In eight years, the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations are supposed to be achieved. At this year’s climate conference COP27 in Egypt the Global North and the Global south negotiate about accountable KPIs. The situation: 1. The African continent is responsible for only four percent of global emissions and is facing the worst effects of climate change. And second, according to the LANCET the cost of the 2022 floods in Pakistan has been estimated12% of its $346 billion gross domestic product. Ensuring ZERO HUNGER as well as GOOD HEALTH and WELLBEING is at the core to protect our health from the effects of climate change. To scale solutions making food systems healthy and sustainable, Sight and Life and Harvard University have partnered to train over 3,000 entrepreneurs from the Global South in the next three years.
Why is entrepreneurship in food systems important in emerging economies? Is this a new approach?
Srujith Lingala: In a world torn by climate emergency, COVID 19 and war, already broken food systems have been completely fractured. This has a disproportionate negative impact in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where malnutrition crisis is acute. Many countries in Africa and across Asia, such as India, have alarming stunting and wasting rates. Without solving problems in food systems, the problem of malnutrition cannot be addressed – and business as usual is not working. According to the SOFI report more and more people are hungrier with each passing year, adding 50 million more only in the last year. We urgently need innovative, out of the box ideas that can be turned into solutions on the ground. At Sight and Life (SAL) we strongly believe that local problems require local solutions. This is why we partner with Harvard Universtiy and designed the SAL x Harvard Food Systems Live! course. It will create a pipeline of food system changemakers, specifically in African nations and India, who are locally rooted, globally connected, and empowered to challenge the status quo of their communities.
Many excellent young professionals in Europe aspire to found and grow a company. It has become a prestigious career path and many hope for a strong financial return. What is the situation about the startup ecosystem in emerging economies?
Kalpana Beesabathuni: Emerging Economies are fast becoming the hotbeds of innovation and entrepreneurship. More than 400 companies across Africa earn above one billion dollars in annual revenues. This is a clear indication towards the untapped potential of markets to develop local low-cost solutions and use business for scale. However, early entrepreneurs in emerging economies are forced to navigate complex social problems arising out of missing services in the environment – access to funding/finance, strong regulations to protect intellectual property, lack of digital connectivity. Each of these missing institutional constraints need to be creatively tackled.
Kalyani Prasher: The SAL x Harvard Food Systems Live! course is lead by Professor Tarun Khanna of Harvard Business School together with Dr Karim Lakhani and Dr Caroline Elkins. Professor Khanna puts it well when he says, “Everyone wants to start a company, which is great, but in emerging economies it is not so simple – how do you build a risk capital framework, develop a conceptual roadmap, branding systems... how do you make it all work? That’s what students will learn in this course.” Participants will learn from prior attempts to address these problems, identify points of opportunity for smart entrepreneurial efforts and propose and develop their own creative solutions. The focus of this course is on individual agency—what can you do to address a defined problem? The creative process starts with immersion in the problem-at-hand and the harnessing of diverse perspectives.
"Early entrepreneurs in emerging economies are forced to navigate complex social problems arising out of missing services in the environment – access to funding, strong regulations to protect intellectual property and more.” Kalpana Beesabathuni
What is required to build a strong startup ecosystem in emerging markets?
Srujith Lingala: Let us take the example of a thriving ecosystem – Silicon Valley. A complex and dynamic network of elements – top-class universities, knowledge sharing opportunities, peer-peer networking, venture funding, and incubators – all these factors work together to create an environment suitable for launching and growing new start-ups. The Food Systems Live! course aims to replicate these elements to empower entrepreneurs from emerging economies to launch their disruptive solutions.
How did you come up with the idea of the entrepreneurship course? Who came up with it?
Srujith Lingala: We at SAL wanted to prepare a generation of problem solvers who will answer a bold question that will change our future for the better: “What’s next for the global food and agricultural industry?“ Over three years our objective is that 3,000 or more entreprenuers will come out of this course motivated and energised to fill the gaps in food systems in their markets, and as a collective that will end up solving some of the biggest problems we face today – from farm practices to supply chains to storing, packing, delivery, and climate change.
Kalyani Prasher: The course is part of the Product Innovations in Nutrition project that SAL is implementing across 5 countries between 2022 and 2025. This project is funded by CIFF and ECF and all of us are keen on investing into teaching and training entreprenuers about nutrition and food systems.
What kind of problems would you want these entrepreneurs to solve once they are equipped with the learning of the course?
Srujith Lingala: Our entreprneuers who graduate from the course will learn how identify institutional voids and convert challenges into entrepreneurial opportunities across the emerging economies. Specifically, they will:
Appreciate how unique food system challenges in emerging economies have previously been addressed
Recognize the opportunities for improvements or innovations to solve food security and sustainability around the globe
Understand the concepts and frameworks for identifying and evaluating the viability of such opportunities
Apply an entrepreneurial mindset to various aspects of a business plan through live interactions with Harvard faculty and industry experts
Develop solutions to food system challenges that can be incorporated into their organizations
Do you know successful startups from emerging countries who have built sucessful businness models in food safety, security, and nutrition?
Kalpana Beesabathuni: Emerging economies are some of the most entrepreneurial nations in the world. The percentage of working age citizens who start businesses outweigh that of the developed economies. Unfortunately, due to the multitude of challenges they face, they are more likely to fold up soon. However, there are quite a few businesses which have grown to nourish their nations, create wealth and employ their citizens, for example:
One Acre Fund: Started in 2006 by Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund now works with more than 1.3 million smallholder farmers to eradicate hunger and poverty by providing them with quality farm products and training they need to harvest more food and grow their way out of poverty.
AgNext: Taranjeet Singh Bhamra, who founded AgNext is an ardent supporter of sustainable agriculture. AgNext has built a world class platform for instant quality assessment and traceability linkages removing subjectivity and bringing transparency across food value chains.
Lenziemill: Maya Stewart and Andrew Stewart are a dynamic entrepreneur duo who plan, implement and oversee operations of the Egghub in Malawi. Egghub is a successful poultry production model that doubles egg availability in last mile communities and increases smallholder farmer incomes by 3x.
Solar Freeze: Dysmus Kisilu is founder of Solar Freeze, a Kenya-based enterprise that has pioneered mobile cold storage units powered by renewable energy to help rural smallholder farmers reduce postharvest losses. Dysmus has worked with smallholder farmers in eastern Kenya to increase agricultural yields by more than 150 percent from 2016 to date, innovating through a simple "pay-as-you-store" payment system allowing farmers to pay as little as $0.1 cents to store perishable produce such as fruits and vegetables inside the portable solar cold rooms.
This sounds great – so if someone wants to apply for this course, what is the way to do it? Do you have any offers for people from emerging economies?
Kalyani Prasher: It’s a simple process, you sign up via edX, the platform that is hosting this Harvard course, which begins January 23, 2023.
We do in fact have scholarships for those who need financial aid in LMICs, specifically India and African nations. Anyone looking for scholarships can apply here. The scholarships are open till January 6, 2023. However, we must stress upon the point that the course itself is being offered by Harvard University at a greatly reduced fee of $249, especially keeping our target countries in mind. We hope many young and aspiring entrepreneurs as well as professionals working in food systems SMEs will apply and make use of this opportunity to make the world a better, more equitable, place for all.
If you like to get in touch and find out more about Sight and Life, follow via LinkedIn or via website. This interview was conducted in writing by Dr. Simone K. Frey, founder of NUTRITION HUB, with Srujith Lingala, Kalyani Prasher and Kalpana Beesabathuni. Srujith is a business model expert and program manager – he advances social business models in emerging economies. Kalpana designs and directs implementation of agriculture and foodsystems innovations. Kalyani has been a journalist for 20+ years before moving her work to the development sector as a communications specialist. For more information, contact FoodSystemsLive@sightandlife.org.
From left to right: Srujith Lingala, Kalyani Prasher and Kalpana Beesabathuni