Digitalization of the food supply chain for project monitoring and decision making
By: Dr. Shweta ChopraIowa State University Consortium for Innovation in Post-Harvest Loss and Food Waste Reduction
Modern agriculture practices have increased the yield of food production; however, surplus yields often do not reach the people who are in need, due to the lack of effective supply chains and logistics. As a result, it leads to food insecurity in certain geographical areas and food loss and waste in others. A supply chain is a chain of individual stakeholders connected for the purpose of producing and distributing a product. Supply chains are incredibly complex, spanning multiple geographies and processes, which can create silos and fragmentation. In recent years, due to digitalization, stakeholders can connect with each other to create an effective supply chain. In agriculture supply chains, digitalization provides an opportunity to link stakeholders, such as farmers, processers, and distributors, in one platform, which provides a means to (i) effectively monitor agriculture production, (ii) make informed decisions regarding the processing, storage, and distribution of agricultural products, (iii) help with tracking and tracing the movement of food which is essential at the time of a food safety recall, and (iv) track consumption patterns in different geographical regions. However, complete digitalization of supply chains is a huge challenge. Complexity and high cost are the most critical factors, whereby few stakeholders are connected in the chain and silos are created. In the next paragraphs, six scenarios will be explored, where digitalization is transforming supply chains by providing the ability to monitorand make decisions but are not completely integrated.
Case 1: Due to increases in affordability and accessibility of cloud computing, open-source software, and other digital tools in recent years, digitalization has begun to make positive impacts on various agricultural supply chains in Africa. For example, Zenvus is a Nigeria-based precision agriculture Information and Communication Technology (ICT) platform that helps farmers measure and analyze soil temperature, nutrient content, moisture levels, and vegetative health via sensors, cameras, smart phones, and cloud computing to optimize fertilizer and irrigation applications. This data-driven approach helps farmers reduce their overhead costs and enhance overall farm productivity. There are significant benefits of this software for enhancing farm productivity; however, the initial setup cost and learning curve can be challenging.
Case 2: Farmerline, based in Ghana, connects farmers with low literacy and reduces language barriers by deploying mobile-based, voice-activated (in local language) farming advice, weather forecasts, market information, and financial tips. The mission of Farmerline is to empower farmers by providing access to information. For example, they partner with businesses, like The Hershey Company, to supply training for sustainable agriculture and best practices among 12,000 farmers in Ghana who produce cocoa. One challenge to using this platform is that farmers are required to pay for some services, such as weather reports and market forecasts along with GPRS data. It can become very costly, very quickly for the farmers, which hinders the success of Farmerline. However, in some instances, Farmerline is able to offer free content to the farmer through their business partnerships.
Case 3: The Chowberry application is a cellphone-based app in Nigeria, which connects supermarkets to NGOs and low-income earners who can buy near expiration food items at a discounted price. The primary purpose of this app is to help connect retailers to low income consumers. However, associated challenges with the app include (i) lack of preferred food products for sale, (ii) cost of the product is higher than what individual families can afford even at a reduced price, and (iii) lack of access to smartphones among low-income households. Nevertheless, this app can reduce food loss and waste and integrate more nutritious foods into diets of low-income households, but it requires further iteration to enhance dissemination within the community.
Case 4: Small-scale farmers struggle with lack of timely information about markets, pest and disease management, and effective farming practices. Since 2008, Avaaj Otalo has been providing a service for Indian farmers to access relevant and timely agricultural information over the phone. Farmers can dial in and use an easy, interactive, voice-based social media platform to ask questions, participate in discussions, and respond to agricultural questions from other farmers (Patel et al., 2012). Avaaj Otaloworks well for experienced farmers, but new farmers find the system challenging to maneuver and experience difficulty in receiving useful information in a timely manner. Often, farmers may not yet have proper connectivity or a cell phone device on-farm to receive real-time solutions.
Case 5: The centralized online real-time electronic public distribution system (COREPDS) in Chhattisgarh, India, is the current iteration of more than a decade long process of improving access to the Public Distribution System (PDS) through Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-based interventions (Rajan et al., 2016). PDS is one of the largest government-run subsidized food programs in the world. It connects farmers, processors, and beneficiaries to provide food commodities to low-income households. PDS is known for its corruption, black marketing, and food diversion. However, in recent years, the Chhattisgarh state has tried to minimize negative associations through end-to-end digitalization of the PDS supply chain. It has taken more than a decade to realize full benefits of the digitalization process, yet the risk of change in policy due to government oversight remains a challenge.
Case 6: Food Robot is a Colorado-based web application for scheduling, routing, and tracking just-in-time food rescue. Food Rescue Organizations (FRO) play a vital role in reducing food waste and loss and combating hunger across the United States. FROs are volunteer-driven entities, typically non-profits with limited operating budgets, that rescue, glean, transport, prepare, and distribute food to communities. Food Robot helps connect donor and recipient agencies with a FRO. A limitation of this software is that individual donors and recipients cannot be connected - it must be a business or organization. As a result, an individual farmer with produce to donate may not be able to participate. Moreover, food rescues are often glutted with high-carbohydrate, low-nutrient foods. Through digitalization, FROs can monitor and increase the supply of highly nutritious foods by incorporating individual farmers and procuring more fresh produce.
How is digitalization addressing food loss and waste?
The above supply chain scenarios discuss the ways in which digitalization is helping to improve production monitoring, management decisions, traceability, and food consumption patterns worldwide. Such software applications enhance food security and reduce food loss and waste by providing farmers with information and connecting individual stakeholders in the supply chain. However, each case has limitations related to cost, infrastructure, and performance. But, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of integration among all the stakeholders in one platform. Most of the applications have local impact, whereas food often travels globally. In order to effectively reduce food loss and waste, significant effort is needed to ensure that there is complete integration of stakeholders within the supply chain by using appropriate technologies to increase participation and dissemination of available information. Technology alone cannot feed the people, although technology is making farming more efficient and influencing the younger generation to reconsider farming as a business.
Chopra, S. and Rajan, P. (2014). Farmers brining paddy to a government market in India [Photograph]. Mahasamund.
Chopra, S. and Rajan, P. (2014). Beneficiaries in India acquiring food commodities with the help of digitalization. [Photograph]. Mahasamund.
Patel, N., Shah, K., Savani, K., Klemmer, S. R., Dave, P., & Parikh, T. S. (2012, March). Power to the peers: authority of source effects for a voice-based agricultural information service in rural India. In Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (pp. 169-178). ACM.
Rajan, P., Chopra, S., Somasekhar, A. K., & Laux, C. (2016). Designing for Food Security: Portability and the Expansion of User Freedoms Through the COREPDS in Chhattisgarh, India. Information Technologies & International Development, 12(3), pp-1.