How can Earth Observation and Artificial Intelligence help people in need?

World Food Programme
European Space Agency
A satellite observes a hurricane from space
Strahil Dimitrov/Shutterstock

Hunger is prevailing. In a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone, 811 million people still go to bed hungry each night; that’s one in every 10 people worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and complex social-economic factors make the situation even more dire.

By contrast, space, satellite, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies have radically transformed humanity’s ability to observe and model Earth’s systems.

It’s inevitable then that we pose the question: how can Earth observation (EO) and AI help those in need? To find an answer, the Φ-lab at the European Space Agency, together with the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator, are launching the new EO & AI for SDGs Innovation Programme. We’re searching for cutting-edge innovations that use EO and AI technologies to address the challenges that WFP faces in its operations, while striving for business viability and industry leadership. Do you have an idea that can help us solve world hunger?

Apply here by 07 January 2022 at 23:59 (CET)!

What challenges does the World Food Programme face in its day-to-day operations?

Around 26 million people fall into poverty each year as a result of extreme climate events. Our collective goal of achieving Zero Hunger by 2030 cannot be achieved if we do not do better in managing climate risks before they materialize. More than 80 percent of people dealing with food insecurity live on marginal lands that are regularly affected by climate extremes, floods, droughts and storms.

WFP and other organizations are working on models and programmatic approaches to help governments manage climate risks.

Some of these solutions are related to climate risk information and helping governments and communities understand how climate change materializes in a particular location.

Other solutions are related to the management of natural resources, helping to build more efficient irrigation systems or reforesting degraded hillsides that are prone to slipping with the next intense rainfall.

Another set of solutions deals with risk transfer. That means transferring risks to the markets that cannot be reduced to zero through micro insurance programmes or sovereign insurance options.

In most of these solution areas, we envision EO and AI playing a crucial role in providing evidence on which WFP solutions are based. In the EO & AI for SDGs Innovation Programme, we are looking to support organizations and/or startup companies tackling the challenges in the four areas outlined below.

1. Climate Risk Insurance — WFP is the leading UN agency making climate risk insurance work for food-insecure populations. In 2020, two million people in eight countries were protected with such products developed and supported by WFP. In an increasingly uncertain world where climate shocks become the norm, we look to scale our risk insurance programmes to cover more vulnerable populations, and to improve the efficiency of the insurance products, from the pricing of the insurance premium to the insurance pay-out to the people in need. We are looking for solutions that apply EO and AI technologies to make the insurance programmes more inclusive, affordable, efficient, and reliable. You can learn more here.

2. Smallholder Farmer Livelihoods — About two-thirds of the developing world’s three billion rural people live in about 475 million small farm households, working on land plots smaller than two hectares. These smallholder farmers produce food for both primary and secondary needs, such as feeding their families with farm produce and selling them for financial gains. It is crucial for their livelihoods to ensure efficient access to traders and consumers, and to charge fair prices for their produce. We are looking for EO and AI-based solutions that not only enhance crop yields, but also improve farmers’ access to markets and increase transparency of agricultural trading pricing. You can review WFP’s market analysis repository here, smallholder market support repository here, and find food price data here.

3. Disaster Prediction and Mitigation — Weather extremes were the primary driver of the acute food insecurity situation of almost 34 million people in 25 countries in 2019. Disaster risk reduction is a core part of WFP’s mandate and mission. About half of WFP’s programmes address the risks of disasters and their impacts on food security, reaching approximately 80 million people each year.

To improve the efficiency of our operations, we are seeking EO and AI-powered solutions that can provide early warning and strengthen emergency preparedness with mid to long term prediction capacity of not only common climate change-related disasters, such as cyclones, storms, floods, drought, heat wave, but rare disasters such as sand storms, forest fires, landslides, plant pests and diseases, etc.

Below are a few rare disasters that have become more prominent in recent years. We also welcome solutions that tackle other rare disasters around the world.

  • A phenomenon known locally as “tiomena” (red wind) is exacerbating the drought and famine situation in Madagascar. Migrating sand dunes and windblown sand blanket farmland, crops, forests, and infrastructure, devastating the agricultural productivity and living conditions of the local residents. Learn more.
  • In addition to the widely reported forest fires in the United States and Australia, such disasters have also been taking place in countries such as IndiaSyriaTunisia, Libya, Algeria, etc.
  • Landslides are often caused by a combination of heavy rainfall, earthquakes, modern land-use practices, and deforestation. In tropical Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, the occurrences of landslide events are on the rise. The impact of a landslide can be extensive, including loss of life, destruction of infrastructure, damage to land and loss of natural resources. Learn more.
  • Locusts, armyworm, fruit flies, banana diseases, cassava diseases and wheat rusts are among the most destructive transboundary plant pests and diseases that greatly affect the livelihoods of smallholder farmers around the world. Learn more.

4. Infrastructure Assessment and Development — EO and AI can play instrumental roles in assisting WFP to respond to emergencies and build resilience towards disasters and climate shocks. In emergency response scenarios, WFP relies on quick understanding of the local infrastructure conditions post-disaster to distribute food and other supplies to local communities through land, water, and air access. For example, one of the WFP projects, SKAI, uses AI and satellite imagery to help us reduce the amount of time needed to assess and understand the impact of disasters. In resilience-building scenarios, WFP provides guidelines and incentives for local communities to develop infrastructure such as water wells, ponds, roads, irrigation systems, deforestation controls, etc, to strengthen their resilience against future disasters and climate shocks.

What you can expect from the programme:

This is an intensive and highly hands-on innovation acceleration programme with a focus to design-build-test-iterate your solution together with WFP staff in country offices or business units that will have an impact on WFP’s day-to-day operations.

Once selected, your journey with us will start in early 2022 with you formulating a development plan for your solution together with WFP staff. You will then receive equity-free funding to test your idea in the subsequent months. The programme will conclude in August 2022 with suitable proposals invited to apply for the WFP Innovation Challenge and/or ESA InCubed programme run by Φ-lab for the chance to receive additional funding and support. Guidance and support will be provided to maximize your application success.

Benefits of the EO & AI for SDGs Innovation Programme:

  • Funding: Up to EUR 90,000 in funding to develop and test your solution.
  • Project Management: Project management support from the WFP Innovation Accelerator to liaise between you and WFP staff in the area/s related to your idea.
  • Further support from the European Space Agency:
  • Tailored mentorships provided by EO and AI experts from ESA to guide and support you along your journey.
  • Access to EO data, software, and platforms via the European Space Agency. Find out more here.
  • Access to ESA communities and networks, together with business development support.

Minimum application criteria:

  1. Your start-up must be incorporated in one of the ESA Member States that have subscribed to the InCubed programme at the time of application. Your organization can be for profit or not-for-profit.
  2. Your solution must use data from European Earth Observation missions (e.g. Copernicus, national missions or commercial providers) with a substantial degree of innovation, such as but not limited to, AI.
  3. Your innovation must at least be at the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) stage. Proof-of-concept is preferred.
  4. Ideally, your solution will address the problem statement outlined by the World Food Programme.

Selection criteria:

After we receive your application, a panel of judges will evaluate your application based on the following criteria:

1. Solution-problem fit

2. Level of innovation

  • Is your solution truly innovative?
  • How likely is it that your solution will be an EO & AI European leader in the market in three-to-five year’s time?

3. Market size and financial prospects

  • Does your solution have the potential to address commercial markets (B2G and B2B)?
  • Is your forecasted addressable market large enough to sustain your business idea?
  • Do you already have strong customer engagement (relevant contracts, demonstrated interest in your product services, customer supporting your development, etc.)?
  • Do you have a credible business growth plan?

4. Team

  • Does your team have the required technical expertise?
  • Does the team have the required managerial and business expertise?

About the ESA Φ-lab

ESA’s Φ-lab mission is to accelerate the future of Earth observation (EO) by means of transformational innovations — i.e. innovations able to completely transform or create entire industries via new technologies, with the aim to strengthen the world-leading competitiveness of the European EO industrial and research sectors.

The Φ-lab is a catalyst for EO innovative and transformative ideas, and a bridge within Earth observation’s ecosystem of innovative players, which connects industry, investors, and academia to foster entrepreneurial initiatives.

The Φ-lab has been established to exploit and stimulate the favourable conditions of the European Earth observation market, by boosting its innovative ethos to enable a vibrant and worldwide competitive commercial sector.

Read more: Φ-lab brochure.

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