Ahead of his panel at the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week, we spoke to Suresh Sundararajan, President & Group Head, Strategic Investments & Corporate Functions at Olam International.

Suresh Sundararajan, President & Group Head, Strategic Investments & Corporate Functions, Olam International.

Suresh is based at Olam’s headquarters in Singapore and has been a part of Olam’s journey since 1996. Suresh shares his insights on the most prominent obstacle for sustainable agriculture production and what is needed to overcome it, as well as the strategic partnerships and solutions Olam are investing in.

What’s the biggest obstacle for sustainable agricultural production and development that you want to see fixed within the next 3-5 years? What collaboration is needed for that to happen?

Achieving scale, particularly in rural areas where there is limited connectivity, is one of the biggest obstacles to sustainable agriculture. This is where digital comes in – in helping extend our presence and connect with stakeholders such as smallholder farmers in these less developed areas. We are actively focusing on Ag Tech solutions that can have a long-lasting impact on small holder farmers, where Olam has a dominant presence.

We have many long-standing programmes across the world, but technology today is driving greater impact potential. Still, we can only make real and greater progress if we partner with others – no one party will have the resources to reach all stakeholders in its value chain.

For example, Olam shared our proprietary Olam Farmer Information System (OFIS) technology with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to help improve coffee farmer livelihoods while preventing forest encroachment at Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBNSP) in Indonesia. Olam had launched OFIS so we could map information such as individual farms and survey the farmer and their farm setup by asking questions about the age of their trees and their living standards; we then review the data and see where there are problems and how to address them.

Olam is introducing technology that is allowing smallholders to survey their farms.

By sharing the tech behind OFIS with WCS, the partnership will allow for tailored training and incentives to farmers for production of legal and deforestation-free coffee from around the National Park. Over 20,000 smallholder coffee farmers in the BBNSP landscape will benefit from our partnership with WCS. [With over 370,000 farmers across multiple products registered on OFIS, we hope to see further digital collaboration to drive positive change for our world.]

Olam has also been running the Olam Food Prize for Innovation in Food Security in partnership with Agropolis Fondation since 2014 to award grants to scale up proven research by innovators around the world that has potential impact on the availability, accessibility or adequacy of food. The 2019 Prize was awarded to a pioneering mapping approach that is re-imagining subsistence farming. The approach, called Innovation Mapping for Food Security (IM4FS), will give smallholder farmers a ‘best fit’ for what to grow, where and how, with a potential to improve productivity in food insecure areas and countries.

What’s Olam’s innovation strategy – what particular solutions and partnerships are you investing in and hunting for? How has your innovation strategy evolved, and what’s next?

Olam has always fostered an entrepreneurial spirit that encourages disruption and innovation. Today, we are unlocking value for ourselves and farmers at the same time meeting the changing needs of our customers through digital innovation across 3 areas – Olam Direct, Olam Inside and Olam Forward.

Olam has created a platform that allows farmers to receive daily prices updates for their specific commodity and location.

Conceived in 2016, Olam Direct harnesses the power of digital technology to bring unprecedented transparency and traceability to the supply chain. Here’s how it works: once registered on the platform, farmers receive daily prices updates for their specific commodity and location. They can then transact directly with Olam. Using their phone or with the assistance of a “Farmer Lead” designated in their community, they can raise a sales intent, fix a contract and sell at the price of their choosing, and receive payment with the assurance of a digital ledger. By by-passing intermediaries and with market price visibility, farmers receive a higher and fairer price for their product. Across the 11 countries where Olam Direct is today, farmers are experiencing at least a 3-5% increase in the value received for their product. We believe Olam Direct will transform first mile procurement forever.

Olam Inside consists of two initiatives – AtSource and Customer Digital Engagement Portals.

AtSource is a comprehensive sustainable sourcing solution for traceability and on-the-ground impact. Having core metrics supports the integrity of the AtSource offering, enabling a customer purchasing multiple products to have a common dashboard. AtSource also allows for additional product and origin specific metrics to reflect our customers’ desire for tailored insights and solutions and is further designed to have relevance to global initiatives, such as sustainability certifications, and reporting frameworks such as Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Olam’s Digital Engagement Portals are omni-channel initiatives that aim to provide a complete, personalised B2C experience for the B2B food industry. The ambition is for a one-stop portal that lets customers research Olam’s products, place an order, view order history, shipment documents, contract balances, product traceability data, real-time handling and shipping rates, track the delivery status and assess the social environmental footprint of purchases simply at the click of a mouse or on a mobile phone.

Lastly, Olam Forward cuts across 3 initiatives including: i) Smart Factories; ii) Smart Farms; iii) Smart Supply Chain which includes applying performance data driven decision making in our upstream farming and plantation operations, using drone data, planting, fertiliser usage, weather and climate, production and harvesting information etc, to empower better quality farm management decisions.

Suresh Sundararajan, President & Group Head, Strategic Investments & Corporate Functions, Olam International will join the panel: ‘Digital Platforms: Empowering Farmers through Affordable, Accessible AgTech’ on Wednesday November 20 at the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week.

Listen to the podcast ‘Digital Solutions for Farming in Asia‘ in which Suresh shares even more insight into Olam’s focus and innovation strategy around digital agtech (Suresh speaks from 22:40).