes speak to BoP consumers in the Global South? Can we alter the manifestations of such archetypes such that they resonate with low-and-middle-income consumers? Can the sense of purpose be made more personal and placed within the Global South consumer’s needs?

An innovative solution

Such an avenue of exploration can be undertaken by Sight and Life’s new initiative, Food Systems Innovation Hubs. The factors that drive demand for nutritious foods in the Global South are convenience, affordability, and aspirational value. The Innovation Hubs – located in places such as Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Rwanda – will address all three factors by engaging in downstream activities such as running market surveys and consumer campaigns, lowering distribution costs through common logistics, shaping industrial policy towards nutrition, and creating an enabling environment through regulatory and marketing support. Most importantly, these hubs will focus on discerning and amplifying the values and priorities of the communities it serves, ultimately helping them choose healthy, nutritious diets.

To learn more about the Food Systems Innovation Hubs by joining us on February 2 for a webinar or reading the blog series HERE.

 

References

[i] “Marketing Nutrition for the Base of the Pyramid”, Report by Hystra – Hybrid Strategies Consulting, April 2014

Innovation for Transformation

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The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a collective reminder that our well-being is delicately intertwined with that of our neighbor. During this crisis, we have also seen that the transfer of data, information, know-how, and resources across borders has been crucial in accelerating our capacity for mitigation. By sharing new treatment strategies, developing safe and effective vaccines, and distributing PPE to those who need it most we have come together in a global, coordinated effort. This has been remarkable and heartening to witness.

“It is unacceptable that hunger is on the rise at a time when the world wastes more than 1 billion tonnes of food every year. It is time to change how we produce and consume, including to reduce greenhouse emissions. Transforming food systems is crucial for delivering all the Sustainable Development Goals. As a human family, a world free of hunger is our imperative.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres 
Here at Sight and Life, we care deeply about the health and wellbeing of our fellow world citizens and have been working to improve access to quality nutrition globally since our inception during the famine in the Horn of Africa in the mid-1980s. Through our work at the foundation, we have seen firsthand the immense impact scientific evidence, technology transfer, and targeted investment can have on food systems.

Innovate for nutrition

Take the egg, for example. Eggs are nutrient-dense animal source foods and have been shown to reduce stunting in young children. But eggs are expensive and scarce in most low and middle-income countries (LMIC). In Malawi, smallholder farmer groups have increased their income and produce more and more affordable eggs with the support of an Egg Hub, a centralized unit that provides inputs, technical assistance, credit, and market access (learn more by visiting egghub.org).
 
Unfortunately, an immense gulf still exists that we cannot continue to ignore. In LMIC the effects of malnutrition and climate change become progressively dire. Most high productivity technologies that can help mitigate these shocks rest with organizations in high-income countries (HIC) that benefit from large consumer markets and large pools of venture capital to test and try innovations to make food systems nutritious and sustainable. These innovations are vital to boosting the nature-positive production of agricultural goods while preserving and advancing equitable livelihoods.

At the same time, in rapidly emerging consumer markets in the global south, such as India and Nigeria, the effects of malnutrition and climate change remain devastating. Malnutrition in young children is a life-sentence not only for that child but also for the community and country in which they live and grow. A stunted child may never catch up to his or her peers and will therefore fail to thrive and lead a dignified life, as every child should have the right to do.

Collaboration is key

Sight and Life is determined to change all of this. That is why we are launching a new initiative – Food Systems Innovation Hubs.

We will work to establish hubs in rapidly emerging consumer markets, such as India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Kenya to stimulate investment in resilient and responsive food systems, as well as facilitate relevant technology transfer and know-how from HIC to LMIC. Through partnerships, government collaboration, impact investors, and philanthropies in the context of local entrepreneurs, these hubs will catalyze a transformative change for society-wide dietary shifts towards more efficient, healthier, and more environmentally friendly food systems.

Get involved

I invite you to join us in this coordinated effort to improve the world’s food systems and to reach out to learn how you can become involved. I know that we can work together to solve this global problem of peoples’ and planetary health. To learn more,  about Food Systems Innovation Hubs watch the recent Food Systems Innovation Hub webinar discussing the importance of innovation and nutrition for global health. To connect with us, please email info@sightandlife.org.