Are we finally finding a way to feed the world?
Human history is replete with instances of hunger and famine. While some have been the result of conflict and others the consequence of human error, most of them have been caused by uncontrollable environmental factors: microbial infestation, extended rainy seasons, floods that never came. Technological progress, from developed nations, became the panacea for hunger by reducing the impact of external factors on the availability of food; but yet, food insecurity remains a reality for millions of people around the world. 800 million people.
The concept of food security appeared in policy contexts in the 1970s. With ever-increasing levels of world hunger, its definition was constricted to the availability of food for consumption, and the solution was to expand food production and expand gaps in crop yields. Despite more availability, the numbers were not falling. People could not purchase the now-available food due to market volatility or socio-economic conditions. This led policymakers to expand the definition of food security to include stability and access, and the solution rested in aid, development work, boosting multilateral trade, alleviating restrictions and taxes on trade and social protection programs. In parallel, nutritional adequacy gained enough importance to warrant becoming a dimension on its own, with its achievement promised in programs that broadened dietary diversity.
The definition is now holistic. Yet, limited headway has been made toward food security for all. Today, a new dimension threatens food security globally, climate change, bringing us back to a time in history when environmental factors caused widespread hunger. But, just as technological progress helped us back then, it will again… except this time, it will originate from emerging markets, and this is why.
1. The stakes are incredibly high
In the Middle East and Africa (MEA), a considerably larger portion of the population relies on agriculture for livelihood. Whereas 10.5% of total US employment is in food and agriculture, the sector employs more than 40% of the population in Kenya, and provides livelihoods for 57% of the population in Egypt. In regional markets, the sector has far greater economic significance than elsewhere. Agriculture contributes 24% to Nigeria’s national GDP and 12% to Egypt’s. In the US, that number stands at 0.92%.
Yet, food insecurity affects a significantly greater number of people in this part of the world than anywhere else.
In 2021, 11.7% of the world population faced severe food insecurity, 40% of which are in Africa. This translates to 322 million people, which is roughly equivalent to the entire population of the US in 2021.
Poverty stands in the way of access to, and the availability of food while a changing climate reduces the productivity of crops, threatening the livelihood of the millions of families who depend on agriculture for sustenance.
2. The stakes keep getting higher – especially in MEA
Climate extremes will act as a risk multiplier for food insecurity in MEA. The Middle East’s baseline topography is not conducive for agriculture but a changing climate – with resultant desertification, increased aridity and water scarcity – is shrinking the availability of arable lands and disrupting agricultural patterns by shortening growing periods, and decreasing crop yields.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is projected to be among the first in the world to “effectively run out of water” as resources are used faster than they are replenished, and 85 million of its inhabitants are set to suffer from some form of water stress by 2025.
50 countries rely solely on uninterrupted access to the Black Sea for at least 30% of wheat imports. In MENA, these countries include Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Tunisia, Iran, Jordan, and Morocco.
Egypt is the largest importer of wheat at 13 million tons every year. Bread accounts for up to 40% of caloric intake per capita, and imports account for 60% of domestic wheat consumption.
The disruption in supply of this national staple has had wide-ranging social, economic, and political implications.
The challenge is by no means unique to the region. Climate change is a global phenomenon, and the security of food systems worldwide has been severely impacted by the Russia-Ukraine war. The scope of the challenge is however presenting a compelling incentive for entrepreneurs to solve not only a looming regional challenge, but a global one as well.
3. The Agritech ecosystem has been launched
Entrepreneurial talent in agritech is flourishing, building solutions that are unique in the world. Born in Saudi Arabia out of the joint and complementary research of Professors Ryan Lefers and Mark Tester, RedSea is scaling a state-of-the-art, efficient and circular greenhouse that grows salt-tolerant crops with the abundant resources of saltwater and sunlight.
Red Sea’s agriculture technology solution is being deployed at eight sites in four countries experiencing extreme heat globally.
Seafood Souq, founded in 2018 by Fahim Al Qasimi 🐟 and Sean Dennis in the UAE, is a first-of-its-kind platform to manage global seafood trade through proprietary full supply chain traceability technology.
Seafood Souq operates in 25 countries, and has facilitated a volume of traded seafood equivalent to 2.5 million plates served.
Stakeholders across the region are building the essential, supportive and enabling components for innovation in the sector, including research efforts, supportive government policies, engaged capital markets, and financing mechanisms.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) National Food Security Strategy 2051 aspires to position the country at the top of the Global Food Security Index by 2051. In 2018, it took 31st place. One year later, it moved ten ranks to 21st. Saudi Arabia is also working extensively to enhance the sustainability of its food system as part of Vision 2030, with significant investments deployed in agriculture technology and building local capacity.
The King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a launchpad for multi-disciplinary innovation that is quickly becoming a global hub for knowledge in agriculture, energy, computing, and biosciences. The institution is attracting researchers and talent from different corners of the world to tackle some of the most pressing global and regional challenges.
Venture capital is increasingly pouring into the region’s agritech start-ups. Between 2021 and 2022, $1.4 billion was invested in agritech companies in Africa and the Middle East. Last year, the Abu Dhabi government launched a $270 million package to support the development of the agritech sector with a mix of cash and non-cash benefits to position the city as a global center for innovation in agriculture.
4. …And is now leapfrogging
There are 33 million smallholder farms in Africa whose farmers produce four fifths of the world’s food supplies.
While they are among the least represented in policy circles, they can be the ideal and most effective candidates for agritech solutions from novel hardware to predictive software and financing mechanisms. The historical lack of infrastructure – digital and other - presents an opportunity to equip these farmers with the technological solutions to feed a growing population.
The same applies to the regional fishing community where fishermen are victims of an opaque, intermediated supply chain dominated by large seafood players that threaten their marketability, profitability, and livelihood. By creating a digital marketplace for fish with an embedded traceability component, Seafood Souq is effectively marketing fishers globally, disintermediating the supply chain while protecting fragile marine ecosystems.
While the Middle East’s vast desertscapes appear antithetical to productive agriculture, advances in science, engineering and technology are turning them into testing grounds for desert agriculture. Red Sea is a regional and global pioneer in this space.
Africa is witnessing a wave of companies linking renewable energy generation to productive assets such as farming equipment, irrigation systems or transportation vehicles to provide steady and uninterrupted access to power at a fraction of the cost. The continent has 60% of the world's best solar resources that are being leveraged to generate electricity in countries where the national grid is unreliable, inaccessible, or too expensive, leapfrogging other countries, once more.
With ever-evolving technological solutions emerging from MEA and a budding innovation ecosystem taking root, could regional entrepreneurs be the pioneers of an Agritech revolution of global scale? Are we finally moving towards feeding the world?