From mobile money to blockchain: How this UN agency's tech stops people starving

How the Nobel Prize-winning World Food Programme is using tech to "hack hunger" in the Middle East and beyond.

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In October, the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020 was awarded to the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). Founded in 1961, the Programme supported around 100 million hungry people around the world last year.

Tech plays a key role in its work. It can be seen in everything from its logistics and delivery – WFP harnesses up to 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and 100 planes every day to deliver food and other assistance around the world – through to promoting agritech, support for refugees, and facilitating other humanitarian services through mobile. 

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WFP's hunger monitoring system, HungerMap LIVE, uses big data and machine learning to display global food security in near real time.

Image: World Food Programme

Alongside this day-to-day activity, the WFP has used technology to innovate in their its efforts to support food-insecure communities in the Middle East and beyond. Here are five examples.

1. Smartphone giving – one tap to feed a child in need

ShareTheMeal enables users to feed a child for $0.80 a day using Apple Pay and other payment methods. Donations can be a one off, or a monthly, quarterly or annual subscription. It was one of the first ideas to emerge through WFP's accelerator program.

Almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019, according to the latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. Data published by the United Nations, UNICEF, WHO and WFP this summer, reveals this number is up by 10 million from 2018, and nearly 60 million in the past five years. The COVID crisis "could tip over 130 million more people into chronic hunger by the end of 2020", they observe.

Launched in 2015, the ShareTheMeal app has a community of more than 1.3 million users, the WFP states. As of August 2020, users have given over 80 million meals with children in need: "These donations have helped some of WFP's most critical operations, including those in Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan."

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The WFP's ShareTheMeal app has a community of more than 1.3 million users.

Image: World Food Programme

2. Digital skills training for young adults affected by war in Syria

According to UN data, "85% of refugees are hosted by developing countries who are grappling with their own socio-economic challenges and struggling employment rates". Subsequently, "the chances for these refugees ever becoming financially self-reliant are very low, leading to a continuous and unsustainable dependency on international aid".

In response, Empact, previously known as Tech for Food, is helping young adults affected by war in Syria – and food-insecure host communities in Lebanon and Iraq – to learn digital skills, which in turn can help lead to employment and greater food security.

Beginning with a six-week course covering core IT skills, such as using the internet, as well as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, participants can then undertake further training, apprenticeships and online work.

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"Since 2016, WFP's Empact program has trained more than 6,670 students across 12 campuses in Lebanon and Iraq," Empact's website states, also remarking that 65% of participants are female. "In Iraq, almost 20% of students generated an income through online work and 33% of alumni were employed four months after graduating."

The goal of the initiative is to train 20,000 students by the end of 2020, and 100,000 people across the Middle East-North Africa region over the next five years. 

3. Humanitarian assistance delivered via mobile money

This summer the GSMA and the UN's WFP announced an expansion of their partnership, part of the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation scheme. A key focus of this work involves cash-based digital transfers to save lives in global emergencies, including pandemics and natural disasters.

In Kenya, WFP has used mobiles to deliver cash through a programme named Bamba Chakula – 'Get your food' in Swahili-based Sheng language – which distributes mobile money to refugees for food purchases. Although the system is not without its challenges, it encourages autonomy as well as efficiency.

In 2019, globally, just under 28 million people were helped in this way by WFP. The NGO transferred $2.1bn to people in 64 countries, enabling beneficiaries to spend this money as they deemed fit. "This represented 38% of WFP's total assistance portfolio for the year," the NGO notes.

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Meanwhile in Iraq, emergency funding – to the tune of $6.25m – from the US Agency for International Development (USAID)'s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), will be used in this way to help provide food assistance over a three-month period for around 80,000 internally displaced Iraqis and 22,000 Syrian refugees.

Cashless payments allow "people to buy food at camp shops directly through their mobile phones in a contactless manner", the WFP said. At a time of COVID-19, "cashless transactions reduce the risk of contracting or spreading the virus as well as avoid people's unnecessary movement outside the camp."

4. Groceries by blockchain

In Jordan, the Building Blocks project is harnessing blockchain technology to enable more than 106,000 Syrian refugees to buy groceries from local shops using iris scans instead of cash, paper vouchers or credit cards.

Last year, WFP said more than $64m had been disbursed through this pilot program. Its annual report noted how this initiative distributed $3m in support each month, and that this method helped to save 98% of financial transaction fees.

The WFP spells out further benefits by commenting that "built on a private, permissioned blockchain, and integrated with UNHCR's existing biometric authentication technology – WFP has a record of every transaction. This not only saves on financial transaction fees in the camp setting but ensures greater security and privacy for Syrian refugees."

5. Growing food without soil

Meanwhile, in Algeria, WFP has supported efforts – known as H2Grow – to create hydroponic gardens, namely "a method of growing plants without soil by instead using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent" in desert environments.

Hydroponics methods use about 90% less water than traditional agriculture, and the technique was first used to support semi-nomadic Sahrawi refugees living in the Western Sahara, a "harsh and isolated desert environment".

Around 25% of this population suffers from chronic malnutrition, with poor conditions for agriculture affecting livestock, as well as humans.

"The semi-nomadic Sahrawi refugees greatly value livestock for milk and meat," WFP notes. "However, due to the Algerian desert's arid climate, agriculture is extremely poor and goats in the camps often end up eating garbage."

In Algeria, 200 hydroponic units are producing time and cost-efficient animal fodder, boosting the milk and meat production of goats; and the community which relies on them. The lessons from this experience are being applied to initiatives in similarly challenging environments in Peru, Chad, Jordan and Sudan.

"Goats fed with fresh fodder increased their milk production by 250%, while meat quality and quantity improved considerably," the WFP says.

"Refugees were also able to generate additional income by selling surplus fodder."

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In the Building Blocks program for Syrian refugees in Jordan, a woman pays for food in a supermarket via an iris scan.

Image: WFP/Mohammad Batah