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Solving global malnutrition: investing in innovations for local food systems

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Cherrie Atilano, co-creator of AGREA's 'Move Food Initiative' and judge at SBN's 2020 Pitch Competition reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and looks to the future of agri-business innovations.

Cherrie Atilano is a member of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement Lead Group and is supporting the development of the SUN Business Network in the Philippines. ©AGREA

Interventions that bring about food system solutions, at both the farmer and supply chain level, to help ensure nutritious food reaches every table have always been close to my heart. This is why I am really excited about accepting the invitation of the SUN Business Network to join the panel of judges for the SUN Pitch Competition 2020 final at the end of this month. The more we invest our effort, time and resources into food system innovations, the more we are helping to solve the global problem of malnutrition. And this is the best time for the competition to take place because a lot of people are becoming poorer and hungrier due to COVID-19, which will impact their food consumption and result in more people becoming malnourished.

In my home country, the Philippines, we have a population of around 110 million, which is highly dependent on inter-island imports and exports for its agricultural commodity supply. However, as a result of COVID-19, human mobility and food produce supply restrictions have had a tremendous impact on the food system and, more importantly, on access to nutritious food. Many farmers have not been able to tend their fields, and port and inter-province road closures have further limited access to fresh food, as farmers’ produce is left to rot in the fields.

Ensuring the supply of nutritious food during COVID-19

At AGREA, a social enterprise aimed at eradicating poverty among farmers through training and education, we started receiving calls from farmers within the first few days of lockdown, which was announced on 16 March 2020. The farmers, unable to transport their fresh fruits and vegetables, were asking for help in distributing their produce and saving it from being spoiled. In response, we created the ‘Move Food Initiative’; an initiative that started out of pure generosity, hard work, and commitment to our vision of: zero hunger, zero waste, and zero insufficiency. The initiative focuses on moving food from rural farmers to consumers. But it has not been without its challenges; the logistics have been particularly complicated due to the fact that some produce needed to be shipped or flown to the capital city for distribution. We have had to coordinate with the military, local governors and mayors, and logistic providers. We also needed the support of these actors to enable farmers to go back to their fields and save their produce from rotting.

Four months since the lockdown was imposed and the Move Food Initiative was created, I feel very proud that our impact has been huge. By leveraging our network of contacts to access vehicles, and with just five people, we have been able to move around 174,000 kg of fruit and vegetables, reaching more than 69,000 families with fresh produce, and helping more than 16,000 farmers. The Move Food Initiative is one of the prime food security movers in the whole country, and has inspired a lot of other groups to implement similar schemes. For me, the highlight has been donating to 10 community kitchens that serve around 4,500 front-line workers of the pandemic – doctors, nurses and all other personnel in hospitals, which are full, but have no access to food.

What I realised during this operation is that although AGREA is only a small player in this field, we are a quality player because, as a small company, we have the flexibility to do more. There is a lot more rigidity in larger corporations with regard to protocols and regulations, and they have the reputation of a well-known brand to protect, so it would be a lot harder for them to do what we have done.

Supporting SMEs to build stronger, resilient businesses for nutrition

Small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) working in nutrition should also take the lead to do more to help fix the local food system. The pandemic has intensified and magnified the issues in food systems, and highlighted the importance of healthier, sustainable food as well as the importance of fair, local sourcing of nutritious products. More SMEs should take this chance to see what is locally available for their raw-sourced products – as we cannot rely on imports as the pandemic has shown.

Being a part of the SUN Pitch Competition is not just about investing in a business – it’s more of a personal mission to invest in making every person in this world healthier, because each person has human capital, and this is the best investment I can make. That’s why I’m really looking forward to offering a 6-month business mentorship prize to an outstanding entrepreneur with an exciting and promising investment proposition, providing them with 1:1 guidance on how they can develop their business and grow their impact on nutrition.

In the pitches, I will be looking for innovations that are addressing a local problem that is relevant to their community and that have – or could have – a big impact. It’s especially inspiring when the founder has experienced the problem they are addressing themselves. My advice to the entrepreneurs that are pitching would be that the best pitches start with telling your own story, and how you became so involved. That’s why you become passionate about solving the problem and, when you are passionate, you will find the resources to do whatever it takes to solve that problem. The entrepreneurs also need to demonstrate how their product/solution is innovative and affordable. I am looking for very simple, direct and to the point solutions, but I am also looking for how they are making nutrition really accessible, affordable, and if they have an inspiring story for other countries, communities or businesses to learn from.

Sophie Reeve

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