For more than 40 years, thousands of people have made a home in the Sahrawi refugee camp in the Sahara Desert in Algeria. Refugees there have typically survived on a combination of international aid and tending livestock whose diet consisted of garbage and organic waste. It’s not a place where you’d expect to see people growing their own food.
That’s exactly what’s been happening over the last few years, though, with the help of an innovation team of the United Nations organization called the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator. In 2016, WFP piloted its H2Grow hydroponic cultivation initiative to help people affected by hunger grow their own food. You don’t need soil for hydroponic farming, and it uses 90% less water and 75% less space than traditional farming.
These qualities make it well suited for even the most extreme environments, like in the Sahara. People in the Sahrawi refugee camp use plastic jerricans, scrap metal, and clay mud huts to grow barley, which they feed to their livestock to increase the quantity and nutritional value of the meat and milk they’re producing.
The success of the H2Grow initiative in this harsh environment inspired WFP to expand the project to other populations affected by conflict. Today, it’s operating in nine countries and has impacted more than 26,500 people. Initiatives such as this helped to earn the WFP Innovation Accelerator a spot on Fast Company’s list of the Best Workplaces for Innovators.
SILICON VALLEY MODELS
Since its founding five years ago, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has been working toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of ending world hunger by 2030. According to Bernhard Kowatsch, who heads the program, achieving that goal will require innovative approaches that harness cutting-edge technology.
“When we started our accelerator program, we looked at best-in-class Silicon Valley and developing country innovation models,” he says. “The goal has been to take human-centered design and lean startup approaches and translate them to startups that are geared towards achieving social-impact causes in developing countries,” Kowatsch says.
The effect so far has been huge: By the end of 2020, the innovations supported by the WFP Innovation Accelerator had positively affected 3.7 million people and raised $118 million in grant money.
CONNECTING FARMERS TO MARKETS
WFP Innovation Accelerator success stories include the Farm to Market Alliance, a private sector network that uses a digital app to connect small-holder farmers to markets, and E-Shop, an online food-ordering and delivery system that helps food-insecure people in Somalia gain access to nutritious, affordable food. E-Shop performed a particularly important role when the pandemic arrived, helping reduce people’s exposure to COVID-19. By June 2021, more than 124,000 Somalians have used the platform, and more than 180,000 home deliveries had been made.
“Because of COVID-19, the number of hungry people around the world has gone up over the past year and a half,” Kowatsch says. “If we’re serious about ending hunger, we need to find those startups that can help us bring that number down to zero.”
Bernhard Kowatsch was also a finalist for Fast Company’s Innovative Leader of the Year. Read more here.