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Creating food desert oases: Harvard and MIT innovators pitch options

In large swaths of the world, including the United States, urban areas are plagued with food deserts—places where residents have little or no access to affordable, nutritious food. In fact, 40+ million Americans now live in 6,500 food deserts that have been identified across the country. As a result, they also live with significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The winners of the 2018 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize have developed inventive solutions to this dilemma, which has defied 21st-century governments and NGOs.

EatWell, a team of students and agribusiness experts representing the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, won the $15,000 first prize with their plan to bring healthier meal options to low-income communities. They are developing simple, low-cost meal kits that can be sold in food deserts. The team’s test market is Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood where 60 percent of families fall into the low-income category and are served by a single grocery store. Consequently, only a third of all Mattapan residents have access to affordable, nutritious food.

EatWell’s process is to survey residents about meal preferences. A professional chef and dietitian then work together to create simple, healthy, quick-to-table recipes. In Mattapan, that meant a chicken pot pie dish chock full of vegetables and a Haitian pork dish. The $15 kits cost far less than competitors like Blue Apron, in part because they aren’t shipped and don’t have in-box refrigeration.

Crowdsourcing the wisdom of farmers in Africa

The $10,000 second prize went to Context Insights, an outgrowth of a class project in the MIT Sloan course Opportunities in Developing Economies taught by Tavneet Suri. Suri, an associate professor of applied economics, is also scientific director of Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) Africa and the cochair of J-PAL’s agriculture sector. Context Insight’s idea is to crowd-source crop-price predictions from farmers in Africa and aggregate that data for governments and microfinance institutions so that they can increase crop investments that alleviate market volatility.

Context Insights uses the wisdom of savvy local farmers to forecast the price of basic commodities like maize, commodities that are critical to life in sub-Saharan Africa. The team is now piloting the platform with the East Africa Exchange, the largest regional commodity exchange in East Africa. Its goal is to connect the owners of small farms to agricultural and financial markets.

The Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize is sponsored by Rabobank and supported by Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab and the MIT Food and Agriculture Club.

Learn more about the Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize.

Read a related story in MIT News.

Smart phones are outwitting poverty

Alexander Graham Bell would be astonished at the power of today’s smart phones. Yes, the app that makes it possible to find a Starbucks along an unfamiliar highway can feel like a miracle, but the true revolutionary power of the telephone is felt most in developing countries. In Kenya, for example, the mobile phone has, to some extent, stabilized the economy for many citizens and transformed quality of life.

Nearly all Kenyan households own at least one mobile phone—not state-of-the-art smart phones, but phones “smart” enough to accommodate at least one M-Pesa account. Available to any customer of Safaricom, Kenya’s mobile network leader, M-Pesa is a money transfer service that allows a daughter at one corner of the country to send money safely and securely to her mother in a village seven hours away. Previously, she would have entrusted an envelope of cash to a bus driver heading to her mother’s village (at considerable risk) or relied on a money transfer that took days—and a daunting amount of red tape—to process.

Of course, to withdraw funds through an M-Pesa account you must have access to an agent who can disperse the cash. Happily, in response to the popularity of M-Pesa, the network across Kenya has mushroomed to 150,000 agents. Working with Innovations for Poverty Action, Associate Professor of Applied Economics Tavneet Suri, a native Kenyan, and her colleague William Jack have been tracking incomes in regions where new agents have opened for business. They compared the financial health of those regions with that of regions where agents are not as accessible.

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