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Reimagining the Future of Food With a Systems-Based Approach

How Acumen, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, is Empowering Systems Leaders to Transform the Future of Food

At Acumen, we see the world as it is and imagine it as it could be. With support from The Rockefeller Foundation, we’re asking pressing questions about our current and future food systems.

What does it take to build an ideal food system? How can we create a food system that takes into account all other systems at play — including the environment, culture, diet, the economy, technology, and policy?

In today’s global climate, transforming the future of food is no longer just about tackling food nutrition, sustainability, or equity. It’s about the interconnectedness of many elements — human and animal health, land, water, climate, biodiversity, and the economy — and understanding how these converge to create the food systems we have today, and those we want for a better tomorrow.

Sara Farley, Managing Director, Integrated Operations, Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation, helps us see the interconnectedness of food systems when she says, “Humanity is out of time to simply work to make food systems more nourishing. We must work at a level of integration never before witnessed. This means working toward nourishing AND regenerative AND equitable food systems. Operating at so many intersections simultaneously requires skill sets, mindsets, and a dexterity with tool sets that we hope to avail via The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Food Systems Fellowship.”

Designed to create system-level impact in food over the long term, The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Food Systems Fellowship is a one-year program supporting a cohort of systems leaders — individuals who can see the complexity of food systems, with the ability to influence them at multiple levels to drive meaningful change.

With over two decades investing in companies, leaders, and ideas solving the toughest challenges of global poverty, Acumen has learned that moral imagination — seeing the world as it is, and imagining the world as it could be — is crucial for success.

That’s why, when tackling the future of food and agriculture, we invest in leaders who reimagine a system that puts the needs of vulnerable populations at the center of innovative business models.


Through our agriculture investments, we’ve seen how a systems-building approach can alleviate poverty for smallholder farmers who lack access to the six building blocks of climate resilient profitability: markets, land, infrastructure and equipment, technical assistance, finance and inputs.

The most innovative entrepreneurs have assessed the gaps in these fundamental needs and developed systematic, bundled business models to fill them. Here are three examples from our portfolio of agriculture investees:

  • Kheyti: Offers a low-cost, greenhouse-in-a-box for Indian smallholder farmers bundled together with financing, inputs, extension, and access to markets.
  • Gulu Agricultural Development Company: Provides premium market opportunities to cotton and sesame farmers in Uganda, bundled with pre-financing and an expansive extension program.
  • Azahar: A Colombian coffee company implementing radical supply chain transparency to drive high-value market access for smallholders, bundled together with extension support.

Over the next 5 years, Acumen will be launching a Pioneer Agriculture Initiative  to continue investing in entrepreneurs like these who hold smallholder farmers at the core of their offering, and who develop innovative approaches that create climate-resilient, profitable farm businesses around the world.

Taking inspiration from these learnings, we’ve designed The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Food Systems Fellowship to support innovative social entrepreneurs who also put people and planet at the center of food systems change.


Having committed $105 million to incentivize the food system to produce more Good Food over the next three years, The Rockefeller Foundation is on a mission to transform the future of food by improving health outcomes, regenerating the environment, and creating economic opportunity for those who produce, sell, and serve it.

Recognizing that systems leaders with the vision to transform the future of food are crucial to increasing the availability of and access to Good Food, they’ve worked with Acumen to design a new kind of fellowship experience — one rooted in the systems, visions, mindset, and skills required to transition food systems.

  • Acumen’s track record cultivating moral leaders through its fellowship program made it the natural collaborator to co-create this program. Together, we believe these fellows will be the ambassadors for tomorrow’s food systems.
    Sara Farley
    Managing Director, Integrated Operations, Food Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

The inaugural cohort of The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Food Systems Fellowship are a group of 22 emerging systems leaders from around the globe tackling a range of food systems issues — from lifting smallholder farmers out of poverty, to decreasing childhood obesity, to harnessing the power of blockchain and AI innovations for food security.

Together, and with the support of trained facilitators and world class experts, the Fellows will participate in a blend of immersive seminars, workshops, and self-directed leadership experiments to support their food systems work.

Leveraging the principles of moral leadership, they’ll unlock their leadership potential and reimagine ways of creating more inclusive, nourishing, and regenerative food systems.

Join us in celebrating this year’s cohort of systems leaders who are transforming the future of food. Follow Acumen Academy on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook  to keep up to date on these inspiring leaders and the work they’re doing to build food systems that work for everyone.


FOOD ENTREPRENEURS: Founding or leading a for-profit or non-profit organization that provides critical goods, services or livelihoods to underserved populations within food systems.

  • Carl Jensen | Zambia
    • CEO and Co-Founder of Good Nature Agro
    • foodMoving farmers out of poverty by operating a 4600 farmer outgrower for legume seeds and building long-term farm and financial profiles to unlock deeper services for farmers including financing, training, and insurance.
  • Leah Lizarondo | Pennsylvania, USA
    • Founder and CEO of Food Rescue Hero
    • Facilitating the recovery of large volumes of food going to waste via technology that mobilizes the world’s largest on-demand volunteer food transport network.
  • Raj Vable | Oregon, USA
    • Founder of Young Mountain Tea
    • Unlocking the potential of tea, the world’s most consumed beverage after water, to serve as a catalyst for sustainable livelihoods for Himalayan villages.
  • Tehmina A Chaudhry | Canada
    • Co-Founder and CEO of INSTA Foods
    • Reducing food waste and post harvest losses by increasing the shelf life of perishable food items.
  • Phil Acosta | Hawaii, USA
    • Executive Director of Aloha Harvest
    • Addressing the double challenge of hunger and food waste by working with food donors to redistribute food to recipient social service agencies.
  • Ian Hrovatin | Mexico
    • Co-Founder of Vero Amore
    • Running a sustainably-sourced healthy food company contributing to the conservation and reforestation of more than 70 thousands hectares of tropical jungle, and the livelihood of more than 8000 smallholder farmers in historically conflict-prone regions in Mexico and Colombia.
  • Achint Sanghi | India
    • Co-Founder of Gramhal Foundation
    • Improving price transparency and postharvest supply chain linkages for farmers in India, to help them make better decisions when growing and selling their crops.

FOOD INTRAPRENEURS: Creating innovative solutions to tackle food systems challenges from within an existing institution by shifting its culture and/or strategy, and building new collaborations.

  • Catalina Eikenberg | Germany
    • Global Head of Sustainable Business at Neumann Kaffee Gruppe
    • Positively impacting livelihoods of coffee farmers across the world through the provision of services like finance, access to inputs and training, as part of the group´s global sustainable sourcing strategy.
  • Matthew Wilson | South Dakota, USA
    • Food Sovereignty Initiative Director at Sicangu Community Development Corporation
    • Increasing local food access and tribal food sovereignty through a return to traditional practices aimed at strengthening Sicangu identity and culture.
  • Kyriacos Koupparis | Italy
    • Head of Frontier Innovations at UN World Food Programme
    • Exploring how emerging technologies – such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and robotics – can be harnessed to catalyze impact within the context of humanitarian assistance and food security across the world.
  • Giulia Menichetti | Massachusetts, USA
    • Senior Research Scientist at Network Science Institute (Northeastern University)
    • Tracking the full chemical complexity of the food we consume and develop quantitative tools to unveil, at the mechanistic level, the impact of these chemicals on our health through the Foodome Project.
  • Catherine Mwema | Zambia
    • Post-Doctoral Fellow at Worldfish
    • Piloting and establishing pro-poor, inclusive, profitable and sustainable aqua- feed business models for smallholder fish farmers and aqua-enterprises in Zambia and Malawi.

FOOD ORGANIZATIONAL BUILDERS: Supporting the growth of an organization focused on alleviating food systems challenges by building the internal structures and processes that enable the organization to pursue its purpose.

  • Anne Charlotte Mornington | United Kingdom
    • Head of Impact at OLIO
    • Connecting neighbors with their communities and local businesses so food surplus can be shared and not thrown away in 62 countries.
  • Esther Mukundane | Rwanda
    • Country Director at Aspire Rwanda
    • Equipping smallholder farmers with the knowledge and skills of regenerative agricultural practices that can lift them out of poverty in Rwanda, with a particular focus on women and youth.
  • John Macharia | Kenya
    • Country Manager at Alliance For a Green Revolution in Africa
    • Helping governments, the private sector, implementing agencies, and farmers rethink food systems through targeted interventions and cross-stakeholder collaborations in Kenya and across Africa.
  • Mikol Hoffman | Puerto Rico
    • Director at Food Producer Network, World Central Kitchen
    • Leading World Central Kitchen’s resilience initiatives to strengthen food security and revitalize food economies throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
  • James Toop | United Kingdom
    • CEO of Bite Back 2030
    • Spearheading a youth-led movement for a healthier, fairer food system which aims to halve childhood obesity in the UK by 2030.

FOOD BRIDGE BUILDERS: Reimagining public policy, finding and connecting organizations and leaders to discover commonalities and activate a shared vision for food systems transformation.

  • Shanoo Saran | United Arab Emirates
    • Co-Head, Smallholder Solutions at Rabobank Global Growth | Partnerships Lead Expert at Mercy Corps AgriFin Program | Managing Director at Country Operations at Food Systems for the Future
    • Working across global impact-established organizations and early-stage startups, with a focus on supply chain integration, data/technology, inclusive finance and climate solutions in food systems.
  • Laura De Matteis | Italy
    • Food Systems Expert at UN Food and Agriculture Organization
    • Promoting a transition to sustainable food systems in the Mediterranean, by building multi-stakeholder partnerships and leveraging investments.
  • Kelly Moltzen | Washington, USA
    • Co-Founder & Convener at Interfaith Public Health Network
    • Inspiring people of faith to be agents of change in transforming communities into ones that promote health and well-being for all.
  • Annah Mutinda | Kenya
    • Deputy Commissioner for Cooperative Development at Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives, Government of Kenya
    • Ensuring food security in Kenya by conducting trainings for County staff and members of the cooperative movement, linking cooperatives to markets, and promoting value addition of agricultural commodities by the cooperative societies.
  • Michael Lufkin | Washington, USA
    • Local Food Economy Manager at King County Local Food Initiative, Washington
    • Leveraging the power of local government and working with cross-sectoral teams developing solutions that grow the local food economy, through decisions on how we use our land, spend budgets, and use influence.