Providing Blockchain Expertise to the Agrifood Industry

2. Zero Hunger 3. Good Health and Well-Being 9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities 12. Responsible Consumption and Production

Overview

Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt is the founder of The Fork. She has been working with the digitization of farms for more than 15 years and, according to her, "blockchain has a few characteristics that are absolutely new and that we don't have in other technologies". Her work is to help clients understand the technology and integrate it into their already existing business models. The approach that most companies use today is to develop a solution, put it into a package, and sell it. She suggests another approach, where the solution is integrated with the current stack of applications that each company has.

Author

Rudi Martins

Rudi Martins

School

TIAS School for Business and Society

TIAS School for Business and Society

Professor

Mirjam Minderman

Mirjam Minderman

Innovation

At this moment blockchain has become a buzzword, many think it is the solution to all problems. Instead, what The Fork does is educate directors and CEOs about what is a myth and what is the real solution, and how it can be incorporated into the existing systems of the company. As Marieke said, they do that "to get more value out of their current investment" in the blockchain technology.

The idea emerged from the perception that retailers, traders, and farmers don't trust the technology yet, so they are not willing to buy an off the shelf solution. Instead, The Fork takes another approach to understand the businesses necessities and identify where the blockchain can be used to increase efficiency and cut costs. In view of this, the most important partners are the clients with whom they work closely to provide a tailored solution.

The mission of the company is to "make the food system more integer", which means eliminating fraud from the food supply chains and consequently making "good food" accessible to all. Furthermore, the goal is to make the "good food" cheap enough that it will out-compete the "cheap food". However, to do so there has to be scale and mainstream of the food production and distribution. That's why blockchain is critical because it can dramatically increase the efficiency of the information systems.  

One last remark is that the food companies are very cost driven, it is embedded in their culture to cut as many costs as they can to maximize margins. Therefore, they hesitate to invest in technology and innovation. Nevertheless, Marieke and her team managed to include a food-related table at the biggest blockchain hackathon in the world that will take place in Groningen in April 2018. It is a challenge to make large food corporations invest in events like this, where there are a lot of uncertainties, and no one really knows what will be the outcome. This kind of initiative is what sets The Fork apart from other companies in terms of innovation.  

Providing Blockchain Expertise to the Agrifood Industry

Inspiration

The main inspiration for the venture was the potential of blockchain. As Marieke said she is "convinced that the centralized organization of food systems is collapsing". Due to the complexity of the system, it is necessary to have a distributed management solution. It is the first time in 15 years of experience working in the digitization of farms that she sees the possibility of direct communication between producers and consumers, with no one in the middle. The technology has made it possible for small players, usually the farmers, to access some of the profits that were once controlled by the big corporations.

There were two main motivations to create the company. First, because it is technically possible. Second, the momentum is now, everyone is talking about blockchain, but few are implementing it in the agrifood business. The consumer demands are changing rapidly, especially in the food industry. People want to know where their food is coming from and if the farmers are keeping a fair share of the business. This fact is putting pressure on the supply chains, and blockchain makes the concept of traceability from farm to fork possible.

Although the technology is not yet mature, the amount of investments that big technology companies are doing is massive, and the outcomes will become commercially viable in the near future. "If you see the speed of the development of innovations on the blockchain, it is incredible…, and we should not over-romanticize the idea that there is the technology and it is finished, technology is never finished anymore".

Overall impact

The United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development addressed by the business are:

Goal 2 - Zero Hunger

Goal 3 - Good Health and well-being

Goal 9 - Industry, innovation, & infrastructure

Goal 11 - Sustainable cities and communities

Goal 12 - Responsible consumption & production

The impact of the innovation on society will be the "speedup of the availability of good food", and that is the key goal of The Fork. The baseline today is that retailers, at least in The Netherlands, do not like change where they are not sure of what the results will be and they resist because it affects their controls. The Fork wants to help accelerate removing those barriers and making the process smoother.

"We need to produce the same amount of food in the next 40 years as we have been producing in the past 8,000 years". Today we have enough food for everyone, the issue is in the distribution, but in a few years it will not be a distribution issue anymore, but a production issue.

In the short-term, the integration will lead to more conscious consumption. Instead of throwing old devices away, people will reuse and refurbish, creating value in existing things through a circular economy. And in the long-term, a "food network will make its members much more accountable to each other and therefore more sustainable in the long-run". Decisions can be made much quicker with a blockchain. For instance, when dealing with perishable food distribution this is vital to drastically reduce waste due to the possibility of quickly rerouting food which is near expiration.

In one of The Fork's client implementations of the technology, they confirmed that the impact of the blockchain was much faster than any other technologies. Marieke said that it would take an additional two years of implementation if another technology was used for that specific case.  


Business benefit

Marieke is very excited where the business is going. She has been working with agrifood technology for more than 15 years and it is the first time that she is seeing the wide adoption of digital farming practices. Data privacy is one of the biggest concerns when you talk about digitizing farms. So, with blockchain farmers can still be in control of their data which may be an advantage to help overcome this resistance. 

Most companies are skeptical about giving full information access to outside consultants, but at the same time, they see that the only way to innovate is to bring it from outside the company. That's why today there is the open innovation concept, which is "the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively " (Henry Chesbrough, 2003).

Moreover, the business is benefiting from the wave of companies and people who want to learn or adopt the new technology. Marieke has established partnerships with top research institutes, leaders in the agrifood field, such as Wageningen University and TNO. The Fork serves as an accelerator between knowledge institutes and businesses. "We make research available for business, and business available for research".  

With regards to financing, The Fork has no investors. "Its explicit policy is to grow by its cash-flow, generated by its 3 products: events, innovation teams, and continuous education".

Social and environmental benefit

Very few companies understand the importance of bringing outside knowledge to innovate inside. "From a societal perspective you want this part (companies) to be able to do that too, and especially in agriculture, in food, this part is very conservative, they really don't want anybody from the outside in".

Among other benefits, the environment will see a reduction in food waste and the change in consumer behavior will push companies to be more transparent by showing where the food is being produced and if it is fair and sustainable. This increase in awareness impacts the willingness to positively influence the environment. For instance, according to the WWF, most people associate the consumption of soy with tofu and soy milk, but most of the soy crops are to feed the increasing demand for meat, as it is the primary source to feed poultry, pork, cattle, and even farmed fish.  In conclusion, if people are better informed, it will influence their buying behavior and ultimately impact the environment and their communities.

Interview

Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt, Founder

Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt, Founder

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The Fork - Global Food Integrity

The Fork - Global Food Integrity

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Business Website: https://www.thefork.online/

Year Founded: 2017

Number of Employees: 2-10

The Fork is a business located in Amsterdam that provides technology consultancy services to the food industry. Their aim is to help integrate the blockchain technology in food supply systems around the world. By doing so companies will be able to operate in a more sustainable way, reducing waste, promoting responsible consumption and production, and making good food accessible to everyone.

In addition, the company has created, in less than one year, a network of more than 1,000 members, both physically in The Netherlands, and in many other countries through an online platform. The network is rapidly growing with more and more people interested in learning and/or helping solve the problems faced by the agri-food industry by implementing blockchain technology.