In mid-2016, the United Nations took a radical step toward meeting its own Sustainable Development Goal of curing global hunger by 2030. Simply pouring more money into traditional services wasn’t going to cut it, the agency reasoned, so they launched the UN World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator to provide nonprofit and for-profit companies both more cash and experience testing novel ideas, many of which could be spun off into self-sustaining and scalable enterprises, through their gigantic chain of partners and far-flung field offices.
That’s yielded a host of new concepts that may help close the gap, an estimated 795 million people are undernourished, but it also exposed another shortcoming. After working alongside experts like MIT and the Jordanian Center for Agricultural Research and Extension to deploy hi-tech food computers, which work like small, programmable greenhouses to kick-start agricultural production for Syrian refugees, and seeing the impact of solar-powered shipping containers to grow nutritious animal feed in barren environments like the Sahara Desert, program head Bernhard Kowatsch realized the group’s current portfolio was light on nimble ways to counteract mass disruptions. As in, how to respond to unexpected food shortages in emergency situations, particularly in remote or dangerous places. That’s increasingly an issue with the global refugee crisis and climate change.
“The challenge we are facing is how to provide food and access to low-cost nutrition in emergencies and trying to come up with something that can be rapidly deployed,” Kowatsch says. It’s an imagination, logistics, and cost problem. “The smaller the better. The potentially even portable and cheaper the better,” he adds, noting that deliveries get tricky after a typhoon hits, region is flooded, or entire way of life is decimated by economic crisis or extreme conflict.
So the group has joined forces with Silicon Valley think tank Singularity University to launch the Global Impact Challenge, a competition to provide smarter ways to deliver nutritious (and even local) food to those in unexpectedly dire straits. Per the competition disclosure: “We’re challenging you to design a low-cost, scalable solution that enables severely marginalized people to support their (five-member, on average) household food and nutrition needs in a sustainable manner that lowers their dependence on aid.” (You can read more here.)
The contest is open to both nonprofit and for-profit groups. And one competition will essentially lead to another. In April, those chosen–Kowatsch expects about 10 finalists–will get the chance to join the WFP Innovation Accelerator for a bootcamp at their homebase in Munich. That comes with additional funding which is traditionally between $50,000 and $100,000 per project, although the exact amount has yet to be disclosed. Afterward, those groups may emerge ready to deploy their concepts, while one big winner will also be given the chance to enroll in Singularity’s Global Solutions Program, which takes place from June to August on the group’s campus at NASA Ames Research Center in the Bay Area. In this case, “big” means thinking really big: The program is designed to magnify concepts that have the potential to “positively impact the lives of a billion people” in a decade or less.