Cause for a smile on food’s first mile

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For major scale-up, organizations like ours need to hand their innovations over. Farmforce made that transition in 2017. We recently checked on progress. 

In many countries, consumers are more and more interested in how their food is produced. Many people want to know that it is grown, processed, and transported sustainably. “Traceability” is a popular goal. But tracing farm produce with certainty is a challenge. That is especially true of the food, beverages, and spices from smallholder agriculture. Establishing transparency in these value chains is hard – not least because of the huge number of farmers and multiple ‘middlemen’. 

To tackle this issue, our Foundation and partners started Farmforce in 2012. By increasing value chain transparency, our aim with this software tool was to make it easier for companies to buy from smallholders. That makes it easier for these farmers to earn good incomes. By 2017, we had proved the concept. As always, we looked for the best way to transfer an innovation out for scale-up. Farmforce passed into Norwegian hands. 

So far, so good. But handover doesn’t always mean success*. What's happened with Farmforce? We asked CEO Anne Jorun Aas (photo, right) to bring us up to date, tell us where she sees the company today, and explain where it’s going.

Syngenta Foundation: How would you characterize the four years since Farmforce moved on – and what have been the highlights? 
Anne Jorun Aas: If I were to characterize the period in three words, I would choose “challenging, rewarding and insightful”. What we do isn’t easy, and we constantly have to find new solutions to challenges that appear in new markets or crops. But that’s exactly what makes it rewarding and insightful! The highlight is that we continue to build and improve our solution to critical, urgent, and difficult challenges in what we call “food’s first mile”. Today, around 40 customers use it in more than 30 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. 730,000 farmers are registered on the platform. And this is just the start. 

You’ve been chosen as a Cleantech “Group 50 to watch” company. That sounds good. But what does Farmforce really provide? How do you bring solutions to the many pressing issues related to smallholders’ food production?  
Farmforce provides ‘Software as a Service (SaaS). Put simply, our solution consists of two applications: one mobile, one for the web. The mobile app is used to collect data about fields, farmers, growing activities, certifications, infrastructure, etc. – basically, any data customers want. The web application makes these data visible on an aggregated level. Customers can set up web dashboards and see what’s happening on the ground. They can manage the traceability of their products, reduce fraud and quantify the impact. The data can also be used, for example, to provide track records for cooperatives, which helps them access external financing.

You describe your platform as «bush-proof». What does this rather unusual expression mean in practice? And how far does it differentiate you from other companies?
Bush-proof means that our solution works offline in the most remote areas. The valuable data from food’s first mile are always protected, safe, and never lost. Other companies also have bush-proof solutions, but I believe our experience is a differentiator. We were fortunate to have the Syngenta Foundation support to build a strong basis in the farms of Africa. I am confident that no one in the industry has our level of first-hand experience of that crucial first mile. 

You’ve mentioned rival companies. What is the competitive situation in your sector and which competitor do you respect the most? 
I respect all our competitors, and I’m also very glad that they exist. Having more players in the sector underscores its importance and provides learning opportunities. In this field, there are so many challenges that need to be solved; I think the space is big enough for most of us. I’m also confident that Farmforce has a winning formula, thanks to our nine years of experience. Even though we are in many ways a start-up, we also have the depth of learning of an experienced incubator. Furthermore, we are always open to sharing our insights with start-ups and focusing more on collaboration and cooperation than competition.

Global fluency and early independence

Culture is important to you. Farmforce describes its local teams as «pragmatic and tenacious». That sounds like a slight contradiction in terms. Could you elaborate? 
Yes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”! With a team that's growing fast and spread across the world, culture needs to be a constant focus. We have offices in Nairobi, Abidjan, Bangkok, Guatemala City, and Oslo. We already have employees from 17 nationalities, so we're true ‘globally fluent’. This ensures an international perspective, which we combine with local adaptability in everything we do. We’re pragmatic in the sense that we always take local conditions into account and find solutions that work on the ground. We are tenacious in that we believe solutions are always available and don’t give up even if we experience hurdles. These are complementary ideals rather than contradictory. 

For what are you most grateful to the Syngenta Foundation?
That it gave birth to Farmforce – otherwise we wouldn’t be speaking about all these exciting topics right now! Your Foundation did a great and thorough job in defining key properties of the product that we’ve been able to scale. You also gave us considerable independence in how we operate, allowing us to foster that pragmatic and tenacious approach to solving first-mile problems.

What could we have done better?
Nothing, as far as I can see. The Syngenta Foundation got us started, but also let us grow independently as an adolescent. Now that we’re starting to grow up, we would like to see what more we can do together to solve big challenges in the world.

Farmforce says there is a «need and demand for ICT tools to support a more globally connected and digitized supply chain». Which missing tools are needed most? What can we expect from you in the next few years? 
By the end of 2022, we are looking to have strengthened our brand as a premier provider of data on sustainable practices in food’s first mile, giving consumers more clarity. We are additionally working to bring better solutions for the farmers and other entrepreneurs already using the platform. We also need to simplify farmer participation in our ‘SaaS ecosystem’. One thing we have on our roadmap is to extend our solution with a tool in the hands of farmers. That will let them use our solutions more frequently without much need for an agent’s intervention. It will also bring more benefits to smallholders, customers, and the value chains. 

Where do you aim to be as a company in 2030?
Well, we naturally want to be profitable and sustainable. A major aim by 2030 is to gather 50 million farmers on the platform. We intend to quantify empirically how the adoption of our solutions improves farmers’ livelihoods and protects the environment. 

  • When she’s not focusing on Farmforce, Anne Jorun Aas likes playing the piano (especially if people sing-along), reading, climbing, and learning French. Here’s her professional biography
  • Here’s an example of a program that developed differently from our expectations.