I’ve recently joined the Akvo team in Amsterdam, working on research related to agricultural supply chains, and support people here working on projects that touch on that area. To help everyone understand a bit more background on the field, I thought I’d introduce the topic of track and trace in agriculture. As I’m an academic, you’ll find a few more references than you get in a typical Akvo blog.

It may come as a surprise to many how many of the world’s farms are small holdings. More than 500 million small-holder farmers run 80 percent of farmland in Africa and Asia.[1] Each day consumers rely on the availability of (tropical) commodities like coffee, tea, cocoa, fruits, grains, hidden products in cosmetics like palm-oil, shea (butter) or coconut (oil) cultivated by small-holder farmers and plantation workers. Coffee is the second most traded product in the world besides crude-oil and it’s also the second most popular drink besides water.[2] The way the world organises these global supply chains has an enormous impact on the quality of lives of millions of people. In his book “Max Havelaar”, the Dutch author Multatuli (pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekkers) was one of the first to draw attention to social issues surrounding coffee and sugar production in Indonesia in 1860.[3]tracktrace8ad_850
Photo by Aulia Rahman.

Fairer trade
Since then, civil society has continued to push for improving the livelihoods of small-scale farmers’ and plantation workers livelihoods, as well as environmental protection and food safety. The first Max Havelaar label was created in the Netherlands in 1988. It was a consumer-led initiative, which was later changed into the Fair Trade label, to indicate proper working conditions and fair payment.[4] Many certification and monitoring standards have been developed since, each with a different angle on the various interpretations of sustainability in different regions, different commodities and ways to communicate it to businesses or consumers.

Particularly in the last decade, mainstream companies have started to implement certification standards to account for their sustainable development and procurement.[5] To effectively implement such standards, a lot of data is needed from the supply chain. Part of the solution is to track goods as they move through the supply chain, known as “track and tracing.” Track and trace tools can provide a solution by linking farm data to a commodity flow through the related supply chains.

Track and trace
Many benefits are linked to track and trace systems. The first, which originated from the Fair Trade standard, is related to labour conditions and work safety of farmers and field workers. Work-related accidents prevail most often in agriculture, next to the extractive industries.[6] Recently the BBC published an article on the poor social circumstances in tea plantations in Assam, India, which resembles the picture that Multatuli sketched over 150 years ago. While nowadays proper housing, clean toilets and clean drinking water is a part of the tea plantation labour law and should be a part of their wages in kind. These tea plantation are also certified. External certification systems can partially fill the gap in good practises and law enforcement, but verification for safe labour and social security needs to be increased.  

A second benefit is to map the natural environment with regards to agricultural production and forest conservation practices for national government, NGOs, and for mainstream businesses to optimise sourcing strategies. According to L. Simons, former global program director at Utz Certified and author of “Changing the Food Game,” it was the Indonesian tropical forest fire of 1997-98 which caused international attention to the defaulting systems for environmental protection with regards to agriculture. Palm-oil estates continued slash and burning practises on a relatively dry rainforest, which caused a forest fire which burned away an area the size of Switzerland. This caused attention to defaulting systems in agriculture and nature conservation. Other environmental issues include land rights and occupation, effective water management, absent or correct usage of agrochemicals and protection of biodiversity.

A third opportunity for track and trace systems is to add value to crop production. For example, the mainstream processing industries in cocoa and coffee are generally interested in increasing volume, and based coffee and cocoa sampling on a basic set of quality standards. However a demand for speciality coffee and chocolate has raised the value of specific flavour-pallet and characteristics. Value can be added by organising production practises carefully, so authenticity for these characteristics can be retrieved for a certain production area. This video, which shows farmers trying chocolate for the first time, demonstrates that they are disconnected from their supply chain. So, in general, volume and quality can be increased by organising a strategic approach to inform and coordinate farmers by obtaining more information in remote areas. Improved information exchanged on food production, quality management, and even food safety issues can prevent poor quality production, post-harvest losses, reduced volumes and less produce will be rejected at the EU and US border because of food safety.

Akvo in this space
Given the many benefits of track and trace systems, it is interesting to see which opportunities exist to improve them. One obvious issue that can be tackled is that systems are often still largely paper-based in the beginning of the chain, which means there is a lot of scope for changing workflow. In the coming months, Akvo will do more to look at how our tools can contribute to this field. Akvo FLOW can contribute in this sector with smartphone-based field surveys, for example to set up the initial administration of individual farmers and link this to their organisations. In pictures, geo-shapes (land maps), videos and more information can be obtained with one device. Surveys can be designed according to an organisations’ wishes, for example on the aforementioned topics in quality, production management, mapping environmental practises and reviewing labour safety and social issues.

I’ll write more on related themes over the coming months.

Eline Ditmar Jansse is a researcher at Akvo, based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Smallholders, food security, and the environment, 2013, IFAD/UNEP, available at: http://www.unep.org/pdf/SmallholderReport_WEB.pdf, [accessed 01-09-2015]

[2] L. Simons, 2015. Changing the food game, Sheffield: Greenleaf Publishing Limited.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Havelaar

[4] R.Norman, 2013. The Fair Trade Movement, Practical Ethics for Food Professionals: Ethics in Research, Education and the Workplace. Wiley and sons Ltd.

[5] M.Kuit, Y.Waarts, December 2014. Small-scale farmers, certification schemes and private standards: Costs and benefits of certification and verification systems for small-scale producers in cocoa, coffee, cotton, fruit and vegetable sectors. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, Wageningen.

[6] L. Simons, 2015, Changing the food game, Sheffield: Greenleaf Publishing Limited.