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Non Profit and Social Innovation: the potato that will change the world

Non Profit and Social Innovation: the potato that will change the world

Marco Crescenzi| November 24, 2015

Social innovation may have different forms, included that of a potato.

NGOs, governments, ecologists and the World Bank consider the shortage of drinking water one of the main causes for poverty. One fifth of the world’s population live in drought areas and climate change will worsen this problem. In addition, 50% of the world’s farmed surface is threatened by a huge quantity of salt, with salt extraction plants that are too expensive for developing countries. The point is: if we could use sea water for irrigation, it would be a breakthrough for humankind.

Well, this dream might become a reality. Marc Van Rijsselberghe has found a solution. He tried to solve the problem for his little farm in Texel, a little “godforsaken” island in the Northern Netherlands, whose water has a high salt percentage and where cultivations are difficult. “We tried to consider salt water as an opportunity, not as a threat”: this is what Van Rijsselberghe told the Guardian. He tried to save his “Salt Farm Texel”, on the verge of collapse.

Van Rijsselberghe then started cooperating with Amsterdam Free University to test produces for cultivation which were resistant to high-salt quantity environments. He specified: “We are a deal of freakish people who want to change things, not write a PhD thesis”.

This “freakish” cooperation gives origin to “Humble Spud”, a “humble” potato that The Guardian is sure will mark a revolution in food. Not a “superpotato” or a GMO, no tricks! It’s a simple potato which can be cultivated in high-salt quantity areas due to its high sugar intake. With the latter compensating the amount of salt, it can be largely eaten.  But there’s more, dear social innovators and entrepreneurs. The problem has not been solved by a single hero, but within a “deal of freakish people” (the definition they’ve chosen) cooperation-contamination on innovative and challenge prize projects made up of a desperate and determined 59-year-old farmer, a university (Amsterdam Free University), a Government Agency (UsaAid) and some NGOs.

This project won the prestigious “USAID grand Challenge Award” and beat the other 560 competing projects from 90 countries. “USAID” stands for United States Agency for International Development, created in 1961 by President John. F. Kennedy to cope with poverty, social development and international cooperation (see USAID’s History).

Thanks to a partnership with Dutch development consultants MetaMeta, several tonnes of the Texel seed potatoes are now on their way to Pakistan to see whether they can adapt to the Asian climate.

Moreover, the Challenge Prize formula and the “Social Innovation Prize” are extremely innovative. According to Marco Zappalorto – manager at Nesta (The UK Agency for Social Innovation) and Senior Adviser and Trainer for the Master in Social Innovation, Social Business, Social Start up and Project Innovation – it could become the turning point in “public procurement”- in the relationship between Public Administration, Non Profit Organizations and citizens.

How? By replacing traditional tenders, usually won by the usual suspects, with a competition focused on the innovative management of a problem. A competition in which what really matters is the innovative project and not being backed by some government officer.  What really counts is innovation.

Besides, this “revolution in food” is “GMO-free” and comes out without being managed by multinationals, as it develops thanks to NGOs. Actually a lot of multinational corporations are heading social innovations which are relevant and credible and are well-accepted in case of a partnership. They would be useful, not essential.

More and more NGOs are structurally taking their responsibility for a global development, both agricultural and economic, with all-encompassing and innovative policies, such as Oxfam in South America and Brac in Bangladesh -an NGO which is the real social state in its country. It has its own banks, schools, hospitals, companies and an income of more than half billion dollars, all in social business.

Achieving such an outcome requires skills and innovation also in technology, as well as a cooperation-contamination among several actors. Even a humble and cutting-edge potato cannot help it.


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