How technology can help oceans feed the world
The world’s smallholders—small-scale farmers and fishermen—can be thanked for producing 70 per cent of the food on the planet. The irony is, these smallholders themselves—many of them in Asia, home to four billion people—are still going hungry, facing poverty, denied credit, and most significantly, have limited access to markets. They could also benefit from more training, information, and opportunities to employ better technology to improve productivity, product quality, and traceability, and with that, boost incomes.
This was the fundamental problem discussed by some 550 delegates to the Responsible Business Forum (RBF) on Food and Agriculture, held from 13-15 March 2017 at the Grand Hyatt in Jakarta, Indonesia. Its theme: “Securing Asia’s Food and Nutrition Future,” embraced seven key commodity groups with major environmental footprints: aquaculture, cocoa, coffee, dairy, grains, palm oil, and rice.
The RBF convened investors, farmers, government officials, and members of academia and civil society to help prioritise collaborative approaches to food and nutrition security in Asia, in the face of such realities as hunger, poverty, malnutrition, gender discrimination, and the potentially debilitating effects of climate change.
Delegates were tasked to produce what Indonesia’s Minister for National Development and Planning Bambang Brodjonegoro called “actionable recommendations." These recommendations addressed access to finance, technology, knowledge, and markets to stimulate innovation, ensure food safety, and encourage collaboration among stakeholders, all with the goal of improved sustainability. Plenary sessions addressed numerous topics of critical importance to the participation and prosperity of smallholders in securing the region’s nutrition future (see event report here).
While commodity working groups tackled problems specific to their sector, many had universal relevance, including:
- lack of “tailored” financial schemes available to the smallholder sector;
- insufficient capacity-building for implementing good “farming” practices
- inadequate infrastructure (i.e. transport, storage, and processing) to reduce loss, enhance market access, and increase the value of harvested produce;
- adaptation strategies for climate change; and
- the application of information and communications technology (ICT) to improve smallholders’ access to technical training, finance, and the market.
Where and how to beginThe need for better technology and financing to improve productivity was repeatedly emphasised by invited experts. As Pierre Courtemanche, CEO of Geo Traceability, which provides digital solutions to supply chain problems, explained, “Technology had evolved to not only help smallholders improve their productivity, but to become more environmentally sustainable in the process.”
There is a clear need for appropriate technology in aquaculture and fisheries. Dr Geoffrey Muldoon, Senior Manager for Business and Industry of the WWF Coral Triangle Programme, who chaired the commodity discussions in the sector, emphasised in his post-RBF recommendations the need for partnerships between the public and private sectors to “develop and promote adoption of innovative ICT applications, such as mobile phones and mapping technology, to connect farmers to the market, overcome value chain inefficiencies, promote traceability, increase regulatory compliance, and boost marketing.”
Dr Muldoon also pointed out that partnerships were “key to overcoming barriers to accessing technologies, and other related constraints.”
One example of such technology application presented at the forum is 8villages, an Indonesian start-up that “focuses on delivering information and simplifying the agricultural value chain.” General Manager Anita Hesti underscored that 8villages’ platform is compatible with most types of mobile phone used by farmers. “This platform will allow connections between research institutions many kilometres away, their field force on the ground, and the farmers who would benefit from increased interactions through the platform,” says Hesti. “It will effectively enable farms across the region to access a world of agricultural knowledge supplied by the other participants and connect them to each other, in real time.”
The need to travel is eliminated, as the platform allows for long distance communications. “The two-way ability of the platform allows farmers to ask questions and receive timely answers, with pictures, for better diagnosis and treatment of problems, via a cost-effective mode,” Hesti says.
Value chainsAnother example of such technology use is that of EcoHub, a Singapore-based organization that uses ICT to build data-driven public-private platforms, with the goal of creating sustainable, responsible, and profitable value chains. EcoHub’s philosophy is that every company must be able to trace its products back to sustainable ingredients and processes, and must have accurate data on the species or ingredients used, in order to be considered a legal, reported, and regulated operation.
EcoHub’s tool of choice is also the ubiquitous mobile phone, what the company calls “the most popular and widespread form of personal technology on the planet,” and a mobile application known as mFish, which allows fishers to perform a variety of tasks. They can register; log their catch; access information such as maps, weather reports, and market prices; connect to the market as well as other users; get the latest information on sustainable fishing; and even input personal data to demonstrate their good credit and sustainable fisheries management practices.
Launched at the 2014 Our Oceans conference by then US Secretary of State John Kerry, the app has two versions, one for professional and one for artisanal fishers. As noted by Alistair Douglas, founding partner of EcoHub, the system can be linked to satellite technology for communication and tracking, assuring real-time information that can help fishermen make decisions relevant to their daily work. mFish also collaborates with FishTrax Marketplace to ensure the visibility and traceability of seafood supply chains; consumers out having dinner, for example, can scan menu codes to find out exactly where the fish they want to eat came from.
Technology would certainly be a particularly big help to fish farmers in Asia. With changing weather patterns and more frequent natural disasters, however, along with limitations in access to markets and finance, smallholders are becoming more vulnerable and disadvantaged. New and appropriate ICT developments could help give such farmers and fishermen the chance they need to plan and adapt, in a growingly unpredictable environment.
Dr Muldoon recommended the integration of smallholders into profitable, inclusive value chains by giving them greater access to finance, insurance, and other risk management solutions specific to their needs. Technology should help governments and other enabling agencies to coordinate in delivering better extension and reach, promoting localised best management practises, and enhancing the connectivity of smallholders to markets and financing.
Dr Muldoon concluded that fostering inclusive, multi-stakeholder activities to promote financial and market-based incentives would work well “to reward improvement in environmental and social performance, in both local and international seafood chains.”