How to Hack Hackathons? - Using collective brainpower to solve food insecurity with Cristina Petracchi of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

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How can we use learning in addressing complex global challenges such as food insecurity? SDG Learncast asks Cristina Petracchi, Leader of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) eLearning Academy on how the FAO supports countries in addressing the issues of food insecurity.


2030 Agenda
Leave no one behind
SDG2: Zero hunger
Food security
2030 Agenda
food security
learning and teaching
learning approach
SDG indicator

In this episode, SDG Learncast asks Cristina Petracchi, Leader of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) eLearning Academy on how the FAO supports countries in addressing the issues of food insecurity, food losses, and food waste. Cristina shares how FAO launched a 24-hour global hackathon and use collective brainpower to find solutions to the problem of world hunger. This episode features tips to make successful hackathons and highlights the importance of competence-based learning.

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UPDATE: The FAO eLearning Academy just launched the publication ’24-hour Global Marathon for Sustainability 2020 – Food for Earth’! Learn more about running global marathons by visiting the links below!

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[Transcript of the podcast]

Paulyn Duman: Welcome to the SDGLearnCast with me Paulyn Duman.

In every episode, I bring you insightful conversations around the subject of sustainable development and learning, helping us all to achieve a sustainable future.

This time on the SDGLearnCast, we will be talking about how learning can help address food insecurity and achieve the SDGs or the sustainable development goals, with my guest Cristina Petracchi.

Paulyn Duman is the Knowledge Management, Communications, and Reporting Officer at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development and is a coordinator for the Joint Secretariat of UN SDG:Learn, together with UNITAR. 

Cristina Petracchi is the leader of the Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO eLearning Academy based in Rome, Italy. Cristina, as the leader of the FAO eLearning Academy, works with more than 200 partners and 600,000 learners globally. Aside from developing e-learning courses, Cristina also works with universities to develop master’s and post-graduate degree programs. She leads 30 experts of instructional designers, graphic artists, and courseware developers in the design and delivery of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, online tutoring courses, and various other learning solutions.

Cristina and I had a conversation on the topic of learning and its role in addressing global challenges such as food insecurity, food waste and food losses.

So I asked Cristina, does she believe that learning can be a vehicle to a sustainable future?  

Cristina Petracchi: Absolutely. We believe that basically there cannot be development, There cannot be sustainability without developing the capacities.

Paulyn Duman: In this episode, we will learn from Cristina how the Food and Agriculture Organization eLearning Academy supports countries in achieving sustainable development, and how her team conducted a global hackathon and used collective brainpower to find solutions to global challenges such as food insecurity. We will also hear from Cristina what she has learned from the hackathons and what we can all learn from competency-based learning.

Let us hear from Cristina how the FAO eLearning Academy supports countries in addressing the issue of food insecurity.


Cristina Petracchi: All the courses we developed are all aligned with the sustainable development goals, framework of course. And in addition, we also have developed a series of specific courses for SDG indicators that are under the custodianship of a FAO.

So as you know, FAO has 21 indicators under its custodianship plus we are also contributing to many other indicators. But for 21, we are responsible of supporting countries and supporting them in the collection, analysis, interpretation, monitoring and reporting of these indicators. So we also have developed a series of courses on the SDG indicators uder the custodianship of a FAO.

Okay. So of course, as you know food insecurity remains one of the main challenges humanity has. Given also the fact with this ever-growing population, food insecurity remains a challenge because it’s not only a matter of quantity, it’s a matter of, so also of quality.

So we need to be able to basically provide not only the right amounts, but respecting always the traditional preferences, cultural preferences of the different populations related to the types of food they eat and this remains really a big challenge.

And also I think that, as you know, food insecurity is a multidisciplinary and very complex concept, therefore, we have produced a number of resources to basically explain how the different components and different sectors contribute to food security. So of course nutritional status assessment, but also on food availability. So we try to explain all the different factors that contribute to this concept.

But in addition to that I think that for example, concepts such as sustainability, what we are trying to do is also to try to raise awareness worldwide.

Paulyn Duman: If you think about it, it is unbelievable that a lot of people are hungry and without access to food when there is enough food to feed everyone in the world.

In the 2020 The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report, it was estimated that 690 million people are hungry, that is 8.9 percent of the world population. A preliminary assessment in the same report suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the vulnerabilities and it may add between 83 and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world.

With such a big and complex challenge, I asked Cristina, what are some of the learning events that FAO runs to address the problem of food insecurity. Let us hear from Cristina.


Cristina Petracchi: So in these cases where you want to reach really the global audience for thematic areas that are, let’s say, such a priority right now, what we do is we usually, we use for example, we have done this year, a 24-hour global marathon on sustainability. And the purpose was to try to sensitize as widely as possible different target groups from policymakers, farmers, youth entrepreneurs, NGOs, about this thematic areas. So we managed to mobilize over a hundred thousand people for this 24-hour global marathon.

We managed to organize multi-lingual sessions, so we had parallel sessions in Chinese and in Spanish for Latin America and Spanish speaking countries, in French for Francophone countries and in English. So we had four different sessions with over a hundred experts throughout the world that we have selected. But they weren’t only experts. We also brought people like citizens who explained the importance of sustainability and basically how the consumer can contribute to sustainability. We brought university professors. We brought UN officers. We brought really, we tried to gather a hundred experts from different backgrounds and to discuss and to share experiences about sustainability.

And I think the 24-hour global marathon has been an extremely successful tool, especially when you want to sensitize the great number of people worldwide. So this is for example, one of the methods that we have used. Also we have done a hackathon on the SDGs and in that case, we really have taken as a framework, the SDG framework and the SDG competencies and we have organized this with participants from all over the world. It has been extremely successful.

Paulyn Duman: If an organization wants to run a hackathon, what advice would you give to make a global hackathon a success?

Cristina Petracchi: I have gathered some of the success factors in case some of you are interested in doing hackathons.

So I think that first of all the relevance of the overall purpose. So if you choose a thematic area of great interest, such as such as sustainability, participants are very much interested to contribute. Another success factor is that we tried to move from a competitive to a collaborative mindset change.

So when we started, we were thinking of the competitive process and we saw that the attitude was not the right one. So we modified the hackathon to become a collaborative process. And as soon as we decided to ask participants to help each other and to produce something that is the result of their work together, and not their own project that they came with, the entire mind-set has changed. People were willing to listen to each other; people were trying to see how they could use the synergies between their projects. Let’s say that it has increased the creativity. People were willing to listen to each other, to understand, and to produce something, which is the result of the group work.

And this was really an amazing switch that we have noticed. When people started and thought that it was a competitive process, they weren’t even in a mind-set of trying to understand what the others were doing. They were just trying to push their own project. And when we did this switch, really the attitude, the approach, and really the entire process has completely changed to become a collaborative process, basically.

And so this for example is another success factor: to try to use collaborative processes. When you want to create innovative solutions and creative solutions. And also the team composition, it’s very useful to mix also your team composition. We believe that it was really very successful to have gender-balanced groups. Also combine participants from different cultural backgrounds, different nationalities. It has really proven to be very creative. I mean, they came up with very creative solutions because they come from different backgrounds, different realities, different experiences.

So by mixing your teams, you really get very interesting results. And, I think also when you organize these events, it’s very important to think of what comes after what’s in it for them. So we think of certification, always think of what the winner will get, what will be the follow-up afterward.

 Paulyn: So now, we learned about hackathons as a learning event that helps sensitizing people to complex challenges we face. I got curious about what Cristina and her team learned during the pandemic and what could she share with us about competency-based learning, which is central to FAO eLearning Academy approach.

Cristina Petracchi: I believe this year has really, there are many, many things that have changed, but I think that the two major things that we have noticed with the COVID pandemic. First of all, there has been a huge increase in the number of learners and probably because they were looking for learning opportunities and ways of improving their competencies.

I think that the second big difference is that FAO e-learning Academy has become an Academy and we are able to certify the acquisition of competencies. So how do we do that? We do that because since I was mentioning that our courses are competency-based, after the course, we have created competency-based tests, which are scenario-based tests.

So basically, for the learners, the questions are not related to the concepts that you remember or about the principles or what you remember about the course. But we design scenarios with challenges, with the different situations, and learners have to tell us what is it that they have to do in that situation.

And if they pass the test, they get a digital badge, certificates of acquisition of competencies. So it’s not a certificate that you have completed the course, but it certifies that you have acquired competencies and this digital badge follows you in your e-portfolio, in your LinkedIn, in your curriculum. It really becomes part of your professional profile. This has proven to be extremely successful.

So as an advice, I would say, if you are developing learning resources, always think about certification, but certification of competencies. The other thing I believe is crucial when you deliver, when you develop and design and develop learning resources, is to do a thorough analysis of the target audiences and their learning needs. This is really fundamental and I think that our success is also due to this very thorough analysis that we do before doing anything. We really do a collaborative learning needs assessment with the target audiences, with our partners, we analyze the job tasks, the competencies, the professional profiles that are needed, and from that, we really develop, we define the knowledge, the skills, and the competencies that are needed. For those target groups. So it’s very much targeted and I think that this is part of the success.

Paulyn Duman: And that was Cristina Petracchi of the Food and Agriculture Organization eLearning Academy. I hope you took away from this conversation that learning helps inform learners who are professionals, technical experts, and decisions makers to take the right decision and increasing their competencies to address some of the biggest global challenges we are facing today.

We also learned that a collaborative hackathon that has diverse participants from different parts of the world results in a richer, more inclusive, and also more fun experience in finding solutions to food insecurity issues.

Lastly, we learned that competency-based learning is not about knowing the concepts or memorizing principles and theories but it is really about what decisions and actions a person would do in a given situation, applying what they learned.

You can find more of the SDGLearnCast on the UN SDG:Learn website. For now, I’m Paulyn Duman. Thanks for listening.


Paulyn Duman is the Knowledge Management, Communications, and Reporting Officer at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development and is a coordinator for the Joint Secretariat of UN SDG:Learn, together with UNITAR. 

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.