Public service, private enterprise, academia, government, and politics—Ertharin Cousin has done it all. She’s best known for her roles as executive director of the World Food Programme and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, but the IFT FIRST keynoter also spent seven years working as a public affairs executive for the Albertsons grocery chain in addition to stints as an assistant attorney general in Illinois and with the U.S. State Department as a White House liaison, among other positions.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that two years ago she took up a new challenge—this one as founder and CEO of impact investment fund Food Systems for the Future. In this capacity, Cousin is working to foster a market-driven approach to improving nutrition outcomes by making healthful food affordable and available for low-income and underserved communities around the globe.
Cousin made time to share her hopes for the new investment fund with Food Technology as well as her vision for ending hunger globally and some thoughts on the ways in which family values shaped her perspectives on the food system.
Cousin: I have the benefit of a career that has made me hope. It has given me the ability to understand these issues, not just from the perspective of an advocate or a UN official, but from a private sector businessperson who must deliver shareholder value, who must also deliver for their employees. While at the same time, I’ve also had the opportunity to work inside government and understand the policies and policy ramifications and how politicians and government officials make these decisions about what regulations we put in place, what subsidies as well as penalties that we can implement that will potentially change or catalyze behavior.
Having had a hands-on experience in all of the different areas gives me a very unique ability to have conversations with just about anybody and understand their perspectives and help us work towards a shared way forward.
Cousin: Sixty percent to 70% of the calories that are consumed are from commodities of corn, rice, wheat, and soy, and the access to high micronutrient-rich, protein-rich foods is out of reach for 3 billion people on this planet. We don’t grow enough of the right foods. We don’t market enough of the right foods. We don’t make those foods available and affordable enough for everyone to have the same access. And as a result, what we’re seeing is a crisis in noncommunicable diseases that are directly diet related. And the cost of those noncommunicable diseases is having a detrimental impact, not just on our healthcare systems, but on the GDPs of our country.
And so our future is directly related to our ability to recognize that as we create a more sustainable food system, as we bring new products online that will support access to healthier food, we need to ensure that those foods are not only accessible but affordable and available to all.
Cousin: Our theory of change is that the companies that work in these areas or serve these communities have ample support for startups. There’s all kinds of X prizes and incubators and accelerators and grant capital that comes online for new ideas.
But from that startup to the commercial return of the business, that “messy middle” as we call it, there is little financial investment. And they lack the business operation support, the partnership, the policy support that is necessary to truly give them the ability to move from seed to growth stage.
And so our theory of change is that we will work in that messy middle, providing the financial support through blended capital—whether it is grant capital, equity capital, or debt capital—to catalyze the capital stack in a way that will provide the opportunity for either the additional commercial capital that is necessary or the growth that is required to bring the company to a position where it can access commercial capital.
Cousin: [In] the United States we’re in the process now of planning for a small proof of concept fund that will focus primarily on Black- and Latinx-owned businesses that are working to increase access to affordable nutritious foods. Any place—we’re agnostic about where the business works along the food value chain. And we’ve identified a nascent investment portfolio; we are now working with support from a grant we received from Walmart to launch that first startup fund in September at the Food Systems Summit.
Cousin: We have a different team working in Rwanda, and they’re working specifically in one value chain looking to scale up the commercial operations of that value chain from farm to the consumer. And then working with a variety of different partners to support the access to more nutritious foods from these businesses through a variety of different providers.
Cousin: What we’d like to do is prove that you can build businesses that serve these communities as well as the affluent and still make money and still have nutrition impact. Success for me would be that I get crowded out of the space by all the big money, and that people begin to see that there is not only the opportunity to do good, but to do well by providing access, changing how we provide access to food. And this also includes how we subsidize what we grow. As we talk about more regenerative agriculture—creating agriculture that has less impact on climate—that also means growing more diverse foods.
Cousin: We have a global community that is now using the words “build back better.” But the question is how much action are we willing to take, how much investment are we prepared to make? And that will determine whether or not we actually get there. I believe we have the capacity to get there. The question is, do we have the public will to make the commitments that are necessary to actually implement those capacities?
Cousin: A wonderful man by the name of Sam Dryden—he was a philanthropist working for the Gates Foundation and agriculture and food security. He helped make me smarter. And he believed in me early in my career. Unfortunately, he died a couple of years ago. But he is missed by the entire community because he was a believer. And, some would say, “Ertharin, you really need to tone down your passion.” He would say, “Don’t listen to them. We need you out there. We need you pushing hard.”
Cousin: At the other end of the spectrum, beyond my political career, my grandfather was a farm laborer, what is commonly known as a sharecropper. He believed that our first responsibility was to feed our own family and then to work to ensure that everyone else had adequate access to food. And even after he was no longer working on the farm, he was quite interested in, and always supported me in, my efforts to ensure that I understood how agriculture worked, how food systems worked. And his level of passion, but more importantly, his humanity, was passed down to my mom. And then on to me.