“Food and drink businesses often admit that it is impossible for them to really know what is going on at the bottom rung of their supply chains, as they are sometimes many suppliers removed from farmers,” says Amy Barthorpe, business development and operations manager for WeFarm.
“It is an ongoing challenge for them to know what challenges the farmers that produce raw materials are really facing on the ground. We can supply actionable insights and data that will help them understand what's happening in the bottom rung of their supply chain.“
It also improves the conditions of the producers themselves. So how exactly does it work?
Knowledge is power
WeFarm is based on the idea that knowledge is power, and it empowers producers in developing countries by giving them free access to an information-sharing platform where they can communicate with other
producers across the globe.
The fact that only around 10% of small-scale farmers have access to the internet is not a barrier as farmers need only a basic mobile phone. WeFarm translates the answer given by a Kenyan farmer to the question put by a Peruvian producer, allowing them to share tips on soil erosion, pest control or how to diversify crops.
This information is then collated and supplied to food manufacturers, allowing them a window into their supply chain they did not have before.
“The information we supply includes the most frequently asked questions on [the commodity] each month, the top crops farmers are looking to diversify into, as well as disaggregated information on farmers' age, gender and location. We can also flag any questions related to disease or how to deal with the impact of climate change," Barthorpe told FoodNavigator.
“[This] information helps businesses mitigate risk and future proof their supply chains. Businesses can make better decisions when they are armed with information about what is going on at the producer level of their supply chain.”
The service is free for producers to use – the platform allows them to send SMS messages even if they have no credit – while manufacturers pay a small monthly fee.
The process is also relatively quick as well. Once a food or drink company has agreed to join, their producers will be signed up within a week.
WeFarm currently works with several SMEs but is in advanced discussions with a number of large food and drink businesses, and this will be the main area for growth next year, it says.
The growth figures are impressive - WeFarm currently has over 36,000 farmers signed up to its service but last month announced its aim to have 70,000 by Christmas and one million by the end of 2016. During a one-hour radio show broadcast on Kenyan national radio it received more than 3000 farmers signing up to the service.
This rapid growth allows it to continually widen the crops offered to manufacturers, says Barthorpe. Current users produce commodities such as sugar, maize, cocoa, tea, coffee and a variety of fruits and vegetables, but new areas are constantly being added, with cotton and sorghum being the latest additions.
By sourcing ingredients from registered producers, companies can add value to their products in consumers’ eyes, says Barthorpe.
“People want to know that they food they eat is not negatively impacting the people who are producing it. With WeFarm, consumers can know that the farmers been given a tool that enables them to improve their livelihoods, farm sustainably, and lift themselves out of poverty."
A recent report by UK research agency, Future Thinking, found that brands with sustainability credentials are more trusted, and more people said this was true for the food and drink industry than any other sector (6.83).
Of the 25,000 consumers surveyed, 37% said that using sustainably sourced ingredients was a priority, putting it at second place just behind minimising waste to landfill.
In winning Google's Impact Challenge, the search behemoth praised WeFarm for creating a more robust and secure food system and improving global food security.