farmforce case study

Herbs

Ensuring food safety integrity and customer confidence

Digital input traceability enables herb exporter to rapidly resolve customer concerns, ensuring food safety integrity and confidence

Exporting high-quality herbs across Europe, Subati operates from an expansive greenhouse complex in southern Kenya. From its launch in 2016, Subati has rapidly grown their herbs operation, realizing in 2017 that in order to maintain the highest food safety standards, quality certifications and full traceability through production, a digital farm management system was required. The Agribusiness Advisory Team at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group, was already in discussions with Subati and was keen to support testing out agricultural technology solutions. IFC strives to enable the development of agribusinesses in emerging markets, facilitating competitive access to global markets.

Rapid Response to Chemical Residue Enquiries

Prior to deploying Farmforce in 2018, all records were manually kept on paper, requiring a room full of binders to keep track of the status of all greenhouse areas and what specific chemicals were applied to each crop. While this system has been used in the horticulture industry for years, it has limitations as production scales and companies need to precisely track and trace inputs applied when customers request or have concerns. Since food safety is the highest priority, ensuring strict adherence to maximum residue levels (MRLs) of approved inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides) on all herbs exported to clients in Europe and around the world is ‘business critical.’

Reducing MRL Risks, Properly Responding When They Occur

When customers receive herbs from Subati, they do standard testing to check for any chemical reside. If an issue is detected, Subati has only four hours to respond, explaining why the MRLs was exceeded, or why there may be residue of a chemical not expected for that crop. If the exporter fails to adequately respond during this 4-hour window, they risk having all their products immediately rejected by that customer, causing huge financial losses and tarnishing their reputation. This can bankrupt an herb producer – and is a key reason that Subati decided it was critical to invest in Farmforce.

Digital Trouble Shooting and Issue Resolution

With the marjoram issue, the chemical residue found by the client was not a chemical that should have been applied, so where did it come from? The Subati team quickly confirmed in Farmforce that that chemical was not applied to the marjoram in question, but could see that it was applied in a different section of the greenhouse. Since the chemical was applied via the irrigation system, they determined that must be the source of the contamination, locating a valve in the irrigation system where the chemical was getting ‘stuck’ and staying in the irrigation system even after the chemicals were flushed out.

Having a simple digital platform to have complete oversight of all chemical applications – when, where, by whom – made this troubleshooting quick and efficient. John explains, “it would have taken at least four to five times longer (many hours), to go through all the physical paperwork, involving many more staff, distracting from normal operations.” If they could not determine this within the four hours allowed by the client, the client could think one chemical residue issue would indicate much larger food safety issues at Subati, risking ruining their excellent reputation.

Quality Certifications to Access Markets

In order to sell in global markets, and contract with major supermarkets and wholesalers, Subati spent 1.5 years in extensive application, audit and quality control processes to receive certifications. They proved their operations adhered to the highest levels of food safety, staff training and responsible input use with a robust traceability system. Certifications like Global GAP require yearly audits, and that is where having all the data on input applications, planting dates and staff safety training comes in handy.

Prior to Farmforce, Subati would maintain 50+ binders of data sheets and would have to spend days sorting through them to fulfill the specific requests from the auditors – now all the data is digital and can be selected and printed for the auditor in minutes – saving valuable time for Subati staff and expense with the auditors. For example, audit points for spot checking on pre-harvest intervals (PHI) check that crops are not harvested within a certain number of days based on what input was applied. Farmforce has automatic features that pops up an alert if the mobile user tries to record a harvest collection within a PHI, providing a safeguard against harvesting early, and then having herbs rejected by the customer when doing chemical residue tests. With the alert in place, Subati is confident of both food safety, and passing the audit.

Customer Confidence in Reliable System

When meeting with new potential clients, having a robust digital traceability system in place is key, and is now expected of suppliers selling high quality herbs and other horticultural products. Customers need that reliability factor – the ability to ask their herbs supplier about specifics in the production and receive a quick, professional response backed up by transparent data from Farmforce. Thomas Skaper also notes that if any smaller scale producers want to sell to internationally, “they need software like Farmforce to access those markets. They can’t just use paper anymore, it wouldn’t be accepted by Tesco Nurture or Farmer to Fork standards.”

Farmforce ROI and Ways Forward

As Farmforce is used across Subati’s operations, the team looks forward to further leveraging the digital data on the platform to better track their year-on-year production and performance. As they use the system across more seasons, they can compare their output in volumes, input efficiency, staff hours, and other key performance metrics to more robustly determine optimal production strategies. The Farmforce team will continue support Subati through developing custom reports and conducting team trainings to ensure that we continue to thrive and grow together.