Technical University of Denmark: Danish-African partnership strengthens food innovation

Four African innovation projects took centre stage when the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and DTU held a debate day on 10 September, marking stage two in the innovation collaboration Next Generation East African Innovators.

The four African food projects—originating from Ethiopia, Uganda, and two projects in Kenya—won a competition in the spring, and will further develop their projects and technology at DTU over the next three weeks. The debate day was opened by Flemming Møller Mortensen (Danish Social Democratic Party (S)), Danish Minister for Development Cooperation.

“The world needs innovation in the food sector. 800 million people today live below the subsistence minimum, and we need new ideas if we’re to solve the problems by 2030. I hope that the collaboration between the WFP and DTU will help us attract more young innovators, so we can create greater food safety and avoid hunger,” said Flemming Møller Mortensen.

Global challenges
“The world needs innovation in the food sector. 800 million people today live below the subsistence minimum, and we need new ideas if we’re to solve the problems by 2030.”
Flemming Møller Mortensen, Danish Minister for Development Cooperation
Marianne Thellersen, DTU’s Senior Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, emphasized that innovation collaboration is deeply anchored in DTU’s mission to develop technology for people.

“The challenges we face are global challenges. That’s why we want to collaborate in partnerships that benefit both our partners and ourselves. We believe we can inspire each other and push boundaries. Of course, we will sometimes experience that projects fail, but we will then learn from our mistakes and invent new solutions,” said Marianne Thellersen.

Michael Dunford, Regional Director of the WFP, emphasized that there is a great need to strengthen local innovators in the East African region who need to extend their networks and find companies to collaborate with.

“I see great potential in students from Africa being able to develop their ideas in an established innovation environment like DTU. Conversely, participants from innovation projects in Denmark can also learn a lot from visiting East Africa, which has a rich innovation environment and which can provide valuable insight into what the actual needs are,” said Michael Dunford.

Food innovation
Three of the four East African start-up projects presented their ideas on the debate day, where the Beta Blockers project offered tasting samples of a biscuit made from horse beans and barley, which are among the most widespread crops in Ethiopia. The biscuits are to improve the nutritional value of children’s diet and prevent malnutrition.

The Agri IoT project presented their concept for sustainable vanilla production, while Tripple P is a concept under which soldier fly larvae convert organic household waste into compost, and where the fly larvae can subsequently be used for insect biomass with a high protein content. The fourth project—Fishing in the Desert Project—did not have the opportunity to participate in this debate day, but it is developing a concept for fish ponds in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Competitive advantage
The students behind the African start-up projects will develop prototypes in their projects and receive business coaching at DTU Skylab over three weeks. The goal is that the overall programme will equip them with the skills necessary to gain a foothold in the market with their products. According to Joachim Watkidog from Agri IoT, it is crucial in this context for the projects to develop a strong network and establish contact with key stakeholders and investors.

“The investment environment in Uganda is growing. A number of initiatives give young innovators a chance to present their ideas and get funding. But if you don’t have the right connections, you will not get any money. It doesn’t matter how good your project is, it will not succeed. So we’re really pleased with this opportunity. DTU does its best to connect us with the right people, which will give us an edge over our competitors at home,” said Joachim Watkidog.

Hard to attract capital
All three start-up projects had experienced challenges in attracting capital in their local areas.

“The investments made in agriculture are usually made by large organizations like the WFP. The Kenyan government is giving us investments in the form of education and courses. For example, we’ve been invited to fairs to showcase our product so we can attract foreign investors. The government rarely invests directly in a development project unless you have a company that operates with well-known technologies and a secure return,” said Harriet Anyango from Tripple P.

After spending a short period in Denmark and at DTU, however, several of the innovators could report success in establishing collaboration with others, be they DTU students, researchers, or companies. Joachim Watkidog has initiated a collaboration with the Danish company Social Vanilla, and he emphasized that his start-up project would like to collaborate with DTU students and researchers, specifically on access to equipment and facilities.

Roberto Flore—head of DTU Foodlab and of the Next Generation programme—confirmed on the day of the debate that more than 20 students are already engaged in or in a dialogue with the African start-up projects.