There is increasing attention on how our food is produced. Consumers demand to know that what they eat is produced sustainably. But getting that certainty is difficult, especially when much of our produce and spices are produced by the millions of smallholder farmers in emerging markets. These value chains are characterized by many farmers and middlemen, and often lack transparency.
Farmforce was started by the Syngenta Foundation in Kenya back in 2012 to deal with the lack of transparency in our food production. The ambition was to create a more efficient, fair, and transparent relationship between the smallholder farmer and the buyer. In 2017, when realizing that the solution could scale, it was decided that Farmforce needed a new “home”, and Farmforce passed on to Norwegian hands.
Today, we chatted with Anne Jorun Aas, CEO at Farmforce, on what has happened with the Farmforce endeavour since the spin-out, where she sees the company today, and plans for the organization going forward.
Building New Solutions to Solve Critical Issues
Anne Jorun, how would you characterize the period since you moved on from the Syngenta Foundation – and what are the overall highlights?
If I were to characterize the period with 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 solve the critical, urgent, and difficult things in food’s first mile. Our solution is used by around 40 customers today in over 32 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. We have 730 000+ farmers on the platform. And this is just the start.
Providing the Confidence That Traceability Gives
You have also been chosen as a Cleantech “Group 50 to watch” company. What does Farmforce really provide, and how does it bring solutions to the many pressing issues we have related to smallholders’ food production?
Farmforce is a software as a service provider. Simplified, our solution consists of two parts: The mobile app is used to collect data about the farmer and the field, growing activities, certifications, as well as infrastructure – basically whichever data you want. Then there is the web application: where all this data can be seen on an aggregated level, where you can have dashboards and monitor the operations.
This gives our customers visibility into what happens on the ground and allows them to manage the traceability of their products, reduce fraud, and quantify the impact. At the same time, this data can be used, for example, to provide digital track records for the cooperatives, which can give access to external finance.
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 of the world. This also means that the valuable data of food’s first mile is always protected, safe, and never lost. There are many others that also have bush-proof solutions – but I believe the experience we have is a differentiator. We were fortunate with the support of the Syngenta Foundation to build our foundation in the farms of Africa. I am confident no one in the industry has firsthand experience in the first mile like Farmforce.
Big Enough Market
You have to talk about competition – how is the competitive situation, and which competitor do you respect the most?
I respect all our competitors, and I am also very glad that they exist. Having more players in the sector validates its importance and provides learning opportunities. In this field, there are so many challenges that need to be solved, and I think the space is big enough for most. I’m also confident that we have a winning formula thanks to our nine years of experience. Even though we are in many ways a start-up, we also have the experience and learnings of an experienced incubator. We are always open to sharing our insights with new start-ups and focus more on collaboration and cooperation than competition.
I know you work a lot with culture, and you describe your local teams as «pragmatic and tenacious». That sounds like a slight contradiction in terms. Can you elaborate?
We are 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 we don’t give up even if we experience hurdles. In that way, these are not contradictory ideals but complementary. Yes, I believe we all have heard that culture eats strategy for breakfast. With a team that is growing fast and spread out over the world, culture needs to be a constant focus. We have offices in Nairobi, Abidjan, Bangkok, Guatemala City, and Oslo. Our team consists of 20 nationalities, so we are truly globally fluent. This ensures an international perspective, and then we combine it with local adaptability in all things that we do.
We have developed standardized procedures on how to penetrate new markets, emphasizing the cultivation of relationships at grassroots levels. This way, we can obtain credible information right from the source instead of relying on inaccurate or outdated surveys from other agencies with unclear interests.
Farmforce and the Syngenta Foundation
Looking back, for what are you most grateful to the Syngenta Foundation?
That the Syngenta Foundation has given birth to Farmforce; otherwise we would not be speaking about all these exciting topics right now. They have done such a great and thorough job in defining key properties of the product, that we have been able to scale. They have also given us considerable independence in how we operate, allowing us to foster a pragmatic and tenacious approach to solving first-mile problems.
What could the Syngenta Foundation have done better?
Nothing, as far as I can see. You started us, but also let us grow independently while being an adolescent. Now that we’re starting to grow up, we would like to see what more we can do together to solve the big challenges in the world.
Benefit Directly to the Farmer
You say «We see the 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 Farmforce 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 also working to create better solutions for the farmers and other entrepreneurs already using the platform. We also need to simplify the farmer’s participation in our SaaS ecosystem. One of the things we have in our roadmap is to extend our solution with a tool that will sit in the hands of the actual farmer. In that respect, farmers will be able to use our solutions more frequently without much need for an agent’s intervention. This will also bring more benefits directly to the farmer, our customers, and to indirect value chains.
Looking forward, where do you aim to be as a company in 2030?
Obviously, to become a profitable and sustainable company. In a longer timeframe, our major aims are to gather 50 million farmers on the platform by 2030. This is to quantify the improvement of farmers’ livelihoods and protection of the environment empirically through adopting our solutions.