The following is a reflection of Eva Gurfein, MBA 2021’s experience participating in the UNLEASH Nepal Hack to address Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger. With COVID-19 exacerbating food insecurity and malnutrition in Nepal, Eva and her team looked to empower smallholder farmers through conservation agriculture training. At the end of UNLEASH Hack, their team was deemed one of the winners and UNLEASH plans to provide support to drive the initiative forward.

My Halloween this year involved less “trick or treat”, more “SDGs.” From late Friday night, October 30th through early Sunday morning, November 1st, I collaborated with four Nepalese teammates as part of the UNLEASH Innovation Lab for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UNLEASH Hacks are localized, scalable and cost-efficient innovation processes designed to address current sustainability challenges in specific real-world contexts. Naively undaunted by the 13-hour-45-minute time difference between Berkeley and South Asia, I had applied to join the Nepal Hack, drawn to addressing the multidimensional aspects of SDG 2: Zero Hunger.

Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are undernourished, or 8.9 percent of the world population. According to the United Nations, the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by the SDG’s ambitious 2030 target. Looking ahead to the year 2050, the global population is estimated to reach 9.6 billion people. Under business as usual projections, we’ll have 30% less food production when we’ll need 50% more. Swift action is needed to increase agricultural productivity and sustainable food production.

Motivated by this immense call-to-action, I have sought to better understand the obstacles and opportunities for global farming communities during my time at Berkeley Haas. Last spring, I examined the economic value of regenerative agriculture to farmers through a sustainable consulting project with General Mills’ Triple Bottom Line Operating Unit. This research illuminated key challenges to economic resilience that farmers face. While our project was US-centric, the insights were universal. Climate change, a threat on its own, increases the risk of extreme weather, which in turn speeds the rate of soil erosion and threatens soil health. Deteriorating soil health and declining ecosystems jeopardize farmers’ crops and profits and require higher-cost inputs. I gained further insight into the complex topic of soil health from Professor Will Rosenzweig’s Edible Education 101. Over the course of the semester, we heard from farmers and policy advocates who shed light on the path to rebuilding soil carbon through new regenerative management practices.

I looked for opportunities to apply these learnings on sustainable agriculture to work toward tangible real-world results. In taking part in the UNLEASH Nepal Hack, I was eager to strengthen the resilience of resource poor Nepalese farmers with local and scalable solutions. Despite being an agriculture-dependent nation, most people in Nepal are currently facing the triple burden of food insecurity, food sovereignty, and food safety which has increased malnutrition status; with 2.8 million food insecure people, 1.4 million malnourished, pregnant, and lactating women and 36% of children under 5 stunted in their growth. Disruption in the supply chain of agricultural inputs and agricultural produce due to COVID-19 is further intensifying the crisis.

While the virtual dynamic of this year has been disheartening at times, the UNLEASH Hack illuminated for me a true silver lining of our new shared Zoom reality – the incredible opportunities we now have for global connection and collaboration. The Nepal Hack brought together 41 participants representing 5 Nationalities. Across the world and fueled by a liter of coffee to help get me through back-to-back all-nighters, I worked with my teammates via a virtual collaboration board. And, even without my normal sleep schedule, I found myself energized. It was inspiring to partner with local youth in Nepal to co-create innovative solutions. With backgrounds in environmental studies, microbiology and agriculture, my team members brought diverse perspectives to the innovation challenge.

Our group quickly identified shared interest in SDG 2.3, and so focused our efforts on how we might double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers. Across Zoom calls and WhatsApp chats, through a process of brainstorming and insight-sharing, our team homed in on an opportunity to help small holder farmers overcome their dependence on chemical fertilizers. We strategized the creation of a field school for paddy farmers in the Karnali province, a region characterized by widespread poverty, food scarcity and insecurity, but with strong market potential for organic agriculture. My teammates informed me of the lack of extension education and technical know-how among Karnali farmers, and so we focused our project on training local communities to make and apply organic compost and integrate conservation agriculture methods. By embracing more sustainable land management practices, these farmers will be able to increase soil organic matter, thereby increasing the supply of nutrients, soil water-holding capacity and erosion prevention.

On the final day of the Hack, after a pitch competition in which we outlined our ideas for empowering small holder farmers through conservation agriculture training, my teammates and I were thrilled to learn that our team had been named the Hack winner by a panel of judges. UNLEASH will provide an expert network of advisors and seed funding to support our initiative moving forward. The Hack’s conclusion meant the beginning of our exciting next step – charting our project milestones for the next six months and getting to work to actualize our vision. I am honored to be part of the team driving this initiative forward. Reflecting on the whirlwind of the past weeks, I am grateful for this incredible learning experience and opportunity for impact.

The Nepal Hack reinforced that, when we combine our efforts and collaborate as a global community of changemakers, we can achieve a measurable difference towards the SDGs. For anyone with a passion for solving important sustainability challenges, I encourage you to apply to a future UNLEASH program.


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