Written by Christine Gould, Founder & CEO at TFF
At Thought For Food, we empower the next generation to solve the biggest challenge facing our planet: how to feed and nourish the growing population. Our unique program catalyses innovation and company creation, and provides entrepreneurs around the world with the expertise, capital, industry connections and support system they need to make lasting impact. This work is essential in order to unleash the economic potential of our world’s surging youth population, to promote sustainable growth, and to achieve our Sustainable Development Goals (particularly 2, 4, 8 and 9).
The problems affecting our food system are tremendous, which means so are opportunities. 2018 was a record-breaking year for money flowing to foodtech and agtech startups, with investments jumping by more than 40% to reach $17bn. Most of these investments were concentrated in the USA — but other parts of the world such as China, India, and Brazil also saw an increase in both the amount of funding and in the number of deals.
Food and agriculture is a global industry, and innovation and investment opportunities must be fostered in every part of the the world. The scale and importance of the problems we face and the limited time that we have to solve them means that we have to adopt a radically-different approach to how we develop and support promising talents and their innovative startups. We must relocate investment dollars to where it’s needed and necessary, and open a space for more collaboration to happen. It’s crucial that we tackle this now, with the right approach and the enough commitment to make real change.
Here are three key reasons why:
1. The Next Generation Represent An Enormous Opportunity for Economic Growth and Food System Transformation
Of all the macro-trends transforming the world as we know it, one deserves specific merit: the largest youth population in human history is alive today and moving towards adulthood.
There are currently 1.8 billion people on the planet between the ages of 15–29, and around 90% of them are in developing countries. This “youth bulge” represents an unprecedented force for economic growth and human advancement – provided we do what is necessary to ensure they become healthy, educated and productive citizens.
Today’s youth are not only the largest, but also the most diverse, well-educated, technologically-savvy and globally-connected generations the world has ever seen. They have access to knowledge, technology and capital that was once only available to universities, large corporations, or the world’s elite. With all of these characteristics, it is clear that young people have incredible opportunity create a tidal wave of transformative change.
As innovators and consumers, they play a critical role in growing economies. The 2018 Goalkeepers Report from the Gates Foundation points out that investing in youth has the potential to increase the GDP of countries in sub-Saharan Africa by 90 percent by 2050. And, Will Warshauere, CEO of Technoserve, points out that: “Just 10–15 years ago, such (youth) populations were approached with charity. Now they’re seen as the high-growth markets.”
But, if we don’t support and invest in our youth, they could also face a very different type of future — one marked by instability, social unrest and even violence. Right now, 64 million young people are unemployed around the world, and another 145 million young workers are living in poverty. We have the chance to change this. The next generation are searching not only for jobs, but also for meaningful work. They look to entrepreneurship as the way to create the opportunities they need. What sector is as filled with as much meaning and potential than food and agriculture? It’s imperative that we support our youth’s efforts in this space, and nurture their entrepreneurial talents and skills to build a better future for all.
2. Emerging Economies Are the Next Frontier for Food and Ag Innovation
Emerging markets are no longer waiting for innovations to reach them from mature markets — they leading the way in creating solutions themselves. Countries like Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, China, Malaysia, Peru, Colombia and Chile are leapfrogging ahead and using cutting-edge technologies and business models, without having to upend existing infrastructures or deeply embedded legacy systems. In addition, as mentioned above, they have massive youth populations who possess an inherent passion for entrepreneurship, and are predisposed to be collaborative, open, inclusive and diverse (the key attributes of innovation).
Emerging economies face many challenges — such as food insecurity — which provide ample spaces for solution development. Many of their governments, NGOs and private sector groups are stepping in to build enabling policies and ecosystems to support innovation, while entrepreneurs are bootstrapping their way forward by leveraging DIY approaches, online resources and digital communities.
And, let’s not forget the incredible market potential these countries hold. Emerging economies will add nearly 3 billion people (more than 40% of today’s entire global population) to the middle class by 2050. These consumers will be spending more money on food, and care more than ever about how it is produced.
With all this in mind, it is clear that emerging economies represent a mosaic of exciting and valuable opportunities for innovation in food and agriculture. It makes sense to dedicate more resources — technical, human, and financial — to support them in creating higher levels of prosperity, social equality and a stronger foothold into the global economy.
3. Next-Gen Food and Ag Startups Require a Different Approach to Acceleration
There is often a mismatch between existing investment vehicles and the requirements of (early-stage) food and agriculture companies. Due to the complexities of the sector and the conservative and fragmented nature of the market, acquiring customers, de-risking technologies, and meeting necessary regulatory requirements can take a much longer time than in other sectors. This does not align with the risk expectations of many investors, and as a result, promising food and ag companies are often starved of capital during their critical growth stages.
A large number of incubators and accelerators have emerged in recent years to help solve this. Most of these follow a “ traditional” approach, where they invite entrepreneurs to spend a period of time at a physical location and focus on developing hard business skills and strategies such as fundraising, go-to-market, IP and legal. Many accelerators focus their efforts on getting as many companies funded as quickly as possible (since this is a key part of the their business model), and this sometimes misses the bigger picture of how to best create long-term positive impact.
The next generation of food and ag startups require a different approach to acceleration. It can be difficult for young people to obtain admission to elite accelerator programs, or to spend several weeks or months away from school or work to attend them. Also, many accelerators don’t possess food and ag domain expertise or understanding of locally-relevant nuance and realities. On the other hand, too much industry expertise can result in an over-emphasis on “me too” solutions or perpetuation of entrenched thinking (“we’ve already tried that” or “that crazy idea will never work”).
Moreover, taking a “business as usual” approach when launching a food and ag startup simply won’t cut it in today’s world. As any business leader should know well by now, increased transparency and consumer empowerment means that people everywhere are more conscious, curious and critical when it comes to food and how it is produced. In this context, being successful in the market comes not only from having sound business strategies, but also by being able to articulate a clear purpose and having broad environmental and social impact. This is especially important for Millennials and GenZs, who are dubbed the “purpose generations.”
The food and agriculture sector faces systemic challenges, which requires us to move away from siloed approaches to holistic, comprehensive solutions that integrate many ideas and technical building blocks owned across many parties. Collaboration is key to do this, and we must find therefore find ways to foster more know-how sharing, technology transfer and cross-licensing to ensure that beneficial innovations can be integrated to scale their impact more quickly and efficiently.
With all this in mind, accelerator programs for the next generation of food and ag companies must incorporate additional training in 21st-century “soft skills,” such as communications, purpose-driven leadership, collaboration and partnership-building. They need to look at how to build business models that are open and inclusive; which capture value for innovators, but also incentivise sharing of benefits with society. To keep up with the pace and pressures of our world that is changing faster than ever, young entrepreneurs must also be coached and mentored in areas like emotional resilience and working in and managing (virtual) teams. Luckily, this can be done efficiently and effectively by leveraging digital tools and networks that young people are already comfortable using.
So, what’s next?
TFF is stepping into the world of opportunity that the next generation of food and agriculture companies represent. We bring new minds, new creativity and new energy into a sector that desperately needs it, and provide a powerful platform and global community that encourages collaboration and experimentation to chart new ways forward. To date, we have helped create thousands of ideas and have supported the launch of 50+ startups around the world that cover a wide variety of innovation spaces including biotech, vertical farming, logistics, new foods, and appropriate tech for smallholders.
In our soon-to-be-launched 2019 TFF Challenge, we are launching a new asset in our suite of programs: the TFF Digital Labs. This is a rich and interactive online program that is accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere – democratising access to our world-leading food and ag “accelerator” program. The TFF Digital Labs is specially-designed to meet the specific needs of the next generation of food and ag entrepreneurs in every part of the world, and features two levels of participation: Level 1 is for people who want to develop a new idea and turn it into a business; Level 2 is for existing startups who want to turbocharge themselves to the next level “the TFF way.”
The TFF Digital Labs offers access to some of the the world’s most amazing mentors, coaches, partners and perks. It integrates inspiration and learning from all kinds of relevant fields — from science and tech to design and the arts. It focuses on cultivating 21st-century leadership skills such as openness, collaboration, leadership and resilience. And, it provides a clear entrepreneurial roadmap – underpinned by structure, accountability, and velocity.
Anyone who signs up for the 2019 TFF Challenge will be able to access the TFF Digital Labs, and eventually have the chance to win a trip to the in-person TFF Academy and TFF Summit in early 2020. We will share more about all of this over the next few weeks.
For now though, I hope that I have convinced you of the value and relevance of our work at Thought For Food. We are motivated to change the course of humanity through the incredible innovation power of young people everywhere.
This isn’t just important, it is necessary.