Marcel Smits, chairman, Asia Pacific and head of corporate strategy, Cargill. Image credit: Cargill

Asia will lead agrifood’s ‘future of breakthrough innovations,’ says Cargill strategy chief

November 20, 2021

Last week delegates descended — albeit virtually — on Singapore for SWITCH, the city-state’s annual tech festival. And in a refreshing turn for an event historically dominated by discussion of fintech, e-commerce, and enterprise software, agtech and foodtech featured more prominently on the agenda than ever before.

Part of the reason for this is that Singapore, which imports over 90% of its nutritional needs, has placed more of an emphasis on food security and resiliency in recent years. This trend was only accelerated by Covid-19 and resulting supply chain breakdowns.

Indicative of agrifood’s ascendancy in Singapore and the wider world of tech was the choice of speaker to deliver the opening keynote at SWITCH: Marcel Smits, Asia-Pacific chairman and global head of corporate strategy at Cargill.

That the US agribusiness major has appointed Smits to hold both those roles concurrently speaks volumes about its outlook when it comes to Asia.

“Today [Asian markets] are not looking to play catchup to their Western counterparts anymore; instead, they are looking to leapfrog in terms of growth and development, and will be the backbone of global innovation for many years to come,” he said, noting the region’s contributions in areas such as AI, blockchain, and augmented reality as examples..

However, “while the region is thriving, sectors such as agriculture have somewhat lagged in adopting and fully leveraging these new technologies,” he continued.

“Innovation in all its forms — technology, digitalization, and R&D — provides the means to address some of the greatest challenges facing the Asian food ecosystem. And while there are several challenges that pose a serious threat to the region’s food supply, they’re also creating opportunities for innovation.”

In Asia, some of the innovation opportunities being explored by Cargill include alternative proteins, vertical farming, drone-enabled crop surveillance, and facial recognition tech for livestock, Smits said.

Tech is “disrupting Cargill’s businesses like never before” and is “key to our growth strategy,” which comprises three pillars: people, partnership, and product, he explained.

For the first of these, it’s all about facilitating an innovation culture within the company that allows ideas to flourish.

One example is Cargill Digital Labs, an internal unit of around 200 engineers that’s designing and testing tech solutions to some of the agrifood sector’s “most pressing problems.” It developed Digital Saathi, a mobile app that gives Cargill’s smallholder farmer partners in India access to environmental data, agronomy services, and an input marketplace.

Then there’s Cargill’s Entrepreneurial Digital Growth Engine (or EDGE, for short) which is currently incubating about 10 ‘internal startups’ around the world.

The company’s second innovation pillar — partnerships —  is born of the fact that “we recognize we can’t do all of this alone,” Smits said.

“Cargill has always been active in the startup community and is constantly taking a collaborative approach towards digital innovation.”

It has partnered with US accelerator and investor Techstars on the latter’s Farm to Fork program; while in Southeast Asia, it has sponsored the Grow Asia Digital Directory Showcase – a startup pitch competition run by nonprofit Grow Asia.

“In some cases, Cargill recognizes that [new] capabilities must be developed as a collaborative and cooperative effort with other industry participants,” Smits said. “This is particularly true for capabilities which require the aggregation of data from across the industry.”

That, he said, is why Cargill invested in US grain-trading platform Bushel – which recently acquired GrainBridge, Cargill’s joint venture with ADM, as well as row crop management platform FarmLogs.

“Given the high-volume, low-margin, and physical nature of the grain commodity business, we believe the greatest opportunities are to leverage technology to reduce friction and inefficiencies in the current supply chain infrastructure,” Smits said.

“The combination of Bushel and GrainBridge accelerates ADM’s and Cargill’s original strategy, while cementing Bushel’s leading technology position in the North American market.” The startup is “now moving into broader global market.,” he added.

When it comes to product, the third and final pillar of Cargill’s innovation strategy, Smits pointed to the example of PlantEver – the plant-based protein brand the company unveiled last year in China.

While we can expect to see Cargill growing its footprint in alternative proteins on a global basis — “by 2030 we reckon the alt-protein market could well reach $85 billion,” according to Smits — it’s noteworthy that the company decided to focus on China when it launched PlantEver.

It’s another strategic decision which underlines the importance Cargill places on Asia for its longer-term growth.

The agrifood industry “has long been, for many decades, used to incremental, small innovations – and all of a sudden, we see lots of money starting to pour in, and we’re looking at a future now of breakthrough innovations,” Smits said.

“I think there are a lot of reasons to assume that Asia will lead in that innovative process.”

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