Collaborating with the Rockefeller Foundation to enable systemic change

Client stories
Systemic stories

The Rockefeller Foundation

01 October 2014

There will soon be eight billion people in the world to feed, with ever-depleting natural resources. Along with increasing food production, we need to conserve and preserve our food, while minimising waste. We have to find an integrated approach.

We've been working with the Rockefeller Foundation since 2012 to tackle key development challenges. To date, we have collaborated on two programmes – one in India to address post-harvest food loss, and the other in Kenya to explore the role of digital in reducing poverty.

Reducing post-harvest food loss

Up to a third of food grown in developing countries spoils before it can be eaten. Reasons include heat, water damage, bad roads, and a disjointed network of farmers and middlemen. But problems also create opportunities.

In May 2014, a multi-sector team of 20 Africa agriculture experts and stakeholders went on a learning journey organised by the Rockefeller Foundation and Leaders’ Quest to India. The purpose of the programme was to explore innovative solutions to the issue of food loss, catalyse new thinking and partnerships, and discover insights to inform Rockefeller’s strategy for maximising positive impact in this area.

The group spent time with farmers, technologists, retailers, entrepreneurs, business people, policy makers and academics. The programme immersed participants in the realities of food loss on the ground and offered them an opportunity to see new ideas in action – from smallholder farmers using mobile phones to access real-time market prices for their crops, to scientists working on low-cost storage and preservation technologies.

Here are the top 10 lessons we took away from our India learning journey:

  1. Lots of solutions already exist – from solar driers that quickly process fresh vegetables, to sealable poly-bags that keep grains dry, and double-walled brick boxes for produce like lettuce that use off-grid evaporative cooling.
  2. Wide adoption is the real challenge, so solutions have to be cheap and simple. For any product or device that's introduced, we need to know who’s going to pay for it. Donations can play a part at first, but are not sustainable. Micro-lending schemes are useful. A food retailer, for example, might finance a machine and gradually deduct the cost as it buys food from farmers.
  3. Bright ideas have to fit into a community’s existing culture. For example, pooling grain into a silo for a whole village won’t work where villagers don’t trust one another. Shared ownership of equipment may be effective in some societies, not others. Local context is key
  4. Collaboration works. A great way to spread food loss reduction ideas is through existing associations – like village savings groups and farmer member associations. Groups can take ownership, test what works best, and make local adaptations.
  5. Information systems are a highly scalable way to share knowledge – especially using mobile phones. Indian examples include Reuters Market Light, which provides prices and weather reports, and Digital Green, which has 3,000 peer-to-peer training videos. Food companies, too, are interested in funding IT networks because they benefit from transparency and quality control further up the supply chain.
  6. The best food waste ideas have multiple benefits. For example, simple processes such as drying food near the farm might save a tomato crop from spoiling. But it also creates a new product – sun-dried tomatoes – that boosts farmers’ incomes year-round. Ideas such as these create new jobs in the village, perhaps for women or for young adults, which reduces urban migration. A ‘win-win’ idea is the most likely solution to catch on.
  7. India and Africa can learn from one another about farmer aggregation, a core concept in reducing waste. We visited one entrepreneurial Indian farmer co-op with a truck that was also a mobile shop, which toured the local area to sell produce. Member farmers shared costs and profits in proportion to how much food they contributed. Africa’s strength is scale: farmer associations with millions of members, big enough to negotiate with government and multinationals.
  8. Mobile technology is revolutionary. Mobile money platforms have allowed some African countries to connect smallholder farmers to the formal financial system. This is an important catalyst. Being able to get paid instantly and make a payment, or get a small loan shifts farmers' mentalities away from pure subsistence towards running a small business. 
  9. The Indian government plays an active role in food security, for example storing and distributing cheap grain, paving bad roads, opening access to wholesale markets and simplifying bureaucracy. The goal is to minimise waste by getting harvested food to market quicker. Here, Africa can learn from its Indian counterpart.
  10. Reducing post-harvest losses is best tackled by cross-sector partnerships, including farmer groups, retailers, global food companies, technologists, legislators and researchers. As the Quest group realised, each sector sees the problem from its own perspective and prioritises different answers. By coming together and cooperating, we can find a systems approach to food waste that has the widest impact.

This learning journey was designed to showcase Indian solutions that we can adapt, and apply what works to Africa’s needs. The Rockefeller participants also brought their own ideas from Africa to an Indian audience. This is a good example of exactly the kind of collaboration that's necessary to drive progress and create change.

The good news is that much of the relevant technology we need to reduce food waste already exists. We just need to work together to deploy it..

Reducing poverty through digital employment

In 2012, we led a five-day Quest to Kenya with 20 of Rockefeller's leaders from different continents and sectors. The programme was designed to develop participants’ understanding of one of Rockefeller’s key funding areas, PRIDE (Poverty Reduction through Information and Digital Employment), which addresses high unemployment by creating jobs at scale, primarily in rural areas.

The Quest included a rich selection of visits in and around Nairobi. We met with the CEO of a mobile telephone company at the forefront of innovation in mobile banking, and discovered how an NGO is developing young slum dwellers' IT skills. We learned how a microfinance institution is helping small enterprises to be more self-sufficient, and engaged with the beneficiaries of an international charity working with the mentally ill and their families. We spent time with young Kenyans who are driving social change through their involvement in media and art at a local film school, and visited a pan-African NGO trying to address HIV/AIDS transmission from mothers to children.

At the end of the week, some of the participants spoke on camera about what they had learned. Watch the video here: