Improving food equity with a hackerspace for farmers

Two members of the winning Team JHAMN working together on their concept

Members of the winning Team JHAMN refine their concept for a farming innovation network in the Global South as part of the 2018 Global Innovation Challenge. Photo: Maryanne Schultz

by Charles Wingfelder

Published August 15, 2018

A multidisciplinary group of students will receive funding for a pilot program that will bring farmers in rural India together to share and learn advanced techniques, have increased access to land, and connect with established support organizations.

The farm incubator project emerged as the winner of the 2018 Global Innovation Challenge, an annual hackathon-style event sponsored by UB’s Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE) to seed student-led research on global health challenges. The Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (Food Lab) in the School of Architecture and Planning organized this year’s event, and partnered with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in challenging students to propose solutions to increase food equity for smallholder farmers in the Global South.

The winning proposal, developed by Team JHAMN, identified an opportunity to pilot a food equity initiative in Kerala, India.  In recent years, Kerala has been cited as a case for successful socioeconomic and ecologically sensitive development.  However, smallholder farmers have found it increasingly difficult to make a full-time living from farming, because of lack of access to credit, viable markets, and targeted agricultural training programs.  

the five members of the winning team pose with their awards in front of a window while professor Samina Raja takes their photo with her phone

Wining team JHAMN pose with their awards. Photo: Maryanne Schultz

The team proposes creating the “Linkubator,” an initiative to connect smallholder farmers, partners, and community members together into a food system value chain, which links producers to processing and aggregation facilities, to retailers, to consumers and finally waste management systems.  The initiative will secure equitable and financially low-risk access to land for interested or new farmers, while providing on-site peer-to-peer training from experienced farmers.  Farmers will have more opportunities to sell to urban markets through the land and value chain, and will be a part of growing a larger social and economic network in Kerala to support smallholder farming that is already in motion.

“This kind of chain is a link, a connector,” said team member Hannah Stokes-Ramos, a doctoral student in UB’s geography program. “It reaches across a distance to draw together, to build, to strengthen, to catalyze a chain reaction of movements that create and inspire.”

Sticky notes with phrases: "integrated development", "Green Revolution", "Rupes-USD conversion", and "Global Environment Facility".

Remnants of a team brainstorm. Photo: Maryanne Schultz

As a central routing point that links different resources and organizations in Kerala, the Linkubator will be developed collaboratively with smallholder farmers and partners.  Guided by their local partners, Team JHAMN seeks to generate opportunities for “linkubator” participants, especially those for whom such opportunities were previously limited due to their gender, class or other marginalized status.  Many farmers in India rent or lease land from other landowners and their names are not listed on land titles, and therefore do not have access to loans, insurance, and long term security. Formalized tenancy of land holdings alleviates some financial risk for farmers, a situation that the students hope will encourage first-time farmers to launch their enterprises. Further, they hope the initiative would support existing farmers who have informal, insecure land lease arrangements to participate in other sectors of the agri-food system, such as processing or retail.

Now in its third year, the highly collaborative Global Innovation Challenge convenes students from a wide array of disciplines and levels of study for a week of creative problem solving. For example, this year’s cohort included students representing over 15 disciplines, from undergrads studying management and biomedical sciences, and PhD students from earth science and geography. Also invited into the conversation this year were students from other institutions, including Jamestown Community College, Kashmir and Kerala, India, and a Buffalo high school.

Audience looking at large projection screen that outlines the symposium strategy "Clarifying, Organizing, Ideating, Team Building, Developing, Pitching, Implementing."

CGHE's Global Innovation Challenge has used design thinking and team-building exercises to cultivate collaborative problem-solving. Here CGHE co-director Korydon Smith introduces the week's activities. Photo: Maryanne Schultz

Participants worked through team-building, brainstorming and concept development before making their final presentation to a panel of experts. CGHE staff facilitated the process with assistance from the Food Lab staff and students. Jorge M. Fonseca, Programme Adviser for the Food Systems Strategic Programme at the FAO, delivered the challenge to participants and helped judge final concepts. CGHE invited international fellows to Buffalo to contribute their expertise as presenters, coaches, and judges: Tanveer Ahmad Dar, a public health researcher focused on livelihoods, children’s rights, mental health, education and disaster response in Jammu and Kashmir, India; Biraj Patnaik, formerly the Principal Advisor to the India Supreme Court on the Right to Food case, and the Director of Amnesty International South Asia; Dr. K Vasuki, a medical doctor and high-ranking government official from Kerala, India; and Jim Sumberg, an agriculturalist and research fellow specializing in small-scale farming and youth entrepreneurism in countries in Africa and Latin America.

Professor Korydon Smith does a goofy walk through the conference wearing a sideways baseball cap, graphic necktie, and bright yellow belt and blue suspenders

Korydon Smith has fun while teaching students how to "pitch" their proposals. Photo: Maryanne Schultz

In addition to the grand prize awarded to Team JHAMN, an Innovation Award was presented to The Exchangers for their proposal to partner smallholder farmers with policy makers to build farmers’ capacity for self-advocacy at the government level. The People’s Choice Award was presented to team KABAGHAM FR. for their proposal to encourage organic farming through community outreach, farmer-to-farmer connections, and financial support for organic certification.

Team JHAMN and The Exchangers will meet with the Principal Investigator of the Food Lab and professor in the Department of Urban Planning, Dr. Samina Raja, and leaders of CGHE to refine the teams’ project plans, and discuss funding opportunities in the coming academic year.

Five of the Exchanger team members sit an brainstorm while one stands and scribes on a giant note pad

The Exchangers team plans their presentation. Photo: Maryanne Schultz

Previous Global Innovation Challenges have focuse on various macro challenges in global health equity. The winners in 2017, Team United Youth, focused on a gap in services for refugee youth living in Buffalo, NY. United Youth have developed partnerships with Catholic Charities and the Refugee Round-Table, and were recently approved by Buffalo Public Schools to run a pilot youth mentoring program for newly arrived refugee students at the International Preparatory High School. The 2016 winner, Team Veritas, proposed a tool for mapping inclusive sanitation facilities in schools. CGHE, in partnership with the Joint Monitoring Programme, a collaboration between the World Health Organization and UNICEF, as well as WaterAid and the Appropriate Technology Centre in Uganda, piloted a tool to assess inclusive sanitation facilities in schools in Uganda in 2017. This Inclusive WaSH assessment, the first of its kind ever implemented, aims to understand sanitation needs for children with disabilities to ensure their continued education.