2016 comes to an end, with major events like the Brexit-vote and the American election it has been an exciting year. It also brings the Farm Digital project to a close. It is attractive to sum up all the achievements of the project, but let me concentrate on some of the insights that I as a researcher (and my colleagues) learned about. More can be found in all the deliverables that are available on this website.
Compared to the start of the project, we are now much more in platform-thinking. For many years software in agriculture is available and some of it exchanges data between two parties. But a platform with at least three types of users (growers, food traders and auditors) was new. With Farm Digital partner Agriplace it could be shown that such a platform could be further designed and successfully introduced to more than 1000 farmers in several countries.
Linked to the platform-thinking we learned a lot about business models. By studying other applications, but also through the experience that the introduction of a platform is a social innovation where incentives for stakeholders are different in different countries. Auditing companies in South Africa have a lack of staff and travel long distances, so have a higher willingness to pay for the service than in the Dutch situation. Small cooperatives in Spain that do the administrative work for their growers are more in need for software than some Dutch growers that do not have a high opportunity cost on time saved.
Another topic is the governance of such platforms: who is allowed to decide. This turns out to be complicated in an international environment: indicators, even in a scheme with the same name like GlobalGap, differ. Child labour is more an issue in South Africa than in the Netherlands. Paperwork differs too. So software have to be adaptable to region and farm type and somebody has to prioritize such work and pay for it. It turns out that there are several alternatives to organise such networks.
Related is the issue of ownership of data and governance of the platform. This still is a challenge. For further development of such a global platform a few million euro is probably needed to make it a killer application. Venture capitalists could very well be willing to fund that, but then you end up in the stock market in a Facebook-like situation, even with the risk of a natural monopoly. Putting the farmers central in the governance of a platform seems to be a nice thing, but that leaves the financing issue unsolved.
Many platforms claim to be open. I learned that such a statement needs clarification. Of course they often want more users (farmers). But are they also open for new input suppliers or food processors, that will start using the platform of their competitors only if they get an equal voice in the decision making? And to get that position, do they need to take part in the finance and ownership of what is already developed?
The international character of the Farm Digital solution, learned me that the Netherlands could become a data hub that handles international agricultural data and sells services to the agricultural chains all over the world. That resonates with the emphasis that Mr. Martijn van Dam, our Minister of Agriculture, puts on export of machinery, services and knowledge. And is in line with an advice from the Dutch Council for the Environment and Infrastructure that the Mainports Rotterdam and Schiphol (also agricultural export and import hubs) are not the only areas for growth and government attention, but that Amsterdam with its IEX internet data exchange and Eindhoven with its high tech should be in the spotlight too. Of course we would add Wageningen to that list of hot spots.
Platforms like ours designed in Farm Digital and tested in Agriplace could be further developed in an ecosystem of services. An obvious example is to add a benchmarking service where farmers could use the data that they entered to compare their farm performance with those of others. But data could also be linked to scientific models, for instance to simulate plant growth when also real time internet of things data is added. This also implies strategy questions for the platform owner: is there time and money to move into such areas or does it make more sense to connect a platform to others (like EDI-circle, Akkerweb, 365FarmNet, LetsGrow, to name some familiar examples).
That brings me to the future. Although the major events in 2016 signal serious problems for the international trade environment, we keep working on projects that help the Netherlands and Europe to become a leader in the management of agricultural data. With data ownership becoming more clear and our knowledge on the importance of business models and governance from Farm Digital, we have already advised others, from the European Parliament to individual companies. In 2017 we start the project Data-FAIR which concentrates on the exchange of data between platforms to create new services for farmers with a business model that guarantees their sustainability. But first we hope to enjoy a seasonal break. On behalf of the project I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy a New Year.