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Reinventing Food Systems in the Caribbean Through a New Model of Academic Centers for Technology Transfer and International Collaboration

A model to facilitate co-creation and technification in Cuba through universities to develop self-sufficient and resilient food systems.

Photo of Juan Francisco Hidalgo
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

The University of California, Irvine – Paul Merage School of Business

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

In partnership with: • Global Solutions Institute, focused on the deployment of problem-solving technologies for developing countries, who partners with: o Heifer International, a global non-profit that is looking to eradicate hunger and poverty through holistic and sustainable community development. o Winrock International, a large U.S. nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase economic opportunity, sustain natural resources and protect the environment through agricultural, economic, energy and human capital development. • The University of Havana, founded in 1728, is Cuba’s oldest, largest and leading academic institution. • Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez (FANJ), Cuba’s largest NGO focusing on research and development of sustainability initiatives and culture. • United Nations Development Program – in partnership with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Irvine, California

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

The United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Main Island of Cuba

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Cuba is near and dear to me. My name is William Hernandez Requejo and I was born in Santa Clara, Cuba 60 years ago as the Cuban Revolution took place.  My parents left shortly thereafter and took me.  I returned in 2009 at the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Since then I have been working on uniting the two countries, where the proverbial 90 miles distance seems at times more distant.

Since then, I have helped develop the relationships to begin to address the many opportunities and challenges that this island has. As such, I lead and developed the first study abroad program for MBAs in Cuba through the University of California, Irvine.

We then established the first Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Havana and the University of California system, through which we developed instructional interactive programs with the University of Havana in negotiations, and most importantly, we established the US/Cuba Negotiation Laboratory, the hub of sustainable developmental work between the two countries and the common venue for future work.

Few, if any, other US institutions have successfully interacted at the highest level of academia with Cuba. And yet we recognized it was not enough.

Several international private, nonprofit and global NGOs, have taken note of our progress and sought us out to help facilitate mutually beneficial relationships grounded on our shared values and vision. They have now become our formal partners in this work, seeking to advance Cuba’s development with the understanding that it is in the World’s best interest.

Over the past decade, we came to understand the complex nature of the relationship between the United States and Cuba.  We came to acknowledge that Cuba's immense potential for economic, scientific and agricultural output.

As such, we’ve sought to create a vision that recognizes and harnesses this potential, initially focused on food systems and the commercial conditions that motivate peace.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

As the “Pearl of the Antilles” Cuba is unlike any country in the Caribbean.  The largest tropical island of the Caribbean is surrounded by miles of palm tree-lined, white-sand beaches; a veritable paradise.  And yet the people are going hungry.  

This is in part due to the US Embargo which restricts Cuba´s participation in the international economic arena. It is also, in part, because Cuba has chosen a centralized Socialist model, and because its focus on two crops (sugar and tobacco) is not meeting the cultural and dietary demands of the population. 

Throughout its history, Cuba has found itself shifting in highly subsidized economic relationships, first Spain, then the United States, then the Soviet Union, and recently, Venezuela. What is most striking is that Cuba imports close to 80% of its food. This is unsustainable and does not take advantage of the human, agricultural and academic capabilities of the island.  And yet, Cuba is an ideal Caribbean island for tapping into this potential if we consider the people. 

The people of Cuba are highly educated. Illiteracy is virtually unknown, and with access to free university education, even the poor have an opportunity to thrive.  A mixture of Spanish and African (mainly Nigerian) ancestries best defines the Cuban people. Its multiracial makeup transcends the typical black-white dichotomy of other countries as Cubans have developed an “Afro-Cuban“ foundation of collaboration and nationalism. 

Anyone who has met a Cuban, in Cuba or abroad, will note they are deeply proud to be Cuban. They are known for their optimist, scrappy, entrepreneurial nature. Many residents moonlight in the formal or informal tourism sector, opening up their homes and cars to tourists to share stories of the outside and supplement their financial needs. Even in difficult economic conditions, you can always hear a song being played on the radio or being sung in the local neighborhood. And where there is music, dance is not far. 

While Spanish is the dominant national language, the peppering of European, as well as African influences, is to be found everywhere.  That is most obvious in the food, music, and dance of Cuban culture; for all three are inseparable. At times, African influences are coupled with more traditional rice and beans, pork, and chicken. Only recently have Cubans begun to focus on other foods such as lamb and fish, in part because of the scarcity of beef but also the rural/urban population shift.

With Singapore as an inspiration, Cuba may be able to leverage its people and its resources to create a self-sustaining technological leap clearly placing it within a “knowledge economy”. The average Cuban has only recently seen how the “other side” lives and that has engendered many aspirational yearnings. These yearnings are now having to be coupled with the strong sense of nationalism and pride of these fun-loving, problem-solving people on the verge of political, economic and scientific self-sufficiency.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Cuba, the largest, most resource-rich Island in the Caribbean, holds immense potential for economic, scientific and agricultural output.

Last year, Cuba announced additional rationing of food and soap. Following a 60 year trend of reduced agricultural outputs, exports and ability to import consumer staples (all down 30%+ in the past decade), Cuba has a clear central challenge:

The current food system is insufficient and unsustainable. There simply is not enough food being produced or coming in. What does come in is mostly for use by the tourism industry. 

While tourism is a critical part of the Cuban economy, the current scarcity fosters unhealthy competition between this sector and Cuban consumers for basic staples. This, coupled with the clearing of natural areas for luxury resorts, means that environmental deterioration is becoming more prevalent, especially along the formerly pristine coasts and prime arable lands. 

Looking at economics, low take-home pay in the public sector means that 40% of Cubans moonlight in the formal or informal tourism or growing private sector to make ends meet (grown 4x in 10 years).

The dual currency system, designed to control inflation from foreign money, now exacerbates disparities between state workers, the impact of subsidies and wages in the tourism sector. 

Remittances from the U.S., a key supplemental income source for many Cuban families are being further restricted. 

In their culturally scrappy fashion, these harsh conditions have forced the emergence of a black market for currency, Increased out-migration, rural to urban migration and intellectual flight from the healthcare, education and agriculture sectors into low-skilled parts of the tourism sector, looking to hold on to the cornerstones of the Cuban life: good food and the ability to enjoy a good dance.

Speaking of food, while the Cuban diet is rich in rice, beans, and pork, current shortages mean that nearly 32% of children age 2 suffer from anemia. Shortages of beef and other staples mean the population has had to resort to overfishing many of its reefs, further hurting the environment.

The government operates with Hyper centralization, where all power concentrates at the top of the decision-making pyramid in Havana. This means that local institutions have lacked the authority and resources to advance regional decentralization aspirations and the agility that comes with it.

Cuban authorities now publicly recognize that future growth will require very significant inflows of capital, technology, and marketing expertise.

Cuba’s low domestic savings and investment rates are insufficient even to replace depreciated equipment much less modernize its communications, medical or productive infrastructure. The result: many areas, especially the rural areas in Cuba feel time-frozen with animals plowing the land and no real technification.

At the onset of 2050, climate change, sea-level rise and a decreasing and aging population will only magnify these challenges if left unaddressed. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The US/Cuba Negotiations Lab (the “Lab”) is a working space, a “testing ground” for the University of California and the University of Havana that is designated for parties from Cuba and abroad to learn how to best collaborate toward sustainable development of food systems and the related fields of agriculture, energy, trade, and technology transfer.

In the short term, this enables transactions that increase the influx of food, seeds, technology, and human capital. For the longer term, the “Lab” seeks to evolve and create the basis for a self-sustaining food system and a model of collaboration between academic, governmental and business sectors to developing nations to become centers of technology transfer, innovation, and regional collaboration.    

At present, the Lab leverages existing academic communities to:

•            Codesign new trading practices through alternative means such as bartering naturally abundant resources like limestone for crops, alternative lending, carbon credits, and research agreements.

•            Test and deploy agriculture and renewable energy technology for the farming sectors, both government and private sector cooperatives.

•            Creating shared learning/knowledge exchange with foreign parties who can share inspirational models on mutually beneficial themes.

•            Piloting innovative financial instruments that can help Cuba leapfrog its developmental challenges such as carbon credits and climate finance tools

Through the Lab, academic, engineering and law practitioners from around the world can create new templates for trade with Cuba that can boost the region’s economy, given that the embargo only allows for upfront payments and barter trade.

This mutually beneficial model is ideal for Cuba given the criticality of building trust and the need to collaborate with local partners, principles that are considered best practice when collaborating with foreign countries in general and that strongly position participants for further collaborations within the region through this model that can be replicated all over the Caribbean.

The targets for primary impact will be producers, the emerging private-sector farming cooperatives and supporting industries who will now have access to the technology, knowledge, financial resources and training to revamp their productivity and enable each other’s growth.

Pilot projects, led by the Lab, its partners and codesigned with local farmers, that are already being implemented will see that this lab can be the model that provides the formal structure to expand and replicate many more such pilots over the years. These will lead to innovations in agriculture, automation, and biotechnology that will provide the infrastructure needed to produce an efficient, self-sufficient local food system.

In many ways, the US-Cuba Negotiation Lab serves as a “watering hole”, a gathering place and for the dissemination of ideas, in other words, a “Food Systems Incubator”.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Cuba’s food system will have gone from being insufficient, codependent, and unsustainable to being abundant, independent, and regenerative

The introduction of new technology and human capital will enable more & better performing farming cooperatives and food-related industry cooperatives, producing a large, private-sector industry that will secure Cuba’s food/energy independence, fixing the malnutrition problems in the infant population

These cooperatives will account for much of Cuba’s economy and people’s everyday lives will be better for it, as access to prosperous wages and retirements secured in shared ownership will provide financial stability to local families. 

In tandem with the private sector, the Cuban government, following its current trends, will delegate autonomy to different regions to deploy economic development and technifications programs that promote job and food access opportunities.

Being inserted into the global carbon finance economy will allow for new access to capital and trade opportunities. Since, historically, commerce paves the path to peace, Cuba’s increased efficiency, along with worsening global conditions will have dissipated the trade embargo and the dual currency system.

The end of these blockades along with global carbon restrictions will accelerate the trend of plant protein in the Cuban diet and the tourism industry will no longer be competing for resources. Instead, it will catalyze the innovation and mixing of cultures through access to new types of food, cuisine, and culturally enriching experiences.

Finally, the environment will heal as underexploited farmlands are allowed to be reclaimed by nature. The vegetation overgrowth will provide carbon absorption and humidity. Production of low-quality oil and animal meat will phase out.

The changes in Cuba will be evidence of a significant leapfrogging of the food security challenges that held it back from its potential. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Throughout the decades, Cuba will have become an oasis, a model for growth, food security & sustainable development within the Caribbean, which will likely be struggling from increased storm activity, sea-level rise and ocean acidity.

Acting as a food & energy hub for the region, it will be able to support resilience efforts as a regional food chain buffer for neighboring islands thanks to abundant production.

Meanwhile in Havana, the daily newsletter arrives in his inbox one morning and its headlines read: “Cuba reinvents its food systems, enabling the larger Caribbean basin to be a self-sufficient, carbon-neutral, globally integrated system”.

William’s son, William Jr., on a routine visit to Cuba as a curator of Caribbean art, cannot help but look in awe at Cuba’s transformation and how his father’s work nearly 40 years ago was a turning point for the island’s development.

As he strolls down the famous Malecón esplanade near the Havana harbor, he sees a banner for a conference at the University of Havana, sponsored by the “Global Negotiation Lab”. Few know or remember its humble beginnings.  

He smiles, as he recognizes this collaboration model of academically inspired knowledge sharing that lead to much of the technology transfer that helped modernize Cuba’s productive industries and economy.

As he walks, he comes across a delegation of scientists and engineers, clearly from all parts of the world, who are there to visit the local research and higher education institutions that have similarly evolved and are now constantly convening and solidifying multi-sector and international partnerships.

These partnerships have advanced initiatives that have snowballed into completely reinventing the individual food systems and the larger Caribbean basin as a self-sufficient, carbon-neutral, globally integrated system. Much like Singapore in the previous century, Cuba has carved a role for itself as a center of innovation and knowledge-based economy.

Unlike Singapore, which never had much arable land or resources to begin with, Cuba was able to maintain most of its arable land by strategically implementing clean energy, positioning itself as a testing ground for agriculture technification, genetically optimized seeds and cutting-edge production practices.

As he arrives at the iconic Hotel Nacional he decides to have lunch with his colleagues, admiring the waterfront. In the bustling outdoor cafe, he can’t help but overhear the carbon credit traders at the adjacent table, talking about how Cuba’s financial independence was thanks to it rapidly leveraging the emerging global carbon finance to seed investments in new technology and equipment that in turn radically augmented its agricultural productivity.

These alternative finance solutions were harnessed faster than other countries precisely because of the restrictions of the U.S embargo in the distant past. The Cuban population, known as a resourceful culture and savvy negotiators quickly grasped the potential of these emerging tools to bypass the need for hard currency as they were educated in their use by academics and students from developed countries who saw their potential.

Later that day, as his electric transfer van takes him to the rural cultural center he’s come to visit, he notices how the city gives way to enormous patches of farmland, dotted with greenhouses and structures that expertly take advantage of space, sunlight, and water to produce abundant crops.

A billboard appears along the highway, showing a burly farmer next to a 10th generation solar panel. At the bottom, it says “In partnership with Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez since 2009”. William Jr. recalls hearing that this large NGO has been advancing international collaborations for sustainable development initiatives in biogas and solar energy since the early 2000s, far surpassing its goal of 30% renewable energy by 2030.

These renewable energy initiatives have not only eliminated Cuba’s need for fossil fuel but also produced considerable cost savings for the now extensive farmers’ cooperative network that William Jr. is seeing sprawled across the countryside. Not only are they carbon neutral and energy self-sufficient but are also capable of offsetting carbon, generating carbon tax credits that can be traded in an international market and sell their excess energy thanks to a global energy market, powered by astronomically cheaper energy storage and exportation solutions.

These farmer cooperatives have been able to leverage mobile and cloud-based communications infrastructure that was pioneered in Cuba through the technology transfer initiatives that spurred the cascading transformation that Cuba now lives. This supporting technological infrastructure will also be developed in a way that leapfrogs many of the intermediate stages of development that many other countries had to spend copious resources in dismantling, replacing and modernizing.

William Jr., putting 2 and 2 together, realizes that Cuba has leapfrogged like this before, when it changed its land-based telecommunications infrastructure for satellite, bypassing the hybrid phase that many developed countries underwent in the decades surrounding the turn of the millennium. This is because it has long had many of the conditions that eased this process like an educated population, no prior infrastructure, ample lots of vacant land and centralized decision-making. The model for collaboration with external engineering communities was the missing piece of the puzzle but provided by the Lab.

The Government, realizing that allying with the growing public sector, values-driven international nongovernmental organizations and adopting a greater vision of subsidiarity for the different regions, delegate more autonomy to regional governments and provide the conditions for the private sector to responsibly grow and contribute to addressing the challenges of the island and region.

From the values and ideological perspective, the socialist government will see in community-owned cooperatives a version of the private sector that is community-minded, open to adopting equitable wage policies, commercially competitive yet regenerative instead of extractive and distributing wealth in the form of employee shared ownership.

Through public-private partnerships originated in these Labs, the first versions of policy designed to incentivize and sustain the growth of cooperatives of all kinds will begin to be co-designed with everyday Cubans and Caribbeans in mind.

Local cooperatives focused on community solar initiatives, food distribution networks, local markets that act as Hubs, restaurants catering to the ever-increasing eco-tourism sector, waste repurposing organizations and capacity-building consulting practices comprise a comprehensive network of cooperatives that covers the entire farm-to-table-to-earth regenerative cycle while providing more than adequate means of living to the individual worker-owners that have developed and nurtured safe retirement funds in the form of equity in their place of work.

Cuba’s historically and culturally strong academic & scientific community will soon become preeminent innovators in the region, as a history of technology transfer and social capital with local cooperatives will create a competitive advantage for the local scientific community in the development of new solutions. This will foster visits from such communities, not unlike the ones William Jr. saw in Havana. Exports in the technological and intellectual property sector will grow as more countries take notice, backed by a government whose policies reflect a mindset of preparing its population to maintain a knowledge-based economy.

As William Jr.’s transfer van makes way to its destination, he notices that there are more machines visible than people working on these farmlands.  

The aging workforce in Cuba, continuing by culture to place a high value in education, will continually upskill to occupy the roles of innovators, advanced industry practitioners, automators, and higher-level technicians. The need for unskilled manual labor will be reduced thanks to increased technification. This also creates stable and attractive financial returns, motivating younger generations to continue to work in sophisticated farming cooperatives which will also be the public/private-sector arms of centers for research and development.  

William Jr. has finally arrived at the old historic town with the art exhibits he came to study. He realizes that the cultural and artistic sectors have done a remarkable job partnering with the ever-booming tourism sector which no longer draws disproportionate amounts of informal labor nor perpetuates an unhealthy competition for scarce resources like energy and food with the population.

At dinner that evening he tries the plant-based take of the traditional Cuban dish ropa vieja con moros y cristianos that substitutes the minced meat but keeps the rice, beans, and plantains, the waiter shares with them that the tourism sector was critical in adopting plant protein which, through globalization and a sector fully interlinked with the local arts and culture communities, progressively permeated into the local Cuban population.

This reduced meat production will also reduce the need for large grasslands dedicated to cattle ranching or pork production facilities, meaning that the environment will begin to see itself restored as these lands are reclaimed by nature or repurposed. The advent of plant protein will also reduce the pressure on Cuba’s coastal marine ecosystems, as overfishing becomes less of a trend, giving these ecosystems the breathing room to adapt to increased ocean acidity and residual plastic pollution.

As he falls asleep that night, William Jr. can’t help but reflect on how much progress the world has made and how far a vision can go.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website
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Team (13)

Juan Francisco's profile
William's profile
William Hernandez Requejo

Role added on team:

"Lead author and researcher. Professor at the University of California, Irvine - Paul Merage School of Business. Cuban born."

Yi Chen's profile
Yi Chen Chen

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Culture"

Brandon's profile
Brandon Le

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Diet"

Ella's profile
Ella Liang

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Culture"

Westin's profile
Westin Abel

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Government and Policy"

Wayland's profile
Wayland Lee

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Technology"

Julia's profile
Julia Garibaldi

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Government and Policy"

Jonathan's profile
Jonathan Wu

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Economics"

Tom's profile
Tom Crumlish

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Environment"

Nathaniel's profile
Nathaniel Yip

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Economics"

Baihao's profile
Baihao Wang

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Technology"

Kharishma's profile
Kharishma Chang

Role added on team:

"Co-researcher - Environment"

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Attachments (4)

Biz Article-3(1) (1).pdf

Form Conflict to Commerce, 2017, by Professors John Graham and William Hernandez of The University of California, Irvine - Paul Merage School of Business


Join the conversation:

Photo of Alana Libow

Juan Francisco Hidalgo - Also:
i. Be sure to review the Vision Prize Criteria:
ii. Take a look at the following two examples of visions that the team feels do a good job of supporting the Vision Prize criteria and support creative storytelling (esp #2):


2. Creative storytelling for Full Vision:

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