“We have realized that some companies have gone down the wrong path by adopting the approach of inventing the problem. They find a technology that’s exciting and try to force-fit that technology for a problem that they don’t have. This is why we want to be very deliberate about the problems first, and then come to technology.”
Suresh Sundararajan is president and group head of strategic investments and shared services at Olam International, the Singapore-headquartered agribusiness giant. Sundararajan is speaking to AgFunderNews ahead of a speaking slot at the Rethink AgriFood Innovation Week in Singapore later this month.
“I’ll give you an example of blockchain. There’s so much hype about blockchain around the world. And in our industry, there are a few companies that have done some pilots. But we have not gone down that route, because we have not seen a tangible, scalable use case that could give us significant benefits for adopting blockchain.”
If one company could benefit from the efficiencies new technology can bring, it’s Olam, with a complex supply chain that grows, sources, processes, manufactures, transports, trades and markets 47 different agrifood products across 70 countries. These include commodities like coffee, cotton, cocoa, and palm oil that are farmed by over 4 million farmers globally, most of which are smallholders in developing countries.
But the third largest agribusiness in the world has been noticeably absent from the agrifood corporate venture capital scene in recent years, instead opting mostly to build its own technology solutions in-house. (It did deploy Phytech’s FitBit for crops in Australia in 2016 as an outside example.)
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For traceability, and perhaps an alternative to blockchain-enabled technology, there’s Olam AtSource, with a digital dashboard that provides Olam customers with access to rich data, advanced foot-printing, and granular traceability. Olam hopes AtSource will help its customers “meet multiple social and environmental targets thereby increasing resilience in supply chains.”
Olam has also developed and deployed the Olam Farmer Information System (OFIS), a smallholder farm data collection platform providing smallholders with management tools and Olam customers with information about the provenance of products.
“OFIS solves the information issue by providing a revolutionary tech innovation for collecting and analyzing first mile data,” Brayn-Smith told AgFunderNews when OFIS launched in 2017. “We are able to register thousands of smallholders, GPS map their farms and local infrastructure, collect all types of farm gate level data such as the age of trees, and record every training intervention.”
This product is a clear example of a “transformational technology” that solves a problem for Olam and also gives the business efficiencies that could impact the bottom line, according to Sundararajan.
And Olam has built on top of OFIS to transact directly with cocoa farmers in Indonesia where Olam is publishing prices to around 30,000 farmers and buying cocoa directly from them.
“Before technology was available, it was almost impossible for any company to buy directly from the farmers, just because of the sheer volume and number of farmers. But, with technology, you have a far better reach, which will allow us to directly communicate with them,” Sundararajan tells AgFunderNews.
“Now the farmer can just accept a price and type in that he wants to supply it, and we arrange the complete logistics to pick up the cocoa from the farmer,” he says adding that the company’s country heads in other parts of the world are keen to launch this service in their markets. The company is starting next in Peru, then Guatemala, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria.
Olam as Disruptor
While Olam deployed OFIS to solve for a problem, it also gives the company the opportunity to be disruptive in the markets it serves, according to Sundararajan.
As well as looking for transformational ways to solve specific problems, Olam also looks at “any ideas we have that will give Olam an opportunity to disrupt our own industry. So, we end up being a disrupter and not be at the risk of being disrupted by a new player,” he says.
“This fundamental shift in terms of Olam getting an opportunity to directly interact and transact with farmers is a starting point of disruption for us. This is a very complex point, which will bring into play several technologies for us to be able to successfully scale it.”
Going down this route, Sundararajan says Olam could end up providing farmers with new services and creating “separate streams of revenue that has nothing to do with what we were doing five or 10 years back.”
In this vein, Olam is working on deploying a technology to detect moisture — and therefore quality — in its commodities. The company is also looking at financial tools for its farmers.
“Looking at our business model, we believe that we have a few very good opportunities at the first mile of the supply chain and the last mile of the supply chain to change the way we compete,” says Sundararajan. “We believe that since we have control of the supply chain end-to-end, we can use technology to differentiate our service to customers in a way that our competitors will find difficult to replicate.”
Informal Startup Interactions
Olam does interact with startups on a selective basis, and Sundararajan’s participation in Rethink’s Singapore conference, as well as a hackathon it took part in with Fujitsu in Australia last year, are two examples. Sundararajan said he is considering an idea like The Unilever Foundry, but the company has yet to create a formal process or framework for these interactions. And the same goes for corporate venture capital.
“We believe that our digital journey has to mature much more, where we should demonstrate success within, by implementing the solutions that we’re developing, before even considering investing in venture capital. We believe that we have a very good strategy and a suite of products, stretching across from farm to the factories, to digitize our operations, whether it is a digital buying model, or whether it is spot factories in terms of predictive maintenance or increasing yield or it’s drone imagery from our own plantations, and productivity apps for employees.”