zero hunger lab

Zero Hunger Lab: enthusiastic partners with a mission finding each other

Article 4 min. Corine Schouten

Tilburg University’s Zero Hunger Lab has been attracting partners for a mere two months now and already there is a host of organizations wanting to join the initiative. Solidaridad, WUR, Oxfam, ORTEC, Welt Hunger Hilfe, INSEAD, Voedselbanken NL (Dutch foodbanks), the list on Professor of Operations Research Hein Fleuren’s whiteboard is steadily growing. The joint objective: “no more hunger (SDG-2)”, by employing data analysis and artificial intelligence to improve food aid and optimize agricultural and cattle farming systems. The ultimate goal is for all countries and communities to be able to achieve their own sustainable food security.

Hein Fleuren and fellow-founder Perry Heijne of the Zero Hunger Lab enjoy letting the world know how things are going. “What is so funny about this,” Fleuren explains, “is that when I first started on this years ago, people at the World Food Program said: ‘Hein, how could you possibly help us?’ Math for them was a totally separate world. These days, aid workers too are used to the idea that data analysis, optimization and AI can contribute to solutions, also, or perhaps even particularly, for people in need.”

The Zero Hunger Lab is an open platform, open to whoever wants to join: researchers, students, humanitarian organizations, governments, companies. “To make partners aware of the potential involved in data science today, we are organizing master classes”, Hein continues. “In these classes, we often find new ideas rising to the surface, and that gets everybody excited.” “Humanitarian and development organizations in particular,” Heijne adds, “often do not have access to new technologies, as they often lack the time as well as the necessary funds. The marvelous support and the funding of the Zero Hunger Lab by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tilburg University allow us to start working for them straight away.”

Long-term relationship and joint mission

To get the lab working for everybody, the partners will need to engage in a long-term relationship. This will lead to the development of better and better data models, Master’s students building on each other’s work, researchers having the opportunity to publish on it, and of course to teamwork resulting in sustainable solutions that really work to realize the joint mission: ending world hunger.

Perry Heijne contacts interested parties in the field, which as former CSR director and executive at an international aid organization he is thoroughly familiar with: “There are wonderful initiatives out there that we can help out straight away with our data science expertise”, he goes on to explain. There is the development of the Child Growth Monitor app, which allows you to determine simply and quickly if a child is underfed, and how it can best be helped. Or the Emergency Supplies and Prepositioning Strategy (ESUPS) project, to store food supplies for emergency aid in such a way that aid can be offered quickly and targeted on the spot anywhere in the world. Yet another example is the plan to analyze and optimize, together with the INSEAD research group, the global cocoa- and chocolate supply chains, so that the cocoa farmers in West-Africa will also get a fair price.

Valuable experience

Hein Fleuren and his students gained valuable experience in dealing with these complicated issues in a project of the UN World Food Program (WFP). That is where the seed for Zero Hunger lab was planted: Fleuren and Heijne first met each other at what was TNT at the time, which supported the WPF in helping them improve the logistics of emergency aid. Years of collaboration resulted in savings that allowed the WFP to feed millions more.

“In 2018, the number of people starving in the world was still at 821 million,” says Fleuren ‘I wanted to do something about that, but I didn’t know how. I couldn’t stop talking about it, with Dick den Hertog of the university’s Impact Program, and with Perry. Until our wives at dinner party said to us: “Shouldn’t you just team up and see what you can do about it together? That’s when we decided: We’re going to explore this for a year and see if it’s feasible.” And the rest is history.

Hein Fleuren: “I can see a lot more clearly now how things hang together”

Hein Fleuren

Even before I started this work, I had been on a study trip with students to the UN World Food Program in Rome. There were beautiful photographs on the walls of the corridors of the WFP office that touched me to my very soul.  I remember thinking ’If only one day I could make my scientific discipline work for the benefit of this here.'

My work for the WFP later has changed and formed me. Initially this was from what was TNT at the time, which supported the WFP in optimizing its distribution, and later from the university. I got to see a great many aspects of a global problem, much, much more than you can normally pick up from the media. With the WFP in South Sudan, I was right at the center of world news. I spent the night in a village that was massacred only three weeks later.    

I can see much more clearly now how all things hang together. I look at things more consciously and I’ve gotten better at relativizing things if things don’t go the way they should. I still also work for companies, but I’m more motivated than I used to be to do the right thing.

Working together with colleagues, students, and organizations, coming from all kinds of different angles, is an enriching experience for me. Sometimes it takes a little getting used to: the way they think may be quite different from mine. But you need all those different perspectives to solve complex issues. It often comes down to really wanting to cooperate and being prepared to really listen to each other. That is when things start happening. For me personally, the great thing about our work is that it really makes a difference for people in need. That really touches me to the core.”

Photography: VRBLD