The COACH project analyses collaborative agri-food chains with its aim to drive innovation in territorial food systems and improve outcomes for producers and consumers. In order to facilitate and systematise project outcomes, all COACH actions oscillate around “Spotlights” – 8 cross-cutting themes illustrating particular aspects of collaborative agri-food chains in territorial food systems.
The scope of the Digital Innovation Spotlight focuses on the use of digital technology, breaking new ground for logistics, communications, accessibility, social equity and other factors that assist small-scale farmers and operators in scaling up the short food supply chain.
We’re not in the sector because we like software.
It [software development] is not something people who want to do good in the world will do.Campfire with Open Food Network
We want to deal with plants and food, not IT. The nerds don’t start a shopping community. Carrots, who cares?Campfire with Nyiregyházi Kosár Buying Group
None of the Beacons featured in this spotlight began their journey with digital technology as their priority aim; instead, on their way to building a better food system and supporting local and sustainable small-scale farmers, they recognised the power of digital technologies and decided to use them to advance the ethical standards of their work.
Charter en Mouvement (AMAP) points out that digital solutions create opportunities as means of communication and animation. Through digital technologies, one can raise awareness about sustainable short food supply chains, educate about consumer impact on food systems and advocate, but also mobilise human capital, create a space for knowledge exchange, farmers’ interactions and general sharing of ideas and experiences.
As a network focused on creating a strong solidarity movement based on direct connections between ‘Amap-iens’ (volunteers and consumers supporting AMAP) and local, small-scale farmers, AMAP chooses to use FLOSS solutions (Free and Open Source Systems). As an organisation, they look for non-proprietorial digital tools in order to protect the freedom and rights of individuals co-creating their community and to provide alternatives to the international tech giants (GAFAM), which would not seek to exploit the collected data and simply make a profit on their users. Through its digital choices, Charter en Mouvement creates a progressive network cherishing its sense of community and culture, promoting the use of digital innovations as common goods.
Charter en Mouvement offers 3 digital services. Clic’AMAP is a tool that helps unify all AMAP members’ work standards. It manages the network, its database, groups, members, cartography, and internal network communication. In order to promote the sharing of experiences and the dissemination of resources, AMAP launched the second service – an online participatory media library. The third digital service provided by Charter en Mouvement is the mobile application “Amapez-vous” which connects all the members so that they can operate in a smoother and more efficient way. To make all its technologies accessible and easy to use for all the community members, one particular AMAP chapter offers online training explaining how to use digital innovations.
Netzwerk Solidarische Landwirtschaft (NWSL) also tries to avoid proprietary software and reflect on its use of digital technology to reach the most sustainable and ethical solutions. Digital technologies allow the NWSL network to access tools remotely, permitting decentralised ways of working while the data synchronisation remains central and runs on self-hosted servers. Similarly to Charter en Mouvement, NWSL try to use FLOSS solutions, noting not only their emphasis on equity, democracy and access but also the potential to save time through standardisation of the file storage and to increase the work efficiency through digital project management.
While NWSL tries to avoid profit-oriented mainstream technologies, the Beacon underlines its struggle to choose the software that will truly fit its work. Often, as multiple COACH Beacons signal, there is the willingness to use non-proprietorial digital technologies; however, no open-source tool provides the desired slickness and functionality routinely available in mainstream tech. NWSL uses the Mattermost online platform to chat and recommends the CryptPad as an inspiring collaborative tool; nevertheless, they continue to use ZOOM instead of Jitsi because the mainstream software simply works smoother.
All COACH Beacons contributing to the analysis of the Digital Spotlight underline that in times of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sustainability and impact of technologies used to transform the food system are more critical than ever. Digital innovations can facilitate wider participation and access. Still, at the same time, they have an enormous environmental impact in terms of the energy and materials required to build and run them. Moreover, the less popular yet more equitable solutions require more effort to support their users, creating additional costs and requiring more extensive volunteering effort. At the moment, it is hard to assess which solutions and technologies are more sustainable from the long-term perspective, and that is why a more systemic reflection is necessary to guide the transformation of short food supply chains.
As the NWSL Beacon underlines, for the FLOSS solutions to flourish, it is essential to advocate for data interoperability; that is, greater operational coherence between the various existing FLOSS platforms. Open Food Network (OFN) has developed an open-source code and software available as a common good on their GitHub repository, stating that a broader commitment to robust democratic governance of the code through data interoperability would help short food supply chains to change the scale of their impact. It is a challenging goal to achieve, given that it is not easy to agree on an ‘open standard’ (i.e. a common set of protocols for software implementation). Even though the OFN software and code itself are free to use for network members complying with the OFN values, it is possible that using it in isolation might only increase the gulf between those with digital skills and those without. Spaces of collaboration currently being developed by OFN and others are aimed at maximising the digital effectiveness of novel solutions to coordinate all network members and thus scale up the short food supply chain. Small-scale farmers and operators struggle with the high risk of burnout with such innovative technologies. This is why it is crucial to build communities around compatible and widespread technologies.
The example of Hungarian COACH Beacon, the Nyiregyházi Kosár Buying Group, shows that sometimes the process can work the other way around, and digital innovation can bloom out of the pre-existing community. The intrinsic need to discuss the value of short food supply chains and the willingness to support local small-scale farmers helped the founder grow a broad network of consumers and producers actively engaged in reshaping the balance between industrial and sustainable food in the region. One community member, who also happened to be an IT enthusiast, was inspired by the champion’s work and decided to create a platform for the online shop voluntarily. Even though eventually, the software had to be improved and managed by professionals, it is a good example of a natural transformative power that emerged from educative and awareness-raising activities offered by the Beacon.
Extending the Beacon’s work to the digital realm helped the Nyiregyházi Kosár champion organise orders into baskets and deliver them to the consumers at the pick-up point at their office or by home delivery. Digital technology allowed the Beacon to manage logistics easier and faster facilitate the purchase of products from 40-60 food producers by 150-170 consumers each week. Using a digital platform saves hours of additional work for the Nyiregyházi employees, who no longer have to use Google Spreadsheets to administrate sales manually. Initially, the Nyiregyházi Kosár Buying Group owned the software, but over time, along with the increasing popularity of Beacon’s training, workshops, and daily activities, the Nyiregyházi champion helped others establish similar networks, and now the software is financed and maintained by around 10 communities working in different parts of Hungary. Collaboration with other organisations helped the Beacon divide costs of existing digital products, which are very high since the software requires frequent updates and never stops evolving. Local Hungarian buying groups rely on each other and the support of committed community members. Still, they could achieve much more if public authorities financially supported similar smart transformations. All Beacons reported challenges in maintaining their digital services as well as keeping up with the speed of modernisation and required updates.
Our final example Beacon, Pipers Farm, offers a slightly different perspective: online activities can be the sole marketing route to boosting one’s business. Moreover, conscious use of digital platforms and social media services can help to build a trustworthy and sustainable brand. Their use of digital tools has been crucial in enabling Piper’s Farm to offer a stable, fair price which makes it financially possible for farmers to produce in ways that bring soil & animal health, wellbeing and environmental benefits at the same time. According to Pipers Farm, making a sale online is a fraction of the costs in a shop since less staff, storage, and time capacities are required to run the digital shop, helping them become more profitable and viable.
Digital technology has also enabled Pipers Farm to grow, bringing more local producers and new consumers in. This, in turn, keeps money circulating in the local economy and means that Pipers Farm can sustain and encourage regenerative family and rural farming businesses. Sustainable digital solutions have a great potential in order picking, packaging and dispatching. They provide detailed monitoring of all the working processes, including the demand fluctuations. Thus, digital technologies reduce the potential waste of food and packaging materials by allowing producers to make informed decisions regarding the delivery of their products.
Finally, Pipers Farm points out that high-quality digital services can boost short food supply chains not only by making them more visible thanks to the activities on social platforms but also by making them more accessible. In the Spotlights Template, Pipers Farm shared its findings from the internal sales analysis stating that the convenience of the purchasing process is the most important factor for the majority of the Beacon’s customers. Clients seek comfortable solutions, and digital technologies allow them to save time and receive high-quality food simultaneously.
As we learn from the COACH Beacons’ Spotlights templates, many good practices regarding digital innovation could improve food systems and address global problems like climate change. However, after two decades of accelerating technological development and promoting it to fight the food, energy, and climate crises, it is time for a technological re-think (ETC Group, 2022). During the COACH Digital Innovation Spotlight Encounter in 2021, the project participants shared good practices and reflected on the challenges facing the alternative technology world.
One of the most significant issues is that farmers and small-scale actors become “data providers” and contribute to the “digital colonialism” led by mainstream Big Tech companies offering digital innovations for the price of information. Given that the value of the global food system is estimated at 10% of the $80 trillion global economy (van Nieuwkoop, 2019), it is not surprising that corporate partners are interested in benefiting through the provision of digital solutions for the food sector. Even the International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture that the UNFSS proposed to create in 2021, has been dominated by multi-stakeholder groups led by the most prominent companies (Fries, 2021). The earlier mentioned FLOSS solutions could support small-scale actors to regain digital sovereignty, but this brings us to another challenge related to digital innovation – the increasing gap between those with digital skills and those without. As discussed during the COACH Spotlight Encounter, together, small-scale food producers can create alternatives to the mainstream technological solutions, and they can educate each other; however, that would require enormous coordination effort. Building shared digital infrastructures is costly, and demands maintaining servers and many other activities that require time and financial capacities.
The world of digital innovation, while presenting numerous opportunities, is also one in which small scale actors are often ‘pulled’ into against their will. As such, the way digital innovation is enacted can easily lead to further uncertainties, costs and competitive dynamics which operate in tension with the values of socially just food systems.
BEACONS WHO CONTRIBUTED TO THE DIGITAL INNOVATION SPOTLIGHT ANALYSIS
Netzwerk Solidarische Landwirtschaft