How tech start-ups help small farms fight food loss

Food-saving ideas at the Food Loss Challenge Asia

Food loss can happen all along the supply chain, but it is particularly devastating for small farms. The inaugural Food Loss Challenge Asia keeps smallholders in mind while supporting tech-driven approaches to save food.

Eighty percent of the world’s 450 million smallholder farmers live in Asia. Loss of food on the farm not only affects their livelihoods – it can reverberate all along the food value chain. Enter the Food Loss Challenge Asia, a mentorship program and pitch competition for start-ups aiming to help smallholders in the region reduce losses.

More than 100 start-ups submitted ideas this fall, and judges have since whittled the talent down to five finalists, who pitch in Singapore this week at the grand finale. As well as showing potential to help smallholders reduce food loss, hopeful start-ups also offered solutions to larger operators along the food value chain.

Jury member Albert Boogaard is Head of Innovation at Rabobank Foundation – co-organizer of the Challenge – and he knows a thing or two about the ways technology can help smallholder farmers across the globe. Leading up to the finale, he explained to us why this competition is such an important initiative and how tech-driven solutions can contribute to food security.

Albert Boogaard on stage in Singapore

How does the Food Loss Challenge Asia help improve food production?

First, it helps smallholders avoid losses on the farm at various stages of production and storage. Farmer income improves and so does food availability. The Challenge also seeks to reduce loss between the farm gate and consumer, which is often estimated to be around 30 percent.

But the Food Loss Challenge also connects start-ups to investors, users, and to other entrepreneurs – so it’s also about promoting partnerships that amplify individual responses to food security. We wanted to stimulate cooperation among participants because we know they have highly complementary products and ideas.

“Each start-up is impressive; together they are even more powerful”

- Albert Boogaard, Rabobank Foundation

For example, several start-ups presented software solutions with the potential to link demand and production more closely. Others showcased devices for measuring real-time environmental conditions and product quality at various steps of the chain. Individually, all of those initiatives are impressive, but in combination they are even more powerful.

Why focus on technological solutions?

There are many potential solutions for the problem of food loss. But technology is important because it allows us to apply different solutions more efficiently.

We know that production efficiency would improve if smallholders had better knowledge of their customers’ quantity, quality and timing requirements. Data-driven information systems give them that knowledge.

“Technology can provide farmers with access to experts remotely”

- Albert Boogaard, Rabobank Foundation

Similarly, receiving expert advice on farming inputs and techniques helps smallholders deal with pests and diseases. But expert advice is not always readily available, especially in isolated areas or in the case of a rare disease outbreak. A technological solution like an online platform provides access to a remote expert.

How difficult is it to convince farmers to adopt new technology?

Many promising food loss solutions rely on new technology that is unfamiliar to many smallholders. Some farmers are open to these new solutions, while others are less so. It’s important to offer flexible solutions for different contexts.

One farmer might have reliable internet access and the skills required to interpret data. Another farmer might not even own a digital device, so they might benefit from access to experts who can demonstrate the technology and help interpret the data in context.

Solutions are often rolled out through local organizations such as cooperatives and producer groups. Local organizations therefore play an important role in applying technology to smallholder agriculture. They can translate sophisticated data into simplified action points for individual farmers. So yes, technology is definitely essential, but in the end it’s the human element that determines its success or otherwise.

“Technology is essential, but the human element determines success”

- Albert Boogaard, Rabobank Foundation

What lessons has the inaugural Food Loss Challenge provided to the Rabobank Foundation?

It has given us very useful insights into the work already being done to solve the problem of food loss. I knew there was a lot of capacity among the tech start-ups in Asia, but my expectations were far exceeded. We hope to draw on a lot of the submissions in the future and apply them to projects that the Foundation supports.

I was also impressed by the level of cooperation between the start-ups, the Foundation, the bank and its clients throughout this initiative. Of course the value of partnerships is not a surprise – the Food Loss Challenge was built on the idea of networking and cooperating – but it was gratifying to see it successfully applied, and to realize how closely everyone’s interests are aligned.

The Food Loss Challenge Asia is a joint initiative by Rabobank and Rabobank Foundation. For more information including a list of industry partners and judges, visit the website.