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Summit in Miami highlights sustainability and digitalisation trends in agri- and food tech

Though much of the conversation at the Sustainability and Digitalization Leaders (SDL) summit in Miami was US-centric, it offered valuable insights for Africa. Held on 22 to 24 October, this executive leadership summit was an intimate affair attended by about 100 executives from across the agricultural and food technology value chains.

The summit covered topics such as alternative protein production, digital agriculture, computer-aided mechanisation, new biotech solutions, international policy on land tenure, access to capital, and incentivising farmers to adopt new technology and switch to new crops that can help them become more sustainable, productive and profitable.

The summit was broad reaching as it is generally accepted that multiple solutions are required to deal with global food security issues and to transform the agricultural system. There's no silver bullet; no single solution.

Insight 1 # Plant-based as catalyst for change

In Africa, we're sitting on 25% of the world's arable land, but only produce 10% of the yields. We have the technology to do things better, so there's a huge opportunity to transform the agricultural system in a way that will feed us healthy food and protect the planet.

The SDL summit strengthened my belief that the emergence of the plant-based movement provides a positive opportunity for us in Africa to catalyse change in the agricultural system in a way that empowers farmers, that creates new high-value crop categories for them to grow and new ways for farmers to participate in the value chain. The plant-based movement can be a catalyst to help us solve some of the important social and political issues around land reform and how to build the next generation of farmers. Continuing doing things the same way we're used to doing them, is not going to create the change that we need in Africa.

Plant-based food is an important answer to solving food security, but admittedly it is not the only answer. Equally important is, for example, promoting regenerative agriculture and making sure that animal-based agriculture be done in a way that reduces environmental impact.

Insight 2 # Consumer demand for protein

We're not seeing a change in why people buy food. They'll switch to plant-based food if it tastes great and is healthy. Not because it helps to save the planet. When buying food, most people choose on taste, health benefits, price, convenience, brand, quality and safety – this was reiterated at the summit. Some people may even choose certain food because they perceive it to be 'cool'.

There is a growing consumer demand for protein in Africa. But while plant-based protein is better for the environment, sustainability is not emerging as a selling point for food. We therefore need innovation that focuses on making plant-based food taste exceptionally great. We need to satisfy the consumer imperatives of great taste, good for health and cool brands, if we are to succeed in shifting the food system.

Insight 3 # Serving the right stuff

Airbnb gave an interesting presentation, certainly one of my favourites, entitled 'Food in the workplace – redefining the status quo'. The company, whose core business is online services (matching property owners with temporary wannabe lodgers/tourists), runs a cafeteria that serves meals to its staff in San Francisco and locations around the world. The cafeteria is totally dedicated to keeping employees productive and healthy while minimising waste and environmental impact.

The presentation showed how the Airbnb cafeteria avoids plastic bottles, for example milk is delivered in glass bottles; how they source their products from local farmers; how they design their menu; how packaging, like boxes, is recycled; and even how they use left-overs to make soup the next day, just like you and I would do at home.

Airbnb is ensuring that the activities inside their own four walls are as sustainable as possible. What stood out for me, is that we as individuals, we as companies can make a difference. It is not somebody else's problem. We have control over the sustainability of our food system by making conscious choices at home and at our workplaces.

Insight 4 # Attracting youth

In terms of attracting youth and creating employment opportunities, there were two case studies that showed this can be accomplished by combining agricultural activities with entertainment. One case study was an oyster farm and the other a hydroponic farm. They talked about the integration of communities and recreation activities into farming activities. The farms are built to be 'cool', aesthetically pleasing and to become popular recreation destinations. They seem to be making good profit from visitors, from selling merchandise and serving their products at the oyster bar or at the salad bar.

Insight 5 # African is at the table

Infinite Foods (plant-based foods) and Aerobotics (crop protection by drones) were the only two companies at the summit that are active in Africa. Next year, there may be more.

I came out of the summit energised and optimistic about the next phase of our business when we will shift to African manufacturing and African sourced input crops in our quest to use plant-based food as a catalyst for positive change in African agriculture.

"The plant-based movement provides a positive opportunity for us in Africa to catalyse

change in the agricultural system in a way that empowers farmers... that can help us

solve some of the important social and political issues around land reform."

Michelle Adelman

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