Technology helps countries win the battle against hunger

  • A data monitoring system tracks hunger in real time
  • The Dalili app guides refugees to shops with reasonable food prices
  • Enabling citizens to buy food at wholesale cost
  • A blockchain-powered solution for money transfers
  • Playing the Freerice game to help fund WFP
  • Drones help aid organisations deliver assistance to those in need
  • Connecting farmers in a peer-to-peer network
  • Making it possible to grow food in arid regions
  • Selling soon-to-expire food at discounted prices
  • Tech is making the world a better place

Thanks to technological advancement, farmers around the globe are now able to produce more food than ever before. Better agricultural machines and practices enable them to deliver increasing amounts of fruit, vegetables, and meat throughout the year. And yet, over 820 million people go to bed hungry each night and millions more suffer from malnutrition. This problem is particularly harsh on children. The World Food Programme (WFP), a food aid branch of the United Nations (UN), estimates that it would take $3.6 billion annually to feed 52 million malnourished children under the age of five. Some countries are prone to famines because of wars, drought, floods, and natural disasters, with climate change set to worsen the problem.

 A textbox showing the number of people worldwide who suffer from hunger.
820 million people worldwide suffer from hunger, despite farmers producing enough food to feed the global population.

Fortunately, many international organisations and private firms are focusing on fighting hunger. New technologies play an essential role in these efforts. From apps and games to drones and digital platforms, humanitarian organisations rely on an array of advanced tools to assist those in need. Furthermore, advances in artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, blockchain, chemistry, and other fields make it possible to grow crops in arid regions, reduce the price of food, and deliver supplies to millions of refugees. Technology is making a difference in famine-stricken areas, and as scientists and engineers come up with innovative solutions, eliminating hunger is becoming an increasingly realistic goal.

A data monitoring system tracks hunger in real time

Spotting problems is the first step in solving them, which is why WFP and the Chinese tech juggernaut Alibaba Group have developed ‘Hunger Map LIVE’, an AI-powered hunger monitoring system. The software predicts and tracks the severity of hunger in over 90 countries by collecting public information on conflicts, weather, nutrition, and various macro-economic factors. The data is then analysed and converted into an interactive map that displays food insecurity problems at the global, country, and regional levels. Seeing events as they unfold in real time enables decision-makers to respond faster and provide humanitarian assistance where it’s needed the most.

The Dalili app guides refugees to shops with reasonable food prices

Refugees are especially at risk of suffering from hunger and poor health. In Lebanon, for instance, Syrian refugees comprise a quarter of the country’s population but still struggle to get food at a reasonable price. To make their lives easier, WFP developed the Dalili smartphone app. The program provides refugees with information on food prices, availability of goods, and working hours of local shops that have partnered with the UN’s aid organisation. The app also displays photos of the storefront to make it easier for refugees to find it. By using this app, families can compare prices and get more value for their money.

Store owners benefit, too. They can gain a better understanding of what customers want, advertise special promotions, and add information on stock levels. So it comes as no surprise that more than 500 stores and 12,000 refugees have already signed up for the Dalili app. WFP plans to use the app in other countries such as Jordan and Kenya as well. It’s also looking into ways to add bus route information and navigational assistance for areas not covered by Google Maps. The organisation hopes that Dalili will eventually be operational in dozens of countries, making life easier for millions of refugees unable to return to their homes.

Enabling citizens to buy food at wholesale prices

The Nigeria-based tech firm Worldbay Technologies is also trying to make food more affordable for low-income families. The company launched Grocedy, a crowdfunding platform that enables users to purchase food at wholesale prices. Lanre Smith, Worldbay’s CEO, says that once the company gathers everybody’s money, it buys products in large amounts and distributes them to users, which reduces the overall cost. Users can opt for bronze, silver, gold, diamond, and platinum subscription packages, and those with a higher subscription status can buy a broader range of products. Smith hopes that the platform will attract around 30,000 customers by August 2020.

A blockchain-powered solution for money transfers

Delivering assistance to refugees is a challenging task, even when aid organisations have enough food and money. Transporting supplies to certain regions can be expensive and skews “the prices of the food already on the market”, says Hanisha Vaswani Jagtiani, who works with the WFP Innovation Accelerator and mentors tech projects. Money transfers to those in need come with unique challenges, too. For one, humanitarian organisations have to pay high bank fees to move money to millions of people. Also, banks in some developing countries tend to be unstable, while forcing refugees to provide identity information to financial organisations might expose them to unnecessary dangers. Another problem is that aid groups can’t always confirm the identity of the people they’re supposed to help.

To make it possible to transfer money safely and at a lower cost to individuals whose identity is hard to confirm, WFP launched the Building Blocks project that makes use of blockchain technology. Refugees in certain camps are now provided with a virtual wallet and a virtual bank account. Once their identity is confirmed through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ biometric identity management system, refugees can use the app to shop at supermarkets. Each time they pay, the blockchain records the amount, and WFP then transfers the money to the vendor. Vaswani Jagtiani says that “Earlier, it was: bank to 100,000 wallets. We sent a bulk of cash to a bank, which sent it on to the wallets. In this case, it is just us to wallet – wallet to merchant – and we settle with the merchants at the end of the month.”

Playing the Freerice game to help fund WFP

WFP also enables people to make a difference in the world by merely playing a web and mobile game called Freerice. For every answer users get right, sponsors send cash equivalent of ten grains of rice to the food aid organisation. The app also makes money by displaying ads. Since 2010, players have raised $1.39 million, which amounts to around 200 billion grains of rice. Users can test their knowledge in different categories, including languages, literature, geography, anatomy, and math. Developers have also recently added questions on climate change and nutrition. And with WFP planning additional upgrades, the number of people who enjoy Freerice could easily rise above the current figure of 620,000 players.

Drones help aid organisations deliver assistance to those in need

In addition to games, WFP also makes use of drones. The organisation deploys these machines to inspect areas affected by natural disasters and make informed decisions on where to send food and emergency response teams. Also, drones help aid workers to identify areas prone to flooding and create plans for moving people to safer ground. Unlike satellites, drones can deliver high-quality aerial photos in cloudy conditions as well. This feature was particularly useful in 2017, when the category-5 hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Caribbean. WFP immediately deployed drones to inspect the devastated areas and send humanitarian assistance to people who needed it most.

Connecting farmers in a peer-to-peer network

Eliminating hunger requires empowering local farmers to harvest more crops and overcome various challenges. Wefarm, a London-based startup, achieves these goals by running a peer-to-peer network that enables farmers to post questions and receive answers from colleagues in other parts of the country. When a farmer, for instance, asks how to treat a certain crop disease, smart algorithms match the question to other farmers that are likely to provide a relevant answer. The network relies on SMS technology to transfer messages, which benefits thousands of farmers in rural areas with limited internet connectivity.

Making it possible to grow food in arid regions

Apart from knowledge-sharing platforms, farmers in developing countries are also getting access to sophisticated agricultural technologies. Through its H2Grow initiative, WFP is funding scientists to find ways of growing crops in arid regions. A vital part of these efforts is hydroponics, a technique of cultivating plants using mineral nutrients in a water solvent instead of soil. This process uses 90 per cent less water than traditional methods, and assuming that farmers have seeds, water, light, and nutrients, crops can grow during the entire year. And although hydroponics isn’t a new concept, the UN’s food assistance branch made a difference by finding ways to adjust this technique to conditions and materials present in specific regions.

Sahrawi refugees in Western Algeria, for instance, used WFP’s hydroponics solutions to grow barley grass for feeding livestock, which increased milk production and meat quality. “Users just need to soak the seeds, add them to the hydroponic containers, make sure they receive adequate sunlight, and on day seven, it’s ready for harvest,” says Nina Schroeder, the head of scale-up enablement at the WFP Innovation Accelerator. The refugees were also able to sell extra fodder and use the money to buy other goods. Around 150 containers were installed in this region, producing two tonnes of fodder per day.

Selling soon-to-expire food at discounted prices

Preventing food waste is another way to provide more people with nutritious meals. Following this approach, the Egyptian entrepreneur Menna Shahin launched the Tekeya app that connects individuals and charities to supermarkets, restaurants, and hotels that offer soon-to-expire food items at discounted prices. The products aren’t leftovers and are usually of high quality. They typically include unserved meals or baked goods, as well as items kept in the refrigerator. Shahin’s platform is available in the cities of Aswan, Alexandria, Sharqia, Cairo, and Giza, with plans to expand to other Arab countries in the near future.

Tech is making the world a better place

Wars, natural disasters, poverty, and climate change make it difficult to eliminate famine and deliver assistance to those in need. Hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger and malnutrition despite the world having enough food to feed everyone. But advanced technologies are starting to make a real difference. They enable farmers to produce more food and provide aid organisations with tools necessary to more efficiently help vulnerable groups. Ending world hunger remains a challenging task, but science and technology can deliver life-changing solutions and make the world a better place.

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