Data-driven solutions for more inclusive value chains

How can we redesign global supply chains to make them more resilient and inclusive? In our final Trace Talk of the year we discussed the main challenges preventing smallholder farmers to thrive in global markets, as well as practical data-driven solutions to overcome them. Chrissy Martin Meier from Swiss Capacity Building Facility, Alfred Yeboah from the Grameen Foundation, Ella Moffat from HERproject and Derek Hardwick from Fairfood were on board for this future oriented talk. 

The COVID-19 outbreak has proven that the current dynamics of global food supply chains are failing workers in producing countries. Price volatility, suspended demands and low wages have driven farmers into poverty and food insecurity, rendering many value chains unable to operate with dignity. Inspired by the World Bank paper written by Chrissy Martin Meyer “The Role of Digital Identification in Agriculture”, we sought innovative solutions to the four main challenges that currently prevent smallholder farmers from succeeding in global markets. Could a fresh look at old known issues allow value chains to prosper as a whole?

We invited organisations betting on Fair Tech to improve living and working conditions of workers and dived into the following questions: Can tech be a catalyst for financial inclusion? Which type of innovations are allowing farmers to adopt more sustainable practices in the field? And how do we overcome scarce access to gadgets and the Internet in remote rural areas? Get inspired by four farmer-centric approaches to make our food system not only more productive and sustainable, but also more inclusive.

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Voicing challenges in the field

Whether we are talking about a coconut farmer in the Philippines or a garment worker in Bangladesh, small-scale farmers, women and other supply-chain workers represent the most vulnerable people in our global supply chains, despite doing some of the riskiest and lowest-paid jobs, plus already dealing with new negative effects brought by climate change. Although poverty is often a reality common to different rural workers, each context requires a different action process. That’s where quality data (from the field) comes in, as it can support companies in shaping need-specific solutions. 

How does this look like in practice, you might wonder. From data collected in the field on different farms’ needs, such as type of crops, land size and plagues, the Grameen Foundation built tailored farming plans, it also connects local markets and buyers, creating a big collaborative network. In the same line of thought, the Swiss Capacity Building Facility programs give access to appropriate and affordable financial services to smallholders as a way of creating a more resilient and inclusive agri-value chain. They connect the right dots to increase cash flow within the chain in a way that farmers can get paid faster and thus create a credit record which enables a financial background for future investments. 

Similarly, digital inclusion is allowing female workers to thrive through bigger financial inclusion. The HERproject outlined a digital wages program that has already enabled hundreds of garment workers to get access to digital payments. Following an assessment of daily struggles associated with women carrying cash, the NGO HERproject was able to design a path for giving these workers access to more transparent loans, safer pay days and the optimisation of money flow for the families they support too.

One common factor behind the above given ground based solutions is: quality data is paramount to map the value chain and reflect the real needs and struggles at place; Accuracy is key. Field-based responses not only alleviates urgent struggles, but also enables sustainable partnerships. Whether it is through the new alliances with common goals, or bigger collaboration between the public and the private sector having more data circulating in the chain fostering a bigger interaction and new arrangements.

Overcoming lack of access to internet and smartphones

If quality data is paramount, how do we enable collection where connectivity still lacks? Tech developer, Derek Hardwick, joined the talk to explain how Fairfood’s blockchain tool Trace is reaching farmers and farmworkers in remote rural areas. Unlike other traceability tools, Trace is a farmer-centric platform designed to give companies a better view of their supply chains with the ultimate goal of improving conditions on the ground. Looking to empower farmworkers in areas where access to the internet or smartphones is scarce, we are now exploring a technology you’re probably familiar with from shopping with your contactless bankcard. The same ‘near-field communication’ technology now makes it possible for farmers to interact with the Trace platform with no devices or internet needed. One scan, and it’s done! The transaction goes into the blockchain system, therefore farmers are included in product storylines and all stakeholders can verify the prices paid. Verstegen’s nutmeg suppliers in rural Indonesia are already testing this novelty. 

As we recognise the urge to reward farmers for providing data that enables companies to better tell the stories behind their products, Fairfood is also testing ‘data’ as a new source of income. Each card scan allows farmers to receive a “data premium”. “Thinking of inclusivity when trying to solve problems is not just the fair thing to do, but also leads to better solutions that have a higher chance of success”, Derek points out. 

Are we missing a challenge? 

Three years after publishing the World Bank paper that inspired this talk, Chrissy acknowledged new elements that must be in every food company’s agenda. “We need to talk about data ownership and data governance; how can we make workers in producing countries be in control of the information they are sharing, increase their awareness of it and create better concession mechanisms.” 

Summing-up; The many ways data can benefit different actors throughout supply chains, underlines the importance of getting this message out into the world. As producers still carry the biggest burdens – such as increasing risks due to climate change and production costs -, greater information can be a real game changer when it comes down to transparency and collaborative work towards more inclusion in global supply chains. In this data-driven future we ought to not forget though that from the collection phase, to distribution and storing, new solutions must keep producers and smallholders in the loop. Leaving our last Trace Talk of 2021 with an even bigger challenge: how can one ensure data is being used fairly? 

Read also: How traceable quality cocoa and decent incomes connects in Sierra Leone

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