The World Food Program’s Coronavirus Fight—and How You Can Help

The coronavirus outbreak has thrown the world into turmoil. On top of the infections and deaths it’s caused, there have been significant knock-on effects on financial markets, supply chains, businesses, and livelihoods.

One of the most crucial systems we must safeguard as the crisis continues to play out is the food system. Food supply is already threatened from various angles, and allowing these threats to play out would be disastrous.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) offers food assistance to 87 million people in more than 80 countries. To make sure these programs are disrupted as little as possible, the WFP is looking to implement creative, tech-driven solutions to food supply chain, production, and delivery systems—and innovative startups and individuals can help.

Last week Darlene Damm, Singularity University’s Chair of Global Grand Challenges, spoke with Bernhard Kowatsch, head of the WFP’s Innovation Accelerator, and Carmen Burbano, director of the WFP’s School Feeding Division, about the actions and innovations needed to make sure the pandemic doesn’t cause a breakdown in food supply, particularly for the most vulnerable.

“Because of Covid-19, the number of people at risk of dying from famine has almost doubled,” Kowatsch said. “We expect that 465 million people are at risk in 2020. This is really an acute crisis that we have to deal with properly.” And, he added, we haven’t even seen the most severe impacts of Covid-19 in developing countries yet.

What’s Working

Tech used to solve a lot of problems that aren’t really problems (CES 2020, though very cool, was replete with examples). But it’s also chipping away at global challenges that truly need solving—like hunger and food supply.

“There are a lot of solutions that are only possible right now because of the spread of technology,” Kowatsch said. “And compared to just a few years ago, the cost of many technologies has come down dramatically.” These are some of the innovations that have helped the WFP feed people before and during Covid-19.

Hunger Map LIVE is a data and analysis tool that tracks food security, healthcare access, and markets in vulnerable countries in real time. An early warning system is in place for areas that slide into high risk, and the WFP is also using data from this tool to keep tabs on how the pandemic is impacting security in vulnerable places.

Building Blocks is a blockchain solution that transfers cash directly to refugees. In its first week of use it served over 10,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, and has now been expanded to over 100,000 refugees. “People can go to a shop and buy food on blockchain, and the system is being adapted to Covid-19; instead of using a fingerprint to pay, they can use a contactless QR card,” Kowatsch said.

Instead of getting money from an ATM then using that money to go buy food, a tool called Food ATM is cutting out the middle man. Piloted in 2019, it’s currently being deployed in Sudan and elsewhere. “It does just what it sounds like it does,” Kowatsch said. That is, locally-procured food commodities are monitored and dispensed on demand by machines. The machines are filled and maintained by locals the WFP trains.

School closures because of the coronavirus pandemic mean kids are missing out on education—but in developing nations and even in the US, they’re also missing out on meals. Millions of children, Burbano explained, rely on schools to provide them with a healthy meal, and in many cases it’s the only one they get in a day. In the 30 countries most at risk of hunger, WFP partnered with UNICEF to launch a program that repackages food into take-home rations; these are either delivered to students’ homes by teachers, picked up at schools by parents, or turned into cash vouchers that are given to families.

Finally, apps like Share the Meal (in which anyone can provide a meal to someone in need by donating 50 cents through the app) and Free Rice (a word game where for every answer players get right, the WFP gets a donation of 20 grains of rice) have been a huge success, with over 2 million people donating more than 63 million meals and 202 billion rice grains donated.

What’s Needed

These tools are making a difference. But to really build a high-performing system that can end hunger, Burbano said, advances in automation and data collection are going to be crucial.

For starters, WFP administrators need to be able to monitor their programs remotely in a way that’s transparent and accountable, with data being the key component. “We need to be able to merge different data sets so that we can understand, at the same time, things like how much these programs are costing, who is eating what, and where there problems we need to focus on,” Burbano said. In Burundi, for example, schools are testing a web-based system called School Connect. It digitizes data entry related to school food stock inventory, student attendance, and meal consumption, which helps administrators improve supply chain planning and kids’ nutrition.

Trading a one-size-fits-all approach for more custom solutions will be crucial too. Some families truly need free meals, while others can afford to pay a portion, and still others don’t need assistance at all—but currently, there’s not enough visibility at a household level to be able to adjust the programs accordingly.

When asked about additional issues they most need help with right now, here’s what Burbano and Kowatsch listed.

  • Facilitating the purchase of food from local farmers in at-risk locations: for example, how do you send cash to smallholder farmers that are selling very small quantities of food to schools?

  • Managing a cash ecosystem without too much bureaucracy and making it intuitive and frictionless

  • Ensuring that food being transferred between people locally is safe to eat

  • Digitally monitoring children’s attendance at school and supply chain stock

For all the innovators, philanthropists, global-challenge-focused startups, and caring humans out there: we’ve got our work cut out for us. “We’re all in this together” is tired but true; let’s act like it and put our money and our minds where they’re needed most.

Image Credit: WFP / Brook duBois

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.
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