One out of nine people are affected by hunger and malnutrition, the number one risk to health worldwide. Knowing this it might sound surprising that it only takes $0.50 to feed a child suffering from severe hunger for a full day, according to data gathered by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
Inspired by these numbers, WFP manager Sebastian Stricker decided to take the next step to end chronic hunger. Having consulted governments on food and nutrition across Africa and South-East Asia, Sebastian and his co-founder, Bernhard Kowatsch came up with the idea of a crowdfunding app in 2014. Together with their team of volunteers and support from the United Nations, the two launched ShareTheMeal in 2015.
The app builds upon technology as much as it does on our society’s social sensitivity. With as little as one click you can donate daily rations to hungry children on the other side of the planet. The app has more than 520,000 users worldwide, who have donated 5 million meals so far. With 90% of donations going directly to WFP operations, the ShareTheMeal team’s mission is to build a world with zero hunger.
We spoke to Sebastian about the right approach to end chronic hunger, the potentials of mobile crowdfunding, and virtual reality as a tool to foster social innovation.
Where did the idea for ShareTheMeal originate from?
I found it shocking that it only costs $0.50 to feed a child for a whole day, who is suffering from severe hunger in the developing world. The movie “Super Size Me” triggered a thought in my head, that’s how the name ShareTheMeal was born. I thought it was time to shift the focus from food wasting to food sharing.
How did ShareTheMeal become part of the World Food Programme?
My co-founder and I worked for the World Food Programme before and maintained a good relationship with the United Nations during the sabbatical we took to work on ShareTheMeal. We started looking for financial support to start operations and raised $75,000 from the private sector, but needed more investmentment to start the platform. As the project developed the UN became more and more interested. Eventually we launched the app as part of the WFP in 2015.
Why mobile crowdfunding?
Social sensitivity and empathy are key ingredients for a sustainable and well-functioning society. People are more likely to donate money if there’s an easy way to do it. With the help of the existing technology we can make donation as easy as a click on your phone. The beautiful thing about our app is that with very little effort you can actually make a difference. In fact, there are 20 times more people with smartphones than children suffering from hunger around the world.
Ending global hunger is a great cause, but it may seem idealistic to some. What are your long-term goals, and how do you think this problem can be solved on a social level?
I’m confident that our generation will see a world without chronic hunger. Acute hunger will very likely always exist, simply because there’s war or disaster, which means people might be cut off from basic food supply for a limited amount of time.
Chronic hunger is a more systematic problem, but the good news is that it affects less and less people every year. While twenty years ago one out of five people were victims of chronic hunger or malnutrition, in 2016 we talk about one out of nine. If this progress extrapolates, we can be hopeful that our efforts will end severe hunger within the next decades. That’s one of the sustainable development goals the world community defined to achieve by 2030. I think that’s a feasible goal, but it requires lots of innovation and investment.
What does it take to end chronic hunger by 2030?
Whether this goal is actually possible to implement and what are the right approaches to do so are widely discussed in the food security and nutrition field. Some experts say we need to improve our agriculture and health care systems. Others say that it may simply be a matter of investing enough money into this field. This theory suggests that there’s enough food out there, so it’s only about paying the bill and bringing the food to the people who really need it. I think this thought is extremely powerful: if you’re willing to pay the bill, it’s possible to end global hunger. We do have the means to end hunger, so let’s talk about how much it costs.
The food supply in the developing countries could work similarly to a social safety net. In Western societies sick, unemployed and homeless people get support from their peers and the state. We have the same idea for taking care of those, who are not fortunate enough to be able to look after themselves.
Which countries and regions did you target so far? On what basis did you choose them?
We’re supporting children, pregnant women, young mothers and their babies. So far we’ve been active in Lesotho, Jordan and now in Homs, Syria. Our target mechanism works like that: there needs to be substantial need in that specific region and we need to feel that the program can actually make a difference.
Are you completely nonprofit? What percentage of a donation goes directly to feeding children?
We are completely nonprofit. 90% of donations go directly to WFP’s operations, the rest covers overhead. 10% is very competitive in the nonprofit sector.
Does the food distribution go through the World Food Programme, or do you have team members on the ground?
We decide who are the beneficiaries and what type of operations or food transfers we support, but the distribution itself goes through the WFP.
Let’s talk about numbers. How many active users do you have at the moment? How much money did you collect so far and how many meals did that amount cover?
We have 520,000 users, who shared 5 million meals so far, which means that we could distribute 5 million daily rations. We fed over 20,000 children in Lesotho, 20,000 refugee children in camps in North Jordan, and right now feeding 2000 pregnant women, young mothers and their babies in Homs, Syria.
ShareTheMeal is really popular in the app stores. What is your marketing approach?
Our marketing efforts focus mostly on social media, PR and support from app stores. Of course there’s word of mouth and sometimes celebrities pick us up, which means good press. We got shout-outs from Judd Apatow, Marc Ruffalo, Chelsea Clinton, Sarah Silverman and recently Grimes mentioned us as her favorite app.
I’m sure most companies wouldn’t consider these sustainable marketing channels, as they are not easy to scale or plan. The question is what are the next steps from here? Do we try to become a typical fundraising organization, investing in communication outreach and marketing, or do we try to innovate and leverage technology to create social impact?
So what are the next steps? Are you planning to add more charity features to the app?
We have a couple of hypotheses for the next steps that we’re currently working on. Right now we’re looking at peer-to-peer models and virtual reality.
How can you integrate virtual reality to your business?
Just like peer-to-peer models, virtual reality can help connecting people and establishing proximity. This connection is very important, because the closer we feel to other people, the more we are interested in their well-being. We’d like to create opportunities to help people connect with others, who might not be around the corner, but the other side of the world. We’d like to help our users understand that those in need are just like us, they just weren’t as lucky in the lottery of life.