The urgent need to support agritech startups
Aamer Sheikh is the chief executive officer of the Middle East Business at PepsiCo, one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies
The world's population is projected to grow to 9-10 billion by 2050, and with that comes a looming challenge: how can enough food be produced to meet everyone's needs? The 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report predicts that food production will have to increase by 50 per cent from today's levels. But it is not just about producing more food – it is about doing so sustainably. The 2020 Global Agricultural Productivity Report states that total agriculture productivity needs to increase by 1.73 per cent every year to achieve this feat sustainably. It is a formidable challenge, but one that we simply cannot afford to ignore.
Sustainable agriculture is one of the greatest opportunities to address world hunger, climate change, biodiversity loss, and rural-urban inequality. Positive agricultural practices that restore soil and strengthen farming communities have the potential to feed the world’s growing population while building a resilient global food system.
On this front, startups are making a significant impact in transforming the industry through technology and innovation, driving improvements in productivity, efficiency, and sustainability. That is why it is crucial for private sector players to identify opportunities to collaborate with startups – to create a more resilient and sustainable future for agriculture.
Providing tangible support
First and foremost, startups need access to funding and resources. While many startups have the potential to revolutionise the agriculture industry, they often face significant barriers to entry due to the high cost of research and development, regulatory hurdles, and limited access to markets.
To truly unleash the disruptive potential of startups, private sector players need to provide them with access to funding and resources. This will support the development of innovative solutions, expand their offerings, and boost revenue streams.
Investors in the region often adopt a return-on-investment approach rather than solving a real-world problem approach, which can be challenging. As an industry, we need to fundamentally change our mindsets. Strategic investors have a lot to gain from investing in small businesses. By funding startups, they can create fertile ground for pioneering ideas to take root and build productive relationships with innovative companies that can help them stay ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, a startup’s association with a large, successful company can enhance its reputation among potential customers. Through this mutually beneficial relationship, each can solve common challenges and drive long-term, sustainable growth.
Power of collaboration
Another important consideration is collaboration. Startups often have unique expertise and perspectives that can be valuable to other stakeholders in the agriculture industry.
To achieve a widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural practices will require strong and committed partnerships among all stakeholders – from policymakers and NGOs to food companies and farmers.
For example, PepsiCo’s Greenhouse Accelerator Programme: Mena Sustainability Edition is a cross-industry collaboration which brings together the expertise of the Food Tech Valley, the regulatory backing of the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, and the scale of a corporation like PepsiCo. This type of collaboration is critical to support investment and competitiveness of food production in the region.
In addition, everyone must prioritise sustainability and be mindful of the long-term impact on the environment and the communities in which they operate.
In many cases, the lack of awareness about sustainable farming methods and their advantages is hindering the uptake of startups. Corporations must guide agricultural startups to explore best practices that are relevant to their areas of focus, in addition to implementing and measuring the impact of regenerative farming on their operations. Proven benefits go a long way in promoting adoption. Incentivising farmers to adopt sustainable practices by offering them preferential terms is yet another way that can bring both parties closer to their shared goals.
Creating an ecosystem for sustainable growth
The region is seeing a range of innovative startups blossom, but there is a grassroots job of creating a more holistic ecosystem that fosters innovation across the board.
For example, working with leading universities to foster innovative ideas that can eventually receive the funding, networking, and mentorship, to grow into promising businesses capable of disruption. Another solution would be to create incentives for international startups to set up base in the region and facilitate an environment for collaboration and knowledge-sharing, so that the region can become a hub for innovation in sustainable agriculture.
The problems we face with food security, water scarcity, and food wastage – while not only close to home, are also globally relevant. Investing in the full ecosystem will create an environment where we can export technology and innovation to the rest of the world – and in turn, harness the potential of startups and support their growth to contribute to overall economic growth. Big multinational collaborations with shared goals must take the initiative to bring relevant stakeholders together to drive this forward.