Nobel Peace Prize Underscores The Need For Sustainable Market Solutions To Global Hunger

Today, the Nobel Committee bestowed this year’s Nobel Peace Prize on the World Food Programme, citing its herculean efforts to combat hunger, especially in war-torn areas. In doing so, the Committee stated that it “wishes to turn the eyes of the world towards the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger.”

As COVID-19 threatens to push 132 million more people into extreme hunger (and has already pushed 100 million people into its corollary, extreme poverty), it’s more critical than ever to invest in sustainable market solutions that strengthen rural livelihoods. So let’s turn our eyes toward smallholder farmers, then come back to the role of small business and entrepreneurship. First, some numbers:

  • Two billion people—26% of the global population—experienced hunger or food insecurity in 2019, with 690 million of them facing chronic hunger. Worse yet, this number has been rising over the last five years.
  • 75% of the world’s hungry are smallholder farmers and their families, despite the fact that they produce a significant amount of the world’s food.

Smallholder farmers—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa—are the face of hunger. But let’s be clear: The problem is not that there isn’t enough food to nourish everyone; the problem is that too many can’t afford to put food on the table. Global action to reverse this trend and get back on track for the UN’s 2030 “zero hunger” target must therefore have rural livelihoods at its center.

To build sustainable livelihoods, smallholder farmers need at least three things: access to reliable incomes, resources to invest in the growth and health of their farms, and support to tackle livelihood shocks like COVID-19 or climate change. But the typical smallholder farmer lives hundreds of miles from accessible markets, leaving them with few choices but to sell their crops to middlemen at rock-bottom prices. They can’t afford the inputs necessary to improve yields and productivity. And because of all that, they lack resilience against shocks.

Humanitarian aid through vital food assistance deserves way more funding in emergency situations. But what’s our solution for hunger in the longer-term? The World Food Programme itself recognizes that smallholder market support is key to building sustainable food systems and advancing food security. 

This is where small and growing agricultural businesses come in. These enterprises (such as farmer cooperatives, agro-processors, or millers) source from thousands of farmers at a time, meaning they can connect producers to local and international markets where their crops fetch a better price. They provide their suppliers with fertilizer, better seed varieties, and training on agricultural methods that can increase yields while reducing climate-related risk. They even generate employment opportunities—particularly for the marginalized workforces of women and youth—that provide rural families with a sustainable career trajectory and steady incomes. Some of these enterprises not only boost rural livelihoods, but combat hunger more directly by processing and selling nutritious food products into local communities.

In addition to these enterprises, many social entrepreneurs are tackling the problem of rural poverty and hunger, piloting innovative solutions to produce more locally grown, nutritious food and increase farmer incomes. Take Anushka Ratnayake, who founded myAgro, a mobile layaway platform that helps farmers save for inputs like seeds or fertilizer that can help them improve their harvests. Or Jehiel Oliver, whose Hello Tractor mimics Uber’s ride-sharing technology by enabling remote farmers to cheaply access time-saving, productivity-enhancing tractors. Like small and growing agricultural enterprises, these entrepreneurs are filling market gaps and repairing a broken food system.

It will take a concerted push by governments, investors, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and more to build a thriving, resilient smallholder agricultural market. But this effort is critical. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, agricultural small and growing businesses face a stubborn financing gap of $82 billion—leaving approximately 75% of their total need for catalytic capital unmet. Rural communities urgently require ambitious, innovative, and strategic approaches to investment in agriculture and food systems.

That urgency is only increasing. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to surpass 9 billion, and the majority of this growth will take place in low-income countries. To feed this booming population, farmers will need to boost global food production by an estimated 60 percent. Meaning that, without bold action, the worrying upward trend of global hunger and food insecurity will skyrocket.

We cannot turn away from this looming catastrophe. We must—as the Nobel Committee exhorted—direct our eyes, and our action, toward the world’s hungry. Food aid is absolutely vital to address humanitarian emergencies, including COVID-19. But tapping into entrepreneurial solutions by way of agricultural businesses can build the sustainable, resilient future we require for the long haul.

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