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Tackling Food Insecurity In The MENA: A Playbook For The Private Sector The private sector is instrumental in tackling issues related to food insecurity and sustainable agriculture, but is there a way we can laser focus our efforts in one direction?

By Aamer Sheikh Edited by Aby Thomas

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An estimated 10 billion people need to be fed by the time we reach 2050.

Our planet is abundant in natural resources, but population growth, climate change, and protracted conflict are stretching these resources thin. Countries that are already grappling with conflict, pollution, deforestation, and other challenges are likely to bear the brunt of this impact. To allow us to protect vulnerable populations worldwide, and build a healthier planet, we need to think carefully about what stakeholders across the board can do to drive positive action.

We at PepsiCo are often thought of as just a soft drinks company. We are not. We see ourselves as an agricultural company at our core, where we source crops across 60 countries, and support over 100,000 agricultural jobs worldwide. That scale and experience has allowed us to understand that sustainable agriculture is at the heart of meeting the increasing demand for food as the global population grows. It is also pivotal in preserving and developing our natural resources.

Sustainable agriculture takes on special meaning in the MENA region, whose geographic landscape is characterized by scarce arable land and limited water supply. This raises concerns around food security, and creates uncertainty in a region that thrives on long-term planning and predictability. The private sector is instrumental in moving the needle on this, but is there a way we can laser focus our efforts in one direction? The following is a playbook that the private sector can consider.

Fostering Partnerships

The complexity of global supply chains means that making an impact in farming communities requires effective collaboration with other stakeholders. This includes supporting smallholder farmers, empowering women, and leveraging technical and financial resources to foster cross-industry partnerships.

Partnerships should be geared towards building climate resilience, driving innovative agricultural research, and formulating commodity-specific joint action plans with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations to foster sustainable agriculture and sourcing.

Companies can also initiate collective action-focused collaborations with other industry players, including competitors, to advance solutions to systemic agricultural challenges, such as deforestation, land degradation, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the UAE for example, we have done this with the CIRCLE pledge to tackle the issue of packaging waste pollution. Other members of the coalition include entities from across many different sectors spanning retail, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), and advocacy organizations like Emirates Nature - World Wildlife Fund.

Related: How PepsiCo Is Empowering Female Farmers For A Sustainable, Hunger-Free Future

Supporting farmers

The wider adoption of regenerative agriculture can conserve and restore ecosystems by boosting soil health and fertility, reducing carbon emissions, enhancing watershed management, and increasing biodiversity. At PepsiCo, our demonstration farms, for example, have led to the commercialization of innovative agritech across several markets.

Another crucial point is improving farmers' livelihoods by cultivating mindsets that prioritize long-term farm profitability and productivity, with a focus on environmental sustainability over short-term increases in yields and profits. Creating optimal working conditions, providing access to resources, and investing in technology that creates efficiencies in operations can go a long way in lifting smallholder farmers out of poverty.

The sustainable business impact of adopting women's economic empowerment solutions across supply chains has also been proven. Research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN indicates that giving women the same access to resources that men have could enable them to increase yields on their farms by 20-30%. This could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17%.

Through our "She Feeds the World" program in Egypt and Uganda for example, we are training women farmers on leadership skills and advocacy, strengthening their access to markets and resources, and expanding benefits across communities, including teaching men about gender equality and challenging harmful gender stereotypes.

Investing in startup innovation

According to a report by MAGNiTT, startups in the MENA region attracted more than US$1.2 billion in funding in the first half of 2021, a 64% year-on-year growth, and a 12% increase from $1 billion raised in all of 2020– a trend that indicates the potential of startups to drive wide-ranging economic growth. Startups have a lot to offer- their agility and innovation mindset can drive long-term positive impact with access to the right resources, capital, and network.

It's therefor important that more private sector players identify opportunities to collaborate with startups on issues that require fast-paced innovation– sustainable agriculture being one of them. PepsiCo's Greenhouse Accelerator Program this year is calling on MENA startups that can transform direct farming operations to develop solutions that can minimize water use, manage efficiencies across inputs and production processes to increase sustainable practices in agriculture, innovate with breakthrough products and technologies to support regional food security, and that hold expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) and digitization of agricultural processes to enable for sustainable reporting.

Sharing best practices

Sharing best practices and learnings globally can go a long way in avoiding common mistakes and staying ahead of the curve. The private sector has a wealth of knowledge and experience, and it often doesn't need to reinvent the wheel. Working closely with policymakers and grassroots organizations, and with support from the right industry partners, best practices can more easily be applied to local settings.

For example, to boost agricultural productivity, extend availability of sustainably sourced crops today, and contribute to long-term transformation across the agricultural system, players can explore solutions like directly sourcing crops from farmers, training farmers on on-field agronomy, resource-efficient use of fertilizers and irrigation, plant protection techniques, workers' rights, and pest management. At PepsiCo, to leverage the expertise and local influence of farmers, we're growing a network of demonstration farms where locally relevant best practices can be put into action, and where local farmers can observe and learn from their peers.

Sustainable agriculture cannot be achieved without a broad coalition of actors. This is a long journey, but if we work together towards shared goals, we can accelerate making zero hunger a reality, and ensure a sustainable future for all of us.

Related: Follow The Leader: Seafood Souq Co-Founder Fahim Al Qasimi Is Building "A UAE-Born Business That Will Change The World"

Aamer Sheikh

CEO, PepsiCo Middle East.

Aamer Sheikh is the CEO of PepsiCo Middle East.  

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