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Engaging with the West Rand Mega Park: a Discussion

The Virtual Farmers’ Lab did not disappoint, and we hosted a robust discussion that highlighted many of the key issues we should know about the Farm 2 Fork system at the West Rand Mega Park. The Farm 2 Fork system is in fact the central feature of the West Rand Mega Park and it is this digital system that brings forward the innovative features and renewal of the food system we are interested in.

The Farm 2 Fork system is a significant piece of digital innovation that can bring great renewal to how we trade fresh produce. In this Virtual Lab we hosted Slaven Gajovic and Mitesh Chotu from the Farm 2 Fork system at the West Rand Mega Park, Mphuthi Mphuthi from Heroooe’s Circles in Soweto, Maleka Mogale and Tumelo Pule from AB Farms and Fazlur Pandor from Urban Fresh.

The West Rand Mega Park and F2F in a sense represent how we may be trading food in the near future. Not only are we seeing the development of a large digital system, but this system is integrated with real-life structures and processes. The WRMP aims to recycle all its industrial effluent, generate its own power, process all biowaste and on top of this synergistic system, build programmes to link farmers deeply with the park and F2F system.

This discussion was called to spread understanding of the benefits and opportunities accompanying this new system of trading produce. In the discussion, we could clarify how this trade will take place and what farmers can do to benefit from this trade.

The F2F systems at the WRMP are open access systems designed so anyone can participate in the trade and exchange of goods. The 170 Ha industrial part will make available training opportunities for farmers to get to know these systems. The Park itself is comprehensive, and this indicates the need for such training. The Park will include trading spaces for all fresh produce including fish. There is also space to cater for Weddings and Funerals and the Park is designed to link substantively with the community.

The systems at the Park are designed so the smaller farmer can participate as the larger farmers do. All equipment and facilities are open for a pay per use basis, and most facilities, from forklifts to storage are provided. This levels the playing field and accommodates smaller farmers in this system. The system is also a smart system, that aims at open access and ensuring the highest quality produce is traded. This flows into Agri-processing facilities, and transport networks can enable produce to reach Rotterdam in 3 weeks from the WRMP. The WRMP will also acquire Special Economic Zone status and this will enable secondary economic activity on site.

The Farm 2 Fork system is a digital platform that can mobilise and organise farmers. Farmers need to register on the page. This is the first step that farmers must complete, and this activates the F2F systems. Data needs to be added to this page, and this digitises the trade and this information or data is needed to enable the F2F system to start working. The facilities will be expanded as the market develops but at the moment includes:

· Micro-training opportunities;

· Smart weather alerts;

· Smart logistics;

· Pre-sales; and’

· Blockchain.

The Second phase of the F2F system will facilitate financial transactions as well. The F2F systems can work anywhere and with anyone and becomes a central point for smart contracts, and also smart insurance.

The Farm 2 Fork systems can also help in developing the Township Economy. It offers a solution on how to integrate and orchestrate value chains with technology. This enables farmers to gain access to retailers and to reduce transaction costs. This optimises logistics and communication. One of the aims of this system is to support Spaza shops with the sub-systems that are available. The systems can organise buyers and also farmers into groups. These groups can act as the basis for more streamlined and efficient trade.

The transacting mechanism that the system makes possible links to local retailers and can eliminate duplication. The analytics on the value chain is also available to farmers and traders and this can enhance trade even further.

The F2F system also include Artificial Intelligence and can analyse plant stress and growth with satellite imagery.

The AI can also matchmake spaza shops and consumers and centralise the data and analytics so BIG data can be analysed. This is what can generate new value propositions for farmers. This could include a new alternative credit rating that can be linked to the micro-learning systems available. These systems enable unlimited access amongst stakeholders and this AI platform can enable new interaction amongst farmers and stakeholders at zero or very low cost.

The above system was presented to our critical discussants.

Mphuthi Mputhi mentioned the sensitivity of township retailers to costs. The F2F system makes available an airtime facility that enables farmers to call and message each other at almost no cost. This will crowd-in farmers underneath the F2F systems and farmers can organise amongst themselves in order to gain the most advantage from these systems. This seems to be the central insights into the F2F systems: it allows farmers to re-organise themselves to gain access to these systems and this is how farmers can maximise their own advantage. This needs to be well understood and farmers can experiment in how they can serve this opportunity best. The F2F systems can in turn aim to facilitate farmers mobilising amongst themselves, as they are doing with the special deals on airtime.

The reality on the ground at the moment is that township traders are captured by food processors and the bulk of sales in spaza shops are of highly processed foods. Mphuthi Mphuthi mentioned that they want to develop a value chain for fresh produce as this has nutritional advantages and also value chain advantages as few processors will share in the revenue from such a chain of highly proceed food. This may also point towards local food processing opportunities. This seemed to identify a few important business opportunities for these nascent systems and we will be keeping an eye pen to see if this opportunity can be taken up!

Maleka Mogale expressed his excitement about this new system in Protea Soweto.

He mentioned that this new opportunity can streamline the value chain and ensure higher quality produce is available. He foresaw that distributors can aggregate and act as one buyer. The system seemed to also be able to cater for elderly farmers and accommodate them too. He inquired about extension officers, and this is an interesting question: how can we conceptualise the role of agricultural, processing and retail extension in this new system?

Fazlur Pandor from Urban Fresh emphasised that this system clarifies how we can trade together with both smaller and larger farmers. It seemed the F2F system create solutions for many issues, and it is exciting to see AI actively involved in identifying quality produce. Fazlur also emphasised that these systems may solve some of the problems of dealing with many producers at the same time. He emphasised the prevalence of human-type problems in the value chain, and this is a real challenge for Artificial Intelligence. He emphasized the benefits of aggregating in one packhouse as this will reduce risk significantly. AI could also help in homogenising produce, but he emphasised that he always needs a skilled person receiving goods. However, AI may help in the timing of harvests and the logistics challenges they encounter.

Our discussants made several important points of clarification, and this in turn enabled Mitesh and Slave to respond further. Mitesh emphasised that people in almost all cases can augment technology. Artificial Intelligence can be trained to identify homogenous produce and can help in many of the tasks our discussants identified.

The AI system can also help in augmenting trust and transparency amongst farmers. The system will allow a whole Cooperative to load themselves onto the system and they can then organise amongst themselves so they can deliver to the system. This can then be augmented by say a NVDI – normalised vegetative difference index analysis – which checks by satellite how much plant material is growing on your farm which enable your harvest to be predicted and possibly sold before harvest. This enables sales during a longer stretch of time and this can bring in a higher price for the farmer as more interest can be gleaned during this longer “harvest” time. Mitesh emphasised that this system crates a platform for collaborating business to work together. It will cost less than R 100 to test the system.

It seems the F2F system enable farmers to organise amongst themselves to aggregate production. F2F also contracts out the logistics to another provider, and this system in a sense creates an a opportunity for farmers to mange their own groups so these groups can trade in synergy. The system is thus not comprehensive, but depends on farmers to develop their own systems amongst themselves so they can aggregate amongst themselves. At the end, we would need a hybrid system, that mixes farmers own organising with the affordances the F2F system makes available. This is the normal way in which we innovate and shape all our socio-technical systems.

We need to allow farmers to start trading on these systems for us to see how they can best respond. However, this is a new and different proposition to searching for individual buyers or to sell at the JFPM, which is highly dependent on low supply to achieve the best (farmers’) price, and is also open to influence by informal traders through the Mandela Market. We should welcome a large new buyer in our food system, and we anticipate interesting changes in the food system in the near future.

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