Thinking Vertically: Sustainable Farming Practices through Tech

by Jennifer Green, September 17th, 2020

Digital Transformation, Tech For Good

At Borne, we know that new tech, coupled with new business can create more resilient urban food ecosystems in the future. These tech-enabled systems can sustainably link urban and rural producers and consumers, increase overall food production, and generate opportunities for new businesses and jobs.

A technology-linked urban food ecosystem that embraces products within these ecosystems would create opportunities for small farms to reach wider markets and progress from subsistence farming to commercially producing niche cash crops and animal protein, such as poultry, fish, pork, and insects.

Meanwhile, new opportunities within cities will appear with the creation of vertical farms and other controlled-environment agricultural systems as well as production of plant-based and 3D printed foods and cultured meat. Off-the-shelf precision agriculture technology will increasingly be the new norm, from smallholders to larger producers.

All this will can integrated into the larger collaborative economy—connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things (IoT) and powered by artificial intelligence (AI). Tech will enable transformation of urban food ecosystems, from expanded production in cities to more efficient and inclusive distribution and closer connections with rural farmers.

Worldwide Connection

Information and communications tech connect food producers to consumers with just-in-time data, enhanced good agricultural practices, mobile money and credit, telecommunications, market information and merchandising, and greater transparency and traceability of goods and services throughout the value chain. Text messages on mobile devices have become the one-stop-shop for small farmers to place orders, gain technology information for best management practices, and access market information to increase profitability.

Hershey’s CocoaLink in Ghana, for example, uses text and voice messages with cocoa industry experts and small farm producers. Digital Green is a tech-enabled communication system in Asia and Africa to bring needed agricultural and management practices to small farmers in their own language by filming and recording successful farmers in their own communities. MFarm is a digital product that connects Kenyan farmers with urban markets through text messaging.

Blockchain Technology and the Potential for Safety

Gaining access to credit and executing financial transactions have been persistent constraints for small farm producers. Blockchain has the promise to help the unbanked access basic financial services.

The Gates Foundation for example, has released an open source platform, Mojaloop, to allow software developers and banks and financial service providers to build secure digital payment platforms at scale. Mojaloop software uses more secure blockchain technology to enable urban food system players in the developing world to conduct business and trade. The free software reduces complexity and cost in building payment platforms to connect small farmers with customers, merchants, banks, and mobile money providers. Such digital financial services will allow small farm producers in the developing world to conduct business without a brick-and-mortar bank.

Blockchain is also important for traceability and transparency requirements to meet food regulations and consumer requirements during the production, post-harvest, shipping, processing and distribution to consumers.

Services and Products on Demand

Uberised services can advance development of the urban food ecosystem across the spectrum, from rural to peri-urban to urban food production and distribution. Whereas Uber and Airbnb enable sharing of rides and homes, the model can be extended in the developing world to include on-demand use of expensive equipment, such as farm machinery, or storage space.

This includes uberisation of planting and harvesting equipment (Hello Tractor), transportation vehicles, refrigeration facilities for temporary storage of perishable product, and “cloud kitchens” (EasyAppetite in Nigeria, FoodCourt in Rwanda, and Swiggy and Zomto in India) that produce fresh meals to be delivered to urban customers, enabling young people with motorbikes and mobile devices to become entrepreneurs or contractors delivering meals to urban customers.

Another uberised service is marketing and distributing “ugly food” or imperfect produce to reduce food waste. Oddbox is an innovative example of how this can be done through online subscription services. About a third of the world’s food goes to waste, often because of appearance; this is enough to feed two billion people. These services supply consumers with cheaper, nutritious, tasty, healthy fruits and vegetables that would normally be discarded as culls due to imperfections in shape or size.

Tech for Producing Plant-Based Foods

We need to change diet choices through education and marketing and by developing tasty plant-based substitutes. This is not only critical for environmental sustainability, but also offers opportunities for new business opportunities and services.

There have been great advances in plant-based foods, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, that can satisfy the consumer’s experience and perception of meat. Rather than giving up the experience of eating red meat, technology is enabling marketable, attractive plant-based products that can potentially drastically reduce world per capita consumption of red meat.

The next generation “urban food industry” will be part of the larger collaborative economy that is connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the IoT. A tech-enabled urban food ecosystem integrated with new business models and smart agricultural policies offers the opportunity for sustainable intensification of agriculture to feed a rapidly growing global urban population.

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