Updated on May 3, 2019
With all of the advancements in technology these days, you may wonder what we are doing at the Rainforest Alliance to continuously innovate our certification systems. We sat down with Senior Specialist Science & Impacts Henk van Rikxoort, to learn more about the innovations we are working on and what the future of the Rainforest Alliance will look like in the digital era.
The first mile
When it comes to incorporating new technology into the UTZ certification system, it all starts with something we call the ‘first mile’. The ‘first mile’ is a term referring to the first part of the agricultural supply chain, from the individual farmer level to the cooperative level. This part of the supply chain is very important for the UTZ program as on this level our certification program is implemented, training takes place and audits are carried out. In other words, it is here where we can make a real impact.
At its essence it’s about data. A lot of information streams are not always efficient – which is why we want to innovate this process.
“In addition to being an important stage of the supply chain, first mile is also the name of an innovation program that we started three years ago”, Henk explains.
“It’s a program in which we are exploring what certification could look like in the future and where we are testing and trying a couple of things that we think have a lot of potential in the field. At its essence, it’s about data. Farmers and companies that are investing in certification are already managing a lot of data, but most of it is still coming from paper-based systems. This means that a lot of information streams are not always efficient — data collection time is high and data quality is not always very good — which is why we want to innovate this process.”
Step one is going digital
“The first thing we looked at in the program was how we could help cooperatives in the field collect information for certification in a digital way instead of with paper forms. So we started to work with several simple digital tools, such as mobile apps that can be used offline in remote areas, and we piloted them in Indonesia, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Turkey. We worked with cooperatives there to get them up to speed on how they can collect data and information with smartphones. They were then able to gather performance info in the field like farm name, farm location, farm size, productivity, as well as information on if they were meeting the UTZ standard requirements.”
Data analysis to enhance performance
“The next step is analyzing all of the information collected. In our first mile team, we have two remote sensing and geo-spatial experts who are able to look to other databases and pinpoint specific feedback that can be helpful to individual farmers and cooperatives. For instance, we can see if a farm in a cooperative is too close to the border of a national park or see if deforestation may be occurring. That information can then be used to make corrections or perhaps to give more targeted advice or training on the ground, giving the producer organization a chance to improve on sustainability issues. It also provides us with detailed performance information that can be used to improve the efficiency and accuracy of external audits.”
Companies that drive good performance in the field can potentially be rewarded.
This is also one of the benefits for businesses as they will be able to better monitor the performance of UTZ certified cooperatives, and companies that drive good performance in the field can potentially be rewarded.
Henk: “For instance, if we see a certain farm group consistently performing well, perhaps we can do a ‘lighter’ audit, where instead of two days of auditing with an external auditor, they can do one, which would significantly cut down on certification costs.”
The future of data-driven innovation
The digitization of data collection at the farm level and using that information in combination with all kinds of other databases for certification will grow a lot over the coming years. The future of the Rainforest Alliance will be to find ways to make smart use of those data points and information to deliver more value to our partners.
The benefits of these applications will ultimately extend throughout the supply chain, bringing more efficiency, credibility and value to the UTZ standard and companies that are investing in sustainability.
“Looking even further ahead, 5+ years into the future, I see us being able to apply this new technology next to the certification system, to farming applications as well”, says Henk.
“For example, we may be able to say to farmers, ‘Okay we see low productivity in this area from degraded soils, we think it makes sense to invest in certain types of fertilizers.’ Or we may be able to send out warnings in advance if certain pests or diseases are likely to break out in a production area. The benefits of these applications will ultimately extend throughout the supply chain, bringing more efficiency, credibility and value to the UTZ standard and companies that are investing in sustainability.”
Want to know more about our first mile program or want to get involved and see how it can benefit your company? Contact us, and we’ll put you in touch with Henk.