Planting Seeds for the Future of Food 2017

BSL Partner Aileen Ionescu-Somers plants a seed by moderating a workshop at Nestlé conference on 6 & 7 July, 2017

Food is important to everybody, I think we all agree. We need to eat to live – fact. Moreover, we all feel emotional about food. What is the most photographed subject on Facebook, and by far?  You got it: it’s food! Yet few of us understand the complexities of our food system and the array of dysfunctionalities that affect sustainable food access and security, affordability and appropriate use of food for optimum nutrition and health benefits. The question of food sustainability raises some tough questions, some of which were addressed at Nestlé’s recent Planting Seeds for the Future of Food conference held in the Nestlé conference center on 6 and 7 July. BSL partner and Google Food Lab participant Aileen Ionescu-Somers moderated a workshop on Proximity, Transparency and Connectivity through Technology at this highly informative and interactive event.

The conference theme – the future of our food system – was assessed through a razor-sharp questioning process with one dominant and highly relevant question on the agenda: “How can we match consumer demand for healthy and sustainable diets with the productive capacity of future sustainable farming systems?“  There is no doubt that this question is a tough and complex one, relating to the food system as a whole, so the organizers broke it down into logical individual components: Why is soil health and landscape biodiversity important for producing healthy plants, animals and food?  How can biology and technology contribute to increasing yields to feed the world population, while reducing negative social and environmental impacts? Can we define and positively influence the kind of nutrition that we wish our food system to deliver? What are the challenges to overcome in our food systems with increasing urbanization? How can we prevent the current massive food losses & food waste so as to improve our food system and overall nutritional benefits? What role should processed food have in the nutritional mix for tomorrow’s consumers? Is the idea of personalized nutrition moving from niche to mainstream? And so many more…

All in all, the conference led to some compelling conclusions on what is needed from our food system in the future. Watch out for future blogs from Aileen on these very topics.

Ionescu-AileenPICTURE-150x150Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.

Hacking for chocolate

“Chocothon” hits sweet spot of collaborative innovation in Ghana

Key question….what went on in Ghana last weekend that might have something to do with BSL’s vision and mission, and especially its three pillars of entrepreneurship, sustainability and responsible leadership in a context of collaborative learning?

The first Chocothon, that’s what! BSL has partnered with Google, the International Trade Center, the Future Food Institute, Crowdfooding and a host of other cool organizations to promote a “techno” focus on the sustainability and business threats around world cocoa supply. How? By holding a hackathon for chocolate (hence the term “Chocothon”). For those not yet in the know, a hackathon is an event, typically lasting a few days, in which groups of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming. The idea of “hacking for chocolate” was born some two years ago at the Google Food Innovation Lab (where BSL partner and thought leader Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers is an expert participant). The first Chocothon in a series became reality in Accra, Ghana this weekend!

img_9925Threats…around chocolate? What? When you look at supermarket shop shelves today, it is hard to believe there is a problem. After all, we seem to have a plentiful supply of cheap, delicious chocolate treats. But don’t be fooled; our business system is overly short-term oriented. The economics barely work for now and benefit too few stakeholders. Long-term, if the crucial farmer producer of cocoa is not protected, then it’s a zero sum game. In other words, no supply = no business (so bad news for companies) = very expensive Easters, Christmases, Valentine’s days and Birthdays in the future (so terrible news for consumers).

Let’s focus on the challenges. Undercompensating farmers for quality cocoa ultimately leads to too low an income for farmers to bother staying in the business. It creates a rather vicious cycle: no money = low or no investment in new technologies, new trees or desperately needed training = increasingly lower yields and environmental degradation = lower quality cocoa = even less compensation. Then there are government policy threats, such as lack of knowledge and certainty about land rights and ownership leading to insecurity in land tenure. Macroeconomic issues such as inflation and defective exchange rate regimes also take their toll. So farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and other cocoa producing countries are not only exiting cocoa farming and/or switching to other less challenging crops, but they do not want their children to stay in cocoa farming either.  Farming cocoa is a grueling task. If the economics do not work, it is even harder to make a business case to the increasingly literate children of farmers who, after all, may have other options.

So what does the Chocothon set out to do? Well, can the best of modern day high tech ingenuity contribute to resolving the problems around cocoa production? Can this be done in a context where illiteracy is widespread and access to Smartphones extremely limited? We agree…its a pretty tough call. But the technology landscape is changing rapidly. The Chocothon team figured that if we could get young Ghanaians excited about problems in their own country, through collaboration they could be empowered to focus their ingenuity on thinking forward and fixing them. After all, the problems we mention are man-made, so let’s get some man (and woman)-made solutions!

Need more convincing?  Well, if you get enough stakeholders together in one room with some hackers to work on a problem, you can literally start… hacking away at it.  So, for example, at the Chocothon, we invited government representatives to not only contribute their knowledge as “knowledge brokers” but to also raise awareness with them of the importance of increasing internet and Smart phone technology access, or of increasing institutional knowledge about land sizes, ownership and security. After all, knowing what you didn’t know makes for better decision-making. Looking forward, we can expect that young farmers in Ghana will be – as all young people are – ingenuous about assuring their own access to technology; every single trend in the world indicates that this is the case.

Therefore, the idea of designing collaborative platforms to share farming equipment or expertise to increase quality of work and efficiency and thus productivity, is not a pipe dream.  To set up systems empowering farmers to demand and get the best prices on the market is not a hallucination either. To enable mobile direct payments to farmers – faster cashless money transactions – coupled with now fast developing services like mobile insurance or other business transactions for tools or fertilizers are totally feasible future options for Africa, as they have been for other countries. Micro-financing of farmer investments, even by crowd-sourcing funds from all the chocolate lovers out there might be another possibility. Creating training platforms, or indeed tools that help young farmers with assessing soil fertility, tree age, crop diseases…all this is possible today. We can also look at optimizing transportation platforms to allow for better transport of cocoa beans – a big headache for Ghanaian farmers today. Get it? Good!

So from Saturday to Sunday 20-21 January, 2017 a group of young and talented hackers – IT developers and social innovators – got together with other stakeholders at the Impact Hub n Accra, Ghana. Representatives and knowledge brokers joined from multiple organizations such as the Ghanaian government, Google, Barry Callebaut (Swiss B2B cocoa supplier), the International Trade Center and the Future Food Institute. The Chocathon team assigned the hackers to working groups and provided food, drinks, and even mattresses (yes!) for the all night hack.

img_9852-2The teams had a task of building up a prototype and uploading deliverables step by step during the hackathon. Sounds familiar? It is pretty much the techie version of what the students of BSL did by designing start-ups to tackle social issues during the last Gap-Frame week last December… Yes, this kind of collaborative learning is taking hold in more sectors than one! The Ghanaian Chocothon hackers get tempting prizes to encourage innovation and even conversion of their prototypes into working businesses, such as a co-working space for one year at the Impact Hub or for six months at ISpace, or indeed a cash prize.

Watch this space for the next blog about the Chocothon where we will tell you about some of the cool ideas the hackers came up with. This is the first of a series of Chocothons that will ultimately contribute to saving YOUR treasured chocolate from gradual extinction. Tune in to #chocothon hashtag to find out more. Even better…how about supporting our next Chocothon? Here is our crowd-funding site link:  https://www.crowdfooding.co.uk/deal/188/Chocothon

Why should you get involved? Because YOUR chocolate needs YOU!

Ionescu-AileenPICTURE-150x150Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.