How Food4Education Uses IoT to Fight Poverty

eWEEK INNOVATION ANALYSIS: Cisco Youth Leadership winner proves that one person really can make a difference.


Most large companies have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, but few have taken it as seriously as networking market leader Cisco Systems. One of the company’s ongoing initiatives is to help others who want to make the world a better place. This enables Cisco’s CSR investment dollars to go further, because the empowerment of others creates a multiplicative effect over what Cisco could do on its own.

One such example is a Kenyan company called Food4Education. The company was founded by Wawira Njiru, who has a passion for ending poverty. In late September, I attended the Global Citizen Festival in New York’s Central Park, where I met Njiru. For those not familiar with the Global Citizen organization, it’s an international advocacy group that is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development goals. The top initiative is to end global poverty. The Global Citizen Festival brought together more than 60,000 people who gathered to listen to some great music but also to collaborate on how to end poverty.

Cisco’s CSR plans involve empowering others to do more

Cisco joined forces with Global Citizen last year as its global technology partner. As part of this, Cisco sponsors the annual $250,000 Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award to honor an individual between the age of 18 and 30 who is making a significant contribution toward ending poverty. Njiru was the first-ever winner of this award in 2018. In New York, she took the stage with Cisco’s Chief People Officer and Executive VP Francine Katsoudas, where the two discussed the impact Food4Education is having. On stage, Katsoudas also announced that Cisco would be committing its support for the Youth Leadership Prize for the next three years.

While growing up in Kenya, Wawira Njiru saw first-hand all of the health and education problems caused when children do not have access to regular, healthy meals. Because of this, many kids eschewed going to school in favor of begging on the streets to get food. The lack of nutrition caused kids to do poorly in schools and score low on exams, which limits the opportunities they have later in life. The mission of Food4Education was to feed school age kids healthy and nutritious meals, enabling them to do better in school and achieve their potential in life. The initial target goal was modest and was to feed 25 kids and then expand from there.

IoT, mobile payments are critical technologies in the fight against poverty

One of the challenges for Food4Education was how to scale, and for this, Njiru turned to mobile and IoT technology. The organization is now using an NFC payment system to log payments for purchased meals. The kids are given a wearable that goes on their wrist for a payment mechanism to purchase subsidized, healthy meals. This eliminates the need for kids carry cash. Students merely need to tap the wearable and that credits a digital wallet paying for the meal. This whole transaction takes less than five seconds, giving kids access to food where they had limited access before.

I was able to talk to Njiru at the Global Citizen festival, and she was initially told by many people that one person couldn’t make a huge difference, particularly one at her young age. She faced multiple rejections and was told what she was doing was a passion project and nothing that would materialize into anything meaningful. Her passion persevered, and in 2018, she served more than 250,000 meals and is on track to do 500,000-plus in 2019.

Corporate leaders should understand that one person can make a difference

The success that Wawira Njiru has had is a great lesson that all IT and corporate leaders should take to heart and think more broadly about their CSR initiatives. Companies like Cisco and its peer group have a lot of money, and the easy thing to do is to give more money away. What’s more difficult--but more effective--is to think more broadly about CSR and find a way to support individuals who have a passion of making the world a better place. If a single person under the age of 30 based in Kenya can find a way to feed half a million meals to thousands of kids, think of the impact people in developed nations with more resources should be able to have. Every employee in every company, not matter how small the organization should be incented to think about how to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

I would like to see IT decision makers include CSR contributions as part of the evaluation process. This will incentivize the large tech vendors to use their massive reach and resources to help make the world a better place.

Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.