Tech Meets Purpose: Google.org and World Food Program USA’s Joint Mission for a Zero Hunger World

Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua/2022
World Food Program USA
Published September 18, 2023

Google.org and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) are leveraging the transformative power of technology to address one of humanity’s most pressing challenges: global hunger.

We sat down with Alex Diaz, Google.org’s Senior Manager, AI for Social Good, to talk about our collective vision and learn how artificial intelligence, innovation and anticipatory actions are paving the way for a Zero Hunger world.

Since 2015, Google has actively supported WFP initiatives ranging from food security assessments using mobile technologies to backing the WFP Innovation Accelerator through the Google Developers Launchpad. In 2022, Google.org granted $500,000 to World Food Program USA for two WFP projects in Indonesia – PRISM and CLEAR+ – and furthered its commitment with a $3 million grant for an AI-enhanced early warning program in east Africa. Additionally, in response to the crisis in Ukraine, Google.org donated $1 million to support emergency relief efforts.

This year, Google.org pledged $2.8 million to the WFP Innovation Accelerator for a 10-week sprint program with the support of Google for Startups Accelerator. Since 2018, Google Research has supported WFP in developing SKAI, a satellite imagery tool for rapid disaster impact assessment.

Q: Google.org’s support of WFP spans various initiatives, from bolstering early warning systems in east Africa to enhancing climate risk monitoring in Indonesia. What, in your perspective, makes this support unique, and how does it align with Google.org’s overarching mission and values?

AD: Google.org brings the best of Google, combining funding and technical expertise, to help solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges, including hunger. For example, through the Google for Startups Accelerator framework, we support various innovations that are participating in WFP Accelerator programs with a mix of technical workshops and mentorship. We aim to support WFP’s development of technology products that serve thousands of people.

What is special about our support of WFP is the scale of ambition. At Google, we often think 10X – pushing ourselves and our grantees to think bigger and serve millions of people. There are few problems as complicated and as persistent as global hunger, and few grantees with the expertise and pathways to institutional adoption than WFP.

We’ve set out to support WFP’s effort to make meaningful progress, understanding the core issues and scaling proven innovations that make a difference in curbing global hunger. Both of our organizations acknowledge that technology has a critical role to play in improving people’s access to food. With new technologies, we can more accurately predict climate disasters, take timely action to mitigate impending crises, and use the latest in artificial intelligence to not only understand hunger trends but empower local governments, civil society, and activists with the insights they need for rapid and effective decisionmaking. This ambition aligns with Google’s overall mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

People receive WFP food assistance in Namibia
Photo: WFP/Nkululeko Mazibuko/2023

Technology can help curb one of humanity’s greatest challenges: global hunger.

Q: A recurring theme in Google.org’s philanthropic support is the focus on local solutions. In east Africa, with Google.org’s support, WFP is using cloud computing and AI to anticipate impending disasters and help communities prepare for these shocks. How does this focus on local communities enhance the efficacy of anticipatory action?

AD: For anticipatory action programs to be effective, local organizations must be empowered to inform and lead interventions. Their participation and buy-in is essential – They know the obstacles their communities face and as such, they have the best understanding of which solutions could drive the most impact.

Local capacity building is also essential for long term sustainability against climate shocks – The more these organizations have the resources and capacity to drive solutions, the more ingrained it becomes in community practice, and the more resilient that community becomes over time. It is imperative to center the focus on these organizations and people’s lived experiences, meet their capacities where they are, and collectively design interventions.

Anticipatory action is one of WFP’s flagship programs to manage climate-related risks. In the long term, WFP aims to equip communities with the resources to manage the impacts of climate-related disasters and in doing so, build their resilience to the climate crisis. Learn more about how WFP works to prevent and mitigate the effects of extreme weather.

Boat carrying aid in South Sudan
Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua/2022

WFP is the world’s leading humanitarian organization, using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change.

Q: The WFP Innovation Accelerator supports startups and entrepreneurs in their efforts to disrupt hunger with funding, hands-on support and access to WFP’s global operations. How does the Google for Startups pro bono support to the WFP Innovation Accelerator uniquely position WFP to create transformative solutions in addressing global hunger? Can you speak to the importance of using approaches such as human centered design and lean startup mindsets to help innovators think differently about problems? 

AD: Google for Startups supports the WFP Innovation Accelerator through mentorship. By harnessing the technological expertise of Googlers, this support complements the existing skills and local knowledge of innovations participating in WFP Innovation Accelerator programs and enables their path to scale. To date, Google for Startups has provided 40 mentors who have provided over 60 sessions of mentorship.

Human centered design and user experience research are key ingredients to a successful program. While technology provides the tools for product creation, our process ensures we prioritize the needs of the people we aim to serve. We start by viewing the problem from the perspective of these end-users, those that live in communities most impacted by climate change, conflict and economic shocks. Then, we examine past interventions that didn’t quite hit the mark. Using this feedback, we collectively design a better, refined solution. During our Google for Startup Accelerator program, we introduce these methods, guide teams throughout the above steps, and showcase successful examples. In all cases, our philosophy is to co-create solutions alongside users, ensuring the end product effectively addresses their specific needs.

Shahena Begum is informing Minara Begum about the upcoming flood.
Photo: liWFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud

Through its Anticipatory Action program, WFP provides families with cash assistance before disaster strikes.

Q: What is your vision for the long-term impact of Google’s support? How do you see technology fundamentally changing the way we approach global hunger?

AD: The latest SDG report from the U.N. Statistics department is sobering – the number of people facing food insecurity has been rising since 2015 and hunger continues to deteriorate today. In the long term, I hope that our support for WFP changes this. I hope that the output of WFP’s endeavors moves the world towards a more food secure planet. Technology, and specifically artificial intelligence, are helpful tools to accelerate this progress. From our grantees, we hear that AI helps organizations achieve their primary goals in a third of the time and at half the cost. That is the type of acceleration we need, but technology alone will not solve anything. It will take a whole of society approach with strong government leadership and innovative public-private partnerships to truly end global hunger.

Q: As climate-related disasters get worse and more frequent, the role of technology and collective effort in tackling these challenges becomes even more critical. How does Google.org envision its role in supporting climate resilient and food secure communities?  

AD: Google.org wants to be helpful. We will continue to use our philanthropic capital to de-risk impactful innovations, build an evidence base, and provide support for key players to help scale solutions in the long-term. With climate change worsening, we need to leverage all of the tools at our disposal to help ensure climate extremes do not become full-blown catastrophes. The tools that can help make a difference in understanding and mitigating hunger exist. A more proactive, predictive, and preemptive approach is possible – it’s just a matter of collective will and action.