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05 July 2024 Share article

From Prize to Partnership: How COP28 Catalysed a Game-Changing Corn Revolution for Africa

 For the past 14 years, I've been on a mission to tackle one of the world’s deadliest causes of malnutrition and childhood death: corn. Corn is everywhere in Africa and Mesoamerica. It’s productive, easy to grow, and normally the cheapest food. It’s been the staple in both regions for centuries and millennia. Today it feeds 1.2 billion people.

Unfortunately, corn doesn’t have the nutrients that children need. Malnutrition is responsible for 45% of childhood deaths, and corn is one of the world’s biggest contributors. Here, corn’s popularity becomes a massive problem. What do you do when more nutritious foods are far more expensive or difficult to grow? How do you ask people to give up hundreds or thousands of years of culture?

In Guatemala, we decided we should just make corn better. We found corn seeds that naturally had more iron, zinc, and protein and crossed them with seeds that gave farmers the yield and climate resilience they most want. We partnered with local seed companies and cooperatives to get those seeds to farmers at prices they could afford. In 2023, 24,000 farmers used our seed, nourishing nearly a million people in a country with the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition. With the model working, our goal is to get to 3 million farmers, nourishing 100 million people. The path to that goal opened for us in a massive way in December 2023, in the UAE.

We had been selected as one of 15 finalists for the Zayed Sustainability Prize. The ceremony was held during COP28, and it was a huge stroke of luck that the world’s most important climate conference just happened to be in the UAE that year. For most of us, it was our first time going to a COP, and the team at the Prize helped us make the absolute most of it. They gave us host country badges, which let us into some of the most exclusive areas and events. They promoted our work relentlessly. We rubbed shoulders with Nobel Prize winners and diplomats. We were asked to stay for the first few days of COP, but after a chance meeting, I changed my flight to stay for the whole thing.

The first opened our path to Africa. An NGO called One Acre Fund serves over 3 million corn farmers there. They are the biggest and best organisation in our space. Just like us, they struggle to get corn farmers to eat a more nutritious diet, but we’d never had a chance to meet all the right people at the same time. At COP, all the right people, working in maize seeds, innovation and fundraising, were all there at the same time.

We quickly saw the potential of working together and began to meet almost every day. The match was perfect. One Acre Fund is taking leadership in developing new corn seeds in Eastern Africa and helping them get to farmers. We have a tried-and-true method to take great new seeds and make them nutritious.

We sketched out a plan. They send their best new seeds to Guatemala. We make them nutritious and send them back. They begin to promote the new nutritious versions of their seeds. With just a few extra efforts from both parties, we can pave the way to reach three million farmers, ultimately providing food for over 100 million people. If we both grow, the solution could reach over half a billion. What began at COP has gained momentum, culminating in the signing of a long-term collaboration agreement by May 2024.One Acre Fund is currently mailing us their best seeds while we expand our research farm in Guatemala to hand this new project.

Sometimes, collaboration feels like an uphill battle, but occasionally, everything falls into place seamlessly. We're immensely grateful to the Zayed Sustainability Prize team for placing us in the perfect setting, with the right people, at the right time. As our partnership blossoms, we're thrilled to keep you updated on our journey!