Perhaps you weren’t at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month. Maybe the invitation got lost in the mail or your jet was in the shop. If that’s the case, you missed some significant news: The Rockefeller Foundation pledged $130 million over seven years to fight global food loss and waste through a program called YieldWise.
Yes, those Rockefellers. Or at least the foundation they’ve endowed that is now a force in philanthropy and hunger relief. The fact that the Rockefeller Foundation is doing this matters. “In terms of credibility and authority in the social services realm, the Rockefeller name is still gold,” says Steve Taravella, senior spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Program.
Equally important, the Rockefeller Foundation has cash. And they tend to combine both to good effect. “They have so much leverage and funding available to them, the changes they make can have widespread impact,” says Danielle Nierenberg, an expert on global sustainable agriculture and president of Food Tank, an organization working to end hunger and waste in the food system.
Many food thinkers will be watching to see just how widespread YieldWise’s impact on hunger and food loss will be—how much the Rockefeller Foundation’s fiscal muscle can accomplish. That muscle will be flexed, too, as YieldWise funding represents an unprecedented amount of resources for fighting food loss. And make no mistake: “loss” is the key term, as YieldWise will emphasize that type of squandering most common in the developing world.
More specifically, YieldWise’s work will begin in Africa. More than 80 percent of spending will fund work in sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on projects in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania. Curbing loss in a place like Africa can be cost effective, given how much loss happens for easily avoided reasons like poor storage containers. Food loss is also more unconscionable on that continent, says Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). That’s because one in four people are undernourished in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the FAO.
Globally, there are 1.2 billion food insecure or undernourished people. Impacting that figure will require curbing both food waste and food loss. And as YieldWise will illustrate, fighting both can happen at the same time. “There is no tradeoff between combating losses in developing countries and combating waste in rich countries,” De Schutter says. “Waste in rich countries is not costly to address; instead it makes economic sense.”
Food loss stems from a lack of four things: technology, financing, access to markets, and adequate storage. YieldWise will tackle all of those challenges simultaneously. “What The Rockefeller Foundation model is doing is really addressing all of those problems together in a systemic way,” says Mamadou Biteye, who is the managing director for Africa at The Rockefeller Foundation and is overseeing the YieldWise effort.
These problems of post-harvest loss are not a secret, nor are the solutions novel. There have been countless projects in sub-Saharan Africa targeting one or two causes of loss—Purchase for Progress and Project Nurture being two—but never such a holistic undertaking. YieldWise will fund projects introducing better technology, more access to finance, enhancing market opportunities, and aggregating farmers for their own benefit. “The difference between past initiatives and the Rockefeller Foundation’s is that our approach is much more comprehensive,” says Biteye. “Each of those four factors have been tried, they’ve just never been tried in unison.”
What will that look like? The answers vary depending on the region. YieldWise plans to introduce better storage techniques and materials—items like metal storage bins and hermetically sealed bags. YieldWise will help farmers find innovative financing to allow for loans and/or better equipment. YieldWise will reduce reliance of farmers on volatile prices in the market by finding large anchor buyers—both multinationals like Coca Cola, Unilever and local ones, in addition to linking them to secondary markets like the Dangote’s tomato processing plant in northern Nigeria and Azuri Health’s mango drying operation in Kenya. And YieldWise will help farmers band together to gain leverage on prices. This is one of the keys, as the average farm size in Africa is just one hectare (2.5 acres).
Biteye hopes that YieldWise will prompt wider action throughout African agriculture by demonstrating a few successful practices. The four main project areas were chosen to address the main crop categories. Any improvements with maize yield in Tanzania will speak to grains. Improving processing and the cold chain for Kenyan mangoes and Nigerian tomatoes will illustrate potential solutions for most African produce, where 50 percent loss rates are the norm. And maximizing the shelf life with Nigerian cassava will speak to improvements germane to roots and tubers, staple crops in most of sub-Saharan Africa despite their 40 percent loss rate.
While YieldWise will prioritize curbing loss in Africa, it won’t completely ignore waste in the developed world. YieldWise aims to overcome the long-standing apathy and inertia surrounding food waste by funding public awareness-raising events in the US and Europe. Biteye hopes that a little nudge of public awareness will prompt food system actors throughout the developed world to expand their engagement. That has already begun in earnest—see the recent French law banning supermarket waste or the industry-government-NGO coalition Champions 12.3.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s involvement will only help build that momentum, through deeds but also through sheer name recognition. In the U.S. and abroad, the Rockefeller name lends legitimacy to the cause of fighting food loss and waste, and it will likely prompt increased involvement from foundations here and abroad. “The fact that the Rockefeller Foundation has attached its name to the food loss issue will help draw support from others who would not have even considered it before,” says WFP’s Taravella.
This will likely accelerate the current trend of hunger organizations and funders flocking to food loss and waste initiatives. Heck, just look at the number of foundations supporting the burgeoning ReFED initiative! (It’s a whopping 13, if you don’t feel like clicking through.)
YieldWise’s Davos provenance doesn’t hurt either, and indicates its strong backing. “You rarely see anything so concrete coming out of Davos,” says Food Tank’s Nierenberg. “YieldWise being announced there is important because it signifies that there is international momentum, support, and investment behind it.”
After its January launch, now is the time for the project to begin its hard work. And several food thinkers are following along with great interest and a healthy skepticism. “I like the idea of preventing post-harvest loss, but I want to know whether they’re supporting small scale farmers selling in local food markets, or whether they’re supporting medium-scale farmers selling to Coke and Pepsi,” says Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, about the juxtaposition of obesity and malnutrition, and co-author of Food Rebellions. “Rockefeller make it sound like the latter, with a teeny sprinkling of the former.”
Meanwhile, YieldWise could easily fall into the common pitfall facing development work. “The danger of any development project is that you come in with preconceived ideas rather than asking local communities what their biggest problems are and what will work,” says Nierenberg. “I’m interested in seeing how Rockefeller will learn from their mistakes and successes in these three countries, and whether they can build that into their analysis of what’s working or not.”
While one can’t imagine seeing a YieldWise “Mission Accomplished” banner, what exactly would victory look like? For some, YieldWise will be judged not just on minimizing food loss but also agrarian poverty and hunger in Africa. “Success should be judged on how much these investments are focused on, and actually help, farming communities feed themselves,” says Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. “The concern for me would be if these investments instead are narrowly focused on food waste reduction in export supply chains.”
Meet you in Davos seven years from now to find out how YieldWise fared.
For more on what’s being done to tackle food waste, check out this month’s article in National Geographic.
Jonathan Bloom is a journalist, speaker, and consultant on the topic of wasted food. Bloom is the author of American Wasteland and creator of the blog Wasted Food, You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @WastedFood, or in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, two sons and many, many containers for leftovers.