Looking at food through a digital lens

“My goal is to marry the opportunities from the history of the bank with its future,” says Bart Leurs, Rabobank Chief Digital Transformation Officer. He tells us how the bank is looking at digitalization, data, and transformation opportunities.

What role does a Chief Digital Transformation Officer play at a food & agriculture bank like Rabobank?

Bart Leurs: “I look at the bank through a digital lens. I didn’t start in food & agriculture [F&A], I was more involved in technology and innovation before joining Rabobank in 2016. I am getting to know the industry, meeting customers, farmers, and people in the value chain. Rabobank’s unique selling point is within the F&A space. There is enormous short- and long-term potential for innovation and opportunities there.”

“The most important innovations solve the pain of our clients”

- Bart Leurs, Rabobank

What trends are you watching?

“The trend towards big digital platforms and digital ecosystems like Booking.com and AirBnB. We’re seeing the same thing in F&A. A lot of great innovation and initiatives are emerging from data-driven businesses. We are calling it the ‘data-fication’ of the food value chain.”

Rabobank has 150 innovations in the pipeline. Could you give us some examples?

“The most important innovations are easily accessible and solve the pain of our clients. That’s why we are working with other parties on several platforms. For instance, the we.trade financing platform uses blockchain technology and allows us to collaborate with other banks. We.trade is not specifically designed for F&A, but it could expand it to the F&A space.”

AgriDigital, a grains platform in Australia in which we are involved, also uses blockchain. And we are working with other banks to start a worldwide platform for trade and commodity finance. This isn’t something you can do alone. You have to create a substantial platform with substantial players to really get going.”

“Another digital collaboration is the Global Farmers platform, which brings together farmers from around the world. Currently, it’s only for Rabobank customers. But, again, the value of a digital platform is its size, interactions and transactions. You have to be big. Global Farmers could become a valuable platform for all farmers.”

Why is Rabobank engaged in F&A innovation and data?

“Innovation is crucial for more sustainable food production. Rabobank strongly believes that groundbreaking start-ups in the F&A value chain can help to nourish the world more efficiently. But there is also another important fact; F&A is more and more focused on data.

“Innovation in the food value chain tends to create, use and share data. As a bank, we gather it in order to give loans at the best terms to farmers and their suppliers. By using data in a responsible way, we can help our customers in the value chain to innovate and improve. I believe it provides opportunities to develop new business models in the value chain.”

Data and data privacy are big news right now. Isn’t handling data for customers scary?

“The good thing is that regulations, such as GDPR in Europe, set boundaries and rules. They are useful for leveling the playing field on how we all deal with data and will hopefully build trust with the data’s owners. As a bank, we have an objective position, responsibility, and a trust factor to take into consideration.”

“We have to keep moving forward”

- Bart Leurs, Rabobank

Why would farmers or other customers come to Rabobank to help with data?

“Because of the trust factor. In all these new data business models, we can play an important role as a bank because we have experience in handling data. We already gather huge amounts of customer information in order to supply credit and the customers trust us to deal with their data properly, so why would we deal with other data differently?”

F&A technology hasn’t moved as fast as mobile technology. How will customers know it’s time to invest in innovation and technology?

“The big, professional farmers that we finance are already pretty techy. I can see everyone looking at sensors and weather data. Meanwhile, blockchain could have a major impact on the value chain because it can connect everyone. All players stand to benefit because it would help make things move faster, with fewer mistakes, more control, and more transparency as you can track and trace everything.”

What is your goal as a digital transformation manager?

“My goal is to marry the opportunities from the history of the bank with its future. Then we can have a really strong position in the market. We have to keep moving forward to make sure we maintain our global position as the leading F&A bank.”