Tech & Innovation June 20, 2022 at 02:00 pm

This is how former Wall Street trader Sara Menker from Ethiopia is using AI to remove world hunger

Abu Mubarik June 20, 2022 at 02:00 pm

June 20, 2022 at 02:00 pm | Tech & Innovation

Sara Menker speaks at TEDGlobal 2017. Image via YouTube/TED

Sara Menker grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at a period when her country was all over the news. At the time, somewhere in the 1980s, the dominant news from her country was poverty and famine. 

While poverty was rife in the country, Menker grew up in a modest home where her parents put her through private education and she subsequently ended up in the United States to pursue her education. Her father worked at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa while her mother was a seamstress for Ethiopian Airlines.

Although she grew up in a middle-class home, she never stopped worrying about poverty and famine around the world throughout her education life in the United States at Mount Holyoke College. She wanted to do something about world hunger having seen how her country suffered from famine and how she was affected by it.

“First of all, you have to remember we come from massive families,” she told the New York Times. “My mom has 24 siblings. And you grow up very much aware of it. I grew up in a country where fuel was rationed, where food, sugar, toilet paper was rationed no matter who you are.”

After school, Menker joined Morgan Stanley in New York, where she began trading commodities. She decided on commodities trading because it was the only side of finance where she was connected to the real world and all the things she cared about.

In spite of her connection to commodities, over time, she felt like a robot. She didn’t find her job exciting anymore and wanted to do something different but within the global food chain. In 2014, she quit Morgan Stanley and founded Gro Intelligence, which uses artificial intelligence to make forecasts about global agriculture and fight food insecurity.

The software company has developed a suite of global agricultural analytics and models that accurately predict crop yields and acreage far ahead of official government releases, according to its website. The firm’s suite of machine-learning models currently covers 80% of global production for corn, soy, and wheat.

“Typically, Gro’s US crop yield and acreage predictions are accurate four to six months ahead of official government estimates. In other critical regions, including Russia, Brazil and China, Gro’s forecasts are accurate up to 12-24 months before official estimates are released. Our forecasts are within 2-5% of final government estimates,” Menker’s company said.

Her customers include HSBC, Tyson Foods and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Gro came from the financial crisis. The stock prices of all the banks were about to go to zero, and I had a colleague who literally thought the world was coming to an end. He thought the best hedge to make was buying as much gold as possible,” Menker told the Times. 

“So despite him, I looked at buying a little bit of agricultural land, thinking it was actually a good hedge to inflation to have a piece of land where I can grow my own food. And that made me realize how messed up the agricultural systems around the world were, and how very little of it made any economic sense. I didn’t end up investing in the land, but I ended up investing tons and tons of time learning everything I could about agriculture, and I just completely got obsessed.”

Since founding the company, Menker has gone on to raise more than $125 million in funding and has offices in New York, Singapore and Nairobi, Kenya. She remains unshaken in her quest to feed the world and reduce global food hunger.

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