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Digital ideas to tackle malnutrition

Alongside the climate crisis, the fight against hunger is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. According to United Nations estimates, around 821 million people suffer from chronic hunger. We explored the digital possibilities and ideas that are available to fight this. But it is obvious that fairness in the food supply is essentially based on economic and social justice.

The figures that are regularly published remain frightening. According to the United Nations, 702 to 828 million people were affected by hunger in 2021. The effects of such malnutrition are devastating. Not only do they affect the health and well-being of the people affected. They also have an impact on entire societies and economies. For those who starve have a higher risk of falling ill and a higher risk of dying. In the long term, a hungry population has an overall negative impact on the development of the affected regions and countries.

In fact, there is basically enough food in the world. But not everyone benefits from it. Distribution problems, environmental disasters or wars are often responsible for this. Tackling this problem is a complex and long-term task for the global community. To master it, comprehensive and far-sighted strategies are needed. Digital applications and technologies are increasingly being used here. These can at least help to improve access to food.

For example, the WFP Innovation Accelerator, launched by the World Food Programme (WFP), aims to find and promote innovative solutions in the field of food security, including through financial and technical support, mentoring and access to a global network of experts and resources.

Analysis tool for overview

The interactive "Hunger Map Live" was also launched by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Using satellite and mobile phone data and working with local organisations and governments, it continuously collects information on food security, crop yields, weather conditions and other factors that can be used to predict potential hunger situations and plan interventions to combat hunger and malnutrition. Connected analysis and data visualisation tools bundle all the information and provide insights at global, regional and country level. The map is thus a kind of daily reminder of where lack of nutrition is increasingly found in the world.

Digital technology for the optimisation of agriculture areas

Satellite and remote sensing technologies now allow important real-time data to be obtained for agriculture. This means that farmland can be monitored from a great distance and with high accuracy. Changes in plant growth or soil moisture can be detected at an early stage.

The AgriSens DEMMIN 4.0 project was also launched on this premise. It is part of the larger "AgriSens" research programme of the DLR (German Aerospace Centre), which is concerned with the development of sensor technology for the agricultural industry. Concrete fields of application for remote sensing data are identified on a large experimental field in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. High-resolution optical satellite or radar data as well as drone images collect the information. The data obtained is analysed using machine learning algorithms and provides precise forecasts and decision-making aids for farmers. Typical questions: Where in the soil is there a lack of nutrients for optimal growth? Where are there obstacles blocking growth? Where is there a lack of water? Getting quick answers to these questions is crucial for detecting crop failures and food shortages early and taking appropriate action.

However, such a digital database can only help if the necessary framework conditions are created and access is ensured for all. A study commissioned by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in 2022 clearly shows that this is not necessarily the case on the African continent. For the most part, the information collected is not available to third parties or is not used. One possible reason: it is in the possession of governments or private companies, although it is urgently needed by small farmers on the ground. In order to be able to fully exploit the benefits of digital technologies, both the handling of and access to data for affected farmers must be improved. Such data sovereignty can also be seen as a driver for the development of new important digital solutions.

AI and automation to improve logistics

The possibilities available today to make the transport of seeds and food goods more effective are also diverse. The use of automated transport systems such as self-driving vehicles or drones optimises and accelerates transport processes. AI systems, in turn, optimise processes such as route planning or inventory management so that goods reach their destination quickly and effectively. Integrated sensors in transport containers and vehicles can be used to collect targeted real-time data on temperature, humidity and other parameters to optimise transport conditions and ensure the quality and shelf life of food. Last but not least, digital platforms on which the data for the transport of goods is fed in and managed help to optimally utilise and deploy transport capacities and resources. An example of such platform-driven logistics management can be found in Uber Freight, a company founded in 2016 and now operating worldwide.

Especially in times of natural disasters or pandemics, it is enormously important to coordinate food logistics quickly and effectively. After all, it is often the regions where there is already a shortage of food that are affected. The usual routes and means of communication are often not available in these times of crisis. It is therefore all the more important that digital technologies, which also work remotely, can then be used for quick decisions and solutions. For precisely these cases, the World Food Programme (WFP) developed a supply chain management dashboard in which data from other systems can be integrated, thus enabling a holistic overview.

Better distribution of assets secures and increases food production

The start-up Hello Tractor pursued this idea and created a platform for the shared and fair use of agricultural machinery. The company, which is often referred to as the "Uber of tractors", supports smallholder farmers in Asia and Africa to increase their yields and incomes and thus improve the livelihood and food security of their families and communities.

Since 2022, Hello Tractor has gone one step further and offers a tractor financing programme that works according to the "Pay-As-You-Go" principle. Specifically, it enables young entrepreneurs who can demonstrate a high demand for tractors via the booking application to obtain loans. Hello Tractor's stated goal: to provide more than 10 million US dollars worth of tractor loans, thus reaching more than 110,000 new farmers and creating up to 3,500 jobs.

The app Agrishare also helps farms to lend their machines (tractors, ploughs, etc.) to farms in the vicinity, so that not everyone has to buy heavy and expensive equipment.

Digital solutions offer access for financial transactions

Mobile payment systems now provide good services for people in poorer rural areas where direct access to a bank account or credit cards is simply not possible. Money can be transferred and received or a purchase made via mobile phone and associated apps. In other words, mobile technology and applications enable people to organise food and other essential goods to which they would otherwise have no or only difficult access. It is therefore not surprising that very often mobile phone and telecommunication companies have driven the developments. Among the best known worldwide are M-Pesa, a system developed by the mobile phone company Safaricom in cooperation with Vodafone and introduced in Kenya at the beginning of 2007, Wave or the GCash service in the Philippines, founded in 2004 by Globe Telecom.

Less waste here helps elsewhere too

Not necessarily hunger, but food poverty is by no means a problem of developing and emerging countries. In Germany alone, according to a survey by Heinrich Böll Foundation, there were six million citizens who were denied sufficient access to food in 2020. Almost two million children were affected.

With apps such as "To Good to go", surplus food from restaurants, cafés and supermarkets or bakeries can be bought at low prices before they end up in the waste. ERGO Gourmet is also taking part (https://www.ergo-gourmet.de/ernaehrung-genuss).

Handing over of a surprise bag (Credit: Too Good to go) Handing over of a surprise bag (Credit: Too Good to go)

However, it is not only people in this country with low budgets who benefit from this. In fact, such apps make an important contribution to combating hunger in the world. How? Europe is one of the biggest importers of agricultural products from poor countries. In other words, from places where millions of people suffer from hunger. The increasing demand for these products often has serious consequences for the food security of the affected population. Land grabbing and the destruction of forests lead to a decrease in food availability and security, while in Europe large amounts of food are wasted. So the less we waste, the better for people from regions of the world where access to food is difficult. A current example: avocados. The increased demand in our country has led to rising prices in the countries where they are grown. In addition, the cultivation of avocados is very water-intensive and leads to water shortages in some regions. This endangers the livelihood of the people in these areas.

Little assistants for the big picture: digital communication tools and apps

With ShareTheMeal – also an initiative of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) – a meal can be donated to children in need with just one click. The app uses blockchain technology to manage donations transparently and securely.

In the future, the Child Growth Monitor app developed by Welthungerhilfe will help to identify malnutrition in children at an early stage. The data collected via smartphone provides a quick picture of the measures that need to be taken.

"Freerice" is playful. This application offers a series of educational and knowledge games in which users have to answer questions. For each correct answer, Freerice donates ten grains of rice to Welthungerhilfe to support people in need. How nice it would be if there were more ways in the future to counteract world hunger in such a playful way.

Digitisation is not a panacea for food injustice

There are many digital innovations that can play an important role in the fight against hunger in the world. Be it improving infrastructure in rural areas, promoting education and strengthening communities for self-help. Despite all the good things made possible by digitalisation: Food justice is essentially based on economic and social justice.

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