In September 2015, the United Nations adopted seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for achievement by 2030. Number two on the list is 'Zero Hunger' – the aim of completely eradicating hunger worldwide. This is a tall order, given that some 815 million people, one in nine of the world's population, are today suffering from hunger. To help meet this challenge, the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN agency that provides humanitarian food assistance, has set up an Innovation Accelerator, whose purpose is to promote the emergence of innovative projects that use Information & Communication Technologies to help combat hunger.

During the most recent Web Summit, an annual technology conference held in Lisbon, Robert Opp, who heads up the Innovation & Change Management Division at the WFP, presented on the Planet:tech stage the most promising technologies so far developed at the Incubator. For over a decade the number of people in the world suffering from hunger was on a downward trajectory, but since 2016 it has been rising again. Opp reminded the Lisbon audience that a major cause of mass hunger is the proliferation of armed conflicts, which result in massive displacement of people. "Today we have 60 to 65 million people displaced from their homes because of conflict, the highest number of displaced persons since World War Two", he underlined. Natural or climate-related disasters also account for a significant proportion of worldwide hunger, which is why most of the tech solutions that Robert Opp talked about in his presentation have been developed to respond to such emergencies.




Eye in the Sky


Humanitarian food

Opp argues that the primary field in which the new technologies can assist aid organisations is in understanding and analyzing food crises is image collection and processing. Drones are an excellent way of collecting data. "When a humanitarian crisis occurs, we need to know what's happening on the ground. The faster you can do that the better (…) so we've started using drones to collect images", he explained. In addition to taking high quality pictures from different angles, drones can also reach places that are too dangerous or too rugged and so otherwise inaccessible. However, he pointed out, "they gather so much data, and looking through all that data manually is very difficult." And in a crisis situation, every minute counts. This is why the RUDA - AI (Rapid UAVs Data Analysis in Emergencies) programme, which is supported by the WFP Innovation Accelerator, aims to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to automate and speed up image analysis, so as to extract key information that will help humanitarian workers to get the aid exactly where it is needed, and fast.

It is also worth pointing out that drones are not limited to taking pictures. The Redline project – which is not part of WFP – uses drones to deliver food and medicines to rural areas in Africa. Another programme coming out of the Incubator, called Eye in the Sky, uses AI to analyse satellite images so as to track the impact of armed conflict and natural disasters in certain specific geographic zones on a wide scale.


humanitaire chatbot


Chatbots combating food shortages

Robert Opp talked about another promising application of AI: deploying AI-powered chatbots in order to gather vital information on food shortages directly from the people affected. "Until a few years ago the only approach we had was talking to people face-to-face with a pencil and paper in your hand", recalled Robert Opp during his Web Summit talk. Gathering information this way is lengthy and tedious, not to mention potentially risky when working in conflict zones or areas struck by natural disasters. As a result, major decisions on humanitarian aid are often taken on the basis of inadequate information. In order to solve this problem, the World Food Programme has begun to use telephone, SMS and interactive voice messaging systems in order to communicate with people on the ground.

A pilot project was set up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Somalia in 2014, supported by New York-based company Nielsen, with the aim of surveying people in disaster-affected areas so as to identify those most threatened by food shortages, for whom priority action must be taken. The system the project uses is able to gather information 80% faster and at half the cost. It was rapidly expanded to over thirty countries, and has proved its worth during humanitarian crises such as the Ebola epidemic and the civil war in Syria.

Robert opp at the 2017 WEB SUMMIT  

Robert Opp

Google image

On the strength of this early success, the World Food Programme decided to push the envelope further and has started using a chatbot both to gather information from a greater number of people and obtain new types of information such as photos, voice messages and geolocated information, at a very modest cost. Owning a smartphone with a messaging app, such as Messenger or WhatsApp, is a must for many refugees – the only means they have of keeping in touch with their friends and family. So, contrary to what one might think, many of them own a phone and are familiar with all the latest technology. Moreover, in many developing countries, telecoms operators offer affordable rates, enabling people to make unlimited use of messaging apps for a small charge. Some services such as Facebook Lite even allow people to use their service free of charge.

Based on these considerations, the WFP last year launched a Food Bot, which is available on the most popular messaging apps, including Facebook Messenger and Telegram, and can ask people in a disaster situation straightforward questions about the local food situation. The answers are then collected and analysed so that appropriate action can be taken. People may also ask the chatbot questions about future food programmes, food prices, the weather, and about any potential risks of an epidemic and what hygiene measures should be taken to guard against it. The aim is not to replace face-to-face interviews, which remain a highly reliable source of information, but to combine direct human efforts the capabilities of new technologies so as to be able both to carry out in-depth investigations and reach a large number of people. 

Blockchain for making micro-payments



Robert Opp told the Lisbon audience that besides AI, another new technology that we are hearing a lot about in the media nowadays – the blockchain – also has strong potential to help combat hunger. In addition to providing humanitarian food aid, the Programme also sends payments to those in need. However, many of these people do not have bank accounts, which makes the process more difficult. This is where the blockchain comes in, making it easier to send sums of money to the needy. In June a pilot project got underway at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, in partnership with startups Parity Technologies and Datarella. 10,000 Syrian refugees are now receiving their allowance on a monthly basis via digital vouchers that use a blockchain-based system. "We can use the blockchain to transfer money to these deprived populations on a monthly basis", Opp explained, underlining: "We need to ensure transparency and security in our payment process and the blockchain is ideal for that." It can also help with the physical tracking of their supply chain and support local agriculture by assisting with land tenure registration for farmers. 




Virtual markets and precision agriculture 

Assisting people when disasters strike is a must. However, but solving the problem of hunger worldwide also calls for the development of agriculture infrastructure in the poorer countries, and will require efforts to promote local supply chains between producers and consumers. Here too, ICTs have a role to play. "A lot of problems arise from the inefficiency of food systems; markets are inefficient", says Robert Opp, stressing: "In difficult-to-reach rural areas we need to help make the link between farmers and buyers so that they don't have to take their food long distances in the hope they're going to meet the right person who's willing to purchase it. This is why we're interested in the potential of putting small farmers in touch with buyers on a digital platform to make their transactions online." In Zambia, the Virtual Farmer's Market app provides an online market that puts producers in touch with potential buyers. Once the terms of the sale have been agreed, the two parties can meet in the flesh to conclude their business. Today 2,500 Zambian farmers use the app not only to trade but also to get to know each other and build synergies. Digital technologies can also enable farmers to expand and stabilise their yields. Using data collected by low-cost sensors, plus photos taken from drones and satellite images, we are now able to collect vast quantities of information on the climate, the soil and the status of harvests. Artificial Intelligence can then be used to analyse the data and indicate to farmers when they need to use fertiliser so as to increase their yields and their income. There is considerable potential  to adapt smart agriculture techniques – which are already in widespread use across the developed world – for deployment in emerging countries, Robert Opp told the Web Summit audience.

By Guillaume Renouard