• Written by Eline Ditmar Jansse
    7 April 2016

Above: picture of a coffee vine taken by Aulia Rahman.

Akvo is currently developing a set of tools and approaches to support its partners to collect better data in the agriculture sector. I previously shared an introduction to the social need for track and trace in agriculture, and you can read about some of the other work we have been doing in Lissy’s blog about the agrofood sector in South-East Asia, and Luuk’s reporting on the HortIMPACT project in Kenya.

Akvo has been supporting partners in agriculture for quite some time, particularly in SE Asia. In 2014, for example, SNV and Akvo began a partnership to support the monitoring of deforestation-free palm oil plantations. Since mid-2015, Akvo has stepped up its focus on applying its tools in agriculture and launched a range of new initiatives to build its capabilities in this sector. Initially, the emphasis has been on research and a limited set of field pilots to improve sector knowledge and gain insights into challenges facing the sector, particularly in relation to agricultural supply chains.

Focusing our efforts
Given the vast range of potential applications in this sector, it has been important to get a better sense of:
– which section(s) of the supply chain to focus on;
– who will be responsible for collecting and using data;
– how the data will be used; and
– which existing processes have the greatest need for Akvo’s tools.

In short, the objective of this early work has been to identify how we can best add value to existing processes and complement the range of systems already in place.

During my time with Akvo, I have supported the team by undertaking research into the agriculture sector and assisted with a pilot project in Indonesia. To complement my research, I undertook a series of semi-structured interviews with practitioners involved in the agriculture sector and/or in product tracking. These covered general information, challenges and opportunities for data collection in agriculture, experience with mobile-based tools (including Akvo FLOW) and user needs. I also sought feedback from staff involved in existing agriculture-related field sites, where FLOW is already being piloted.

To track or to trace?
Tracking and tracing sounds nice in business lingo; however, the two terms can be split into two separate concepts. Tracking is following a physical product along each step of the trade chain. Tracing is related to the different administration systems (and different databases), in each step of the trade chain. The term ‘traceability systems’ is more commonly used in scientific literature for ‘track and trace’ systems.

In total, there are six types of traceability systems, and it’s good to use these to clarify what kinds of systems are available to provide the optimal setup and support for a partner based on the specific supply chains or projects they operate. For the purposes of this blog however, I would like to focus on two traceability systems related to smallholder coffee and cocoa farmers, where Akvo’s tools have the potential to add significant value: product and process traceability.

Product traceability
Product traceability is the most commonly referred to when it comes to ‘tracking and tracing’, because it links the two terms together to track a specific product and to review the information linked to a specific batch of e.g. coffee and cocoa.

To achieve product traceability, products are typically registered using paper slips with product-name, batch and lot-number. Electronic registration is used in more sophisticated supply chains when it comes to smallholder farmers. It is only sustainable when smallholder farmers receive support to produce goods of export quality, and to sustain this production by receiving enough revenues. This can be achieved through a cocoa or coffee trader cooperative and/or certification standard.

Barcodes are increasingly used at the smallholder farm-level in combination with smartphones or tablets to improve chain management. Examples include a project using QR-codes, and RFID-tags used in some supply chains. Blockchain systems are also under development in combination with registration of unique numbers. For the latter I recommend reading this white paper from Provenance.

Although currently in the early adaptation phase, linking up smallholder farmers to an electronic registration system in supply chain development will increase when smartphones are commonly used by smallholder farmers.

types traceability

Above: extract from Akvo-SNV strategic partnership, project 15: Tracking & tracing agricultural produce along the supply chain, interim update January 2016. Derived from SSI 2014 ‘Traceability’

Some certification standards, like the Utz Chain of Custody, have guidelines relating to the depth of product traceability. In table 1 you can find a short overview of the terminology used in all certification standards, also found in the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI 2014, see page 56/57) reports about traceability developments in the marketplace of sustainable initiatives.

Process traceability
Whereas product traceability focuses on the physical location of a product in a supply chain, process traceability focuses on the production processes in the field. This is again twofold: on the one hand it encompasses the role of the physical environment on the production field (nature), and on the other it refers to the good agricultural practices (GAP) implemented by the farmers in the field (agriculture). Process traceability is needed to verify the agricultural practises in light of import laws, sustainability initiatives and product quality.

The rules of the playground
Internationally, there are several layers of regulations and laws when it comes to good agricultural practices. The main laws about safe food are defined in the sanitary and phytosanitary rules of bodies such as the EU and USA. These are generic regulations for all imported foods. Wholesalers and supermarkets have stricter food quality requirements reflecting consumer concerns.

In general sustainability standards are the most strict. MRL-level, flavour, colour, texture, roast-grade and all issues related to the product itself are intrinsic qualities. Extrinsic qualities are related to improving the product which is external to the product itself. One example are sustainability initiatives like improving labour conditions and the natural environment in the production regions. Numerous sustainability initiatives such as certification standards, monitoring standards or private standards (for information on these per sector see the SSI 2014 report) are in place to tackle these issues. Some voluntary (sustainability) standards have been taken up by national governments and morphed into mandatory (or semi-voluntary) standards like HACCP or EU/US guidelines for organic food.

Information related to farmers’ processes is often collected in certification standards like the Utz Code of Conduct. One example, which is required by most certification standards, is a yearly updated map of farmer groups and their production sites. Smallholder farming land can be delineated by mapping geoshapes in Akvo FLOW using GPS technology in smartphones. It has been proven by several studies that farmers invest more in their land if a farmer knows he or she owns the land (see this article as an example in Rwanda). In addition, Akvo’s water quality testing technology Caddisfly can also be used to map other indicators related to soil health and plant production, as was done in Mali.

The ultimate goal in this sector is to link higher level information on process traceability (what happens in the field) to product traceability (the location of the product) by using electronic registration. Ideally, field production processes should be coupled with the product itself, so that all information from a product batch can be linked back to an individual farm, or, like in Indonesia, a group of farmers cultivating one plot.

Market players want to keep in touch with their supplybase, which is possible if those involved are known and the supply chains are short. However it’s difficult to verify all information for longer supply chains and larger supply chain bases. Managing product quality is done by randomized product sampling upon arrival in at the first processing, while certification bodies do randomized auditing among smallholder farmers to verify sustainable production. This information can be combined using data collection on smartphones in offline remote regions and the internet to exchange information. It has many benefits for those involved further along the chain, helping to improve production quality and trade (see this example).

Lessons from the field
While it is impossible to generalise across sectors and countries, the initial feedback we have received from the field consistently points to a need for better data at the individual farmer level and in the early stages of supply chains. Better farm-level data can lead to more efficient production and simplified certification for small-scale farmers, as well as supporting greater product traceability (particularly when coupled with existing tracking systems). This has significant implications for farmers, producers and consumers.

In terms of product and process traceability, some of Akvo FLOW’s latest developments, such as integration of barcode scanning and geotagged photos, offer useful functionality for tracking products through supply chains.

Similarly, the recent work on connecting geographical shapes with high resolution imagery (e.g. remote sensing using drones) and linking this to farm-related information (including sensors) is an exciting development that can support greater product traceability. Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for further development in this field.

It is also worth noting that system functionality is only part of the solution when it comes to  transforming a paper-based supply tracking system to make use of mobile-based tools. A complete overhaul of a supply chain’s traceability system requires a thorough understanding of existing practices and processes. Furthermore it is critical to identify appropriate ways of digitising these so as to minimise any negative impact on existing institutions. To do this, strong partnerships and investments are likely to be critical, as are good programme design, training and support structures.

In the immediate future, there appears to be a strong opportunity to help smallholder farmers map their assets and increase product traceability in the early stages of the supply chain. This approach has worked well in some of Akvo’s existing partnerships, such as the joint work with SNV in the palm oil sector in Indonesia, and it will be interesting to see whether a similar approach can be applied to other agricultural supply chains. From there, it would be ideal to work with certification bodies and auditors to simplify the product certification process for smallholder farmers and look at whether there are existing systems used in other sections of the supply chain that Akvo’s tools could harmonise with.

One thing that is clear: there are significant opportunities to “digitise the paper trail” but it’s important to do so in a considered manner, as a one-size-fits-all approach will not do.

Eline Ditmar Jansse completed her research project at Akvo in February 2016. You can follow her on Twitter @ftdjeline.

For more information on traceability systems and technical possibilities in the first mile, take a look at Eline’s thesis paper ‘Digitising the paper trail’, or watch this presentation she gave at Akvo.