We talked to Anne Jorun Aas, CEO at Farmforce about the digital solution to secure sustainable sourcing and she had the following to say about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Anne Jorun Aas: We are fortunately all fine and healthy. Norway has been less affected than some countries, but it’s currently under restrictions on how much you can meet with others. Luckily, schools are open again, and people, in general, have been closely following the government’s advice. Being able to work from home, especially when children are in school, also has had its advantages, though I do miss going and working with the team in our office. Since Farmforce is a global company with offices in four continents and several team members working remotely permanently, it hasn’t been a very difficult transition for us.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Farmforce.
Anne Jorun Aas: I started out as a nuclear physicist, doing experiments at CERN to get data to understand what you can’t see. Now, I’m heading Farmforce, and we also use data to understand equally complex systems – namely smallholders’ production in developing markets, what we call the first mile. From my Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry at the University of Oslo and CERN, I spent seven years at McKinsey and then served on executive teams and boards for governmental and private organizations focused on sustainability, technology, and innovation. Just before joining Farmforce, I was CEO of a sustainability consulting firm and SVP with an integrated solar power producer, similarly focused on turning sustainability into business opportunities.
In 2018, I was a pro-bono mentor with Katapult, a Norwegian impact investor and accelerator, where I was matched with Farmforce. Fascinated by the innovative platform, ability to address pressing global needs around sustainability, impact in developing countries (especially in Africa), and then drew back to the startup world, I accepted the CEO position after a few months of mentoring. It’s been quite a ride over the past two years, but we’ve seen our farmer reach double to over 550,000 smallholders and a more clear strategy focusing on international NGOs, multi-national corporations, and global impact investment firms as clients – ones that can use Farmforce to have a more equitable relationship with potentially millions of smallholder farmers across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
How does Farmforce innovate?
Anne Jorun Aas: We work closely with our clients – organizations engaging directly with smallholder farmers in emerging markets – to create, build, and scale solutions that can help solve real challenges in the field. We work to enable trust and transparency in the first mile of agricultural value chains through leveraging a digital platform for sustainable, traceable agricultural sourcing. As a cloud-hosted web and mobile platform, we support organizations to understand where their products originate and how they were grown. Farmforce is specifically focused on first mile operations, and our solution is designed to be practical and works successfully in challenging and remote locations.
We innovate by finding solutions with our customers, combining our diverse internal expertise with technical and field practicality. Deforestation is a major challenge our clients in the cocoa sector (currently deployed in Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Colombia, Cameroun, and Ghana) are facing. Since through using Farmforce, all farmer plots are GPS mapped, we were able to build functionality to enable companies to overlay the data on the areas they were buying Rainforest Alliance certified cocoa from (with full bag-level traceability so you can trace individual bags of cocoa back to specific farmers) with the Global Forest Watch Database that shows areas that have been recently deforested. Our clients can now monitor exactly where their cocoa is sourced from, ensuring it is not from National Parks, protected areas, or areas that have recently been deforested. This data also enables reforestation outreach programs, driven by transparent data and pragmatic IT solutions to combat deforestation.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Anne Jorun Aas: Pre-COVID, when new clients deployed the platform, we sent a team from one of our regional offices to help with training, configuration, and setup. Now with COVID, we aren’t able to travel; however, this has allowed us to further develop our capabilities around remote/virtual deployments. This is strategically important for Farmforce, even after COVID, as it will enable us to scale more quickly. To support, we have more offline training materials being routinely developed, including manuals and step by step training videos to support clients to continue to develop their understanding of using Farmforce. Our global team runs virtual training with more visuals, breaks up the intensive sessions with more interactive questions and answers, and alternates more between the web platform and mobile app.
We’ve also seen several projects delayed, and it’s just taking more time for new clients to come to a decision and schedule the platform setup and training. It’s understandable as there are very pressing needs as organizations and countries adjust to the new way of working with health pressures and movement restrictions.
Since we serve the agricultural and global food industries, the general demand for food has largely not been negatively impacted, and the industry as a whole is less affected than some. Two of our core markets, cocoa, and nuts have actually seen increased demand, with more emphasis on product traceability. Many of our clients are leveraging Farmforce’s digital platform to better reach farmers during these challenging times. As we determine impactful areas, we will continue to develop and roll them out to clients. One of are largest cocoa clients, Cargill in Cote d’Ivoire, reached over 130,000 smallholder farmers through Farmforce’s custom survey tool to mass disseminate information to field officers and cocoa cooperatives on government hand washing and hygiene recommendations (the Cargill Press Release).
The Clinton Development Initiative uses Farmforce in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Malawi to safely reach smallholder farmers without face-to-face interactions. They sent bulk SMSs via Farmforce to share COVID awareness, hygiene recommendations, and agricultural extension advice. Field Agents work remotely, collecting survey responses from farmers via the voice call, logging them in the Farmforce mobile app. These responses are synced in real-time to the cloud server, with all Clinton Foundation staff seeing the feedback online. This digital and remotely collect data from the farmers served to enable the Clinton Foundation team to rapidly formulate and roll-out plans to support farmers with the training, information, and resources required for minimal disruptions to crop production and local food supply.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Anne Jorun Aas: We face difficult decisions every day. Farmforce has recently closed a funding round and is rapidly growing in terms of our team and the clients we serve. It’s a constant effort to manage the day to day while also making strategic decisions for the company’s future. Also, as a startup, there’s the balance of spending for growth versus focusing on breaking even and being profitable. We must decide to what extent we should specialize and focus on a market niche – such as full traceability for cocoa, nuts, and other high priced certified products grown by smallholders – or develop our platform to serve wider audiences. As CEO, I have to lead these discussions, but I am incredibly fortunate to have a diverse team and Board of Directors, each bringing vast experience and unique perspectives. My job really is to facilitate the discussion, learn from my team, and make the final decision.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Anne Jorun Aas: With a remote and global company, we have weekly company-wide yoga sessions, led from our Oslo office. It’s great to see videos coming on from 8 different countries, with the teams joining for some stretching and breathing exercises, but more so to reinforce company morale and unity while we can’t travel to see each other in person. These strong colleague relationships are central to dealing with the more negative sides of stress and anxiety. Though it’s important to also see the positives of short term stress, using it as a motivating and focusing force, being careful not to let it overwhelm.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Anne Jorun Aas: Our competitors are generally digital farmer management platforms focusing on smallholder farmers. There are a few in the market, though our main competitors have difficult focuses and niches or have a much wider product offering than Farmforce’s focus on first-mile product traceability and working with INGOs and multi-national corporations. We must compete by constantly innovating, expanding our platform with user-friendly functionality that solves key client pain points, supported by excellent customer service.
Your final thoughts?
Anne Jorun Aas: Sustainability in global agriculture is so important and has so far to go. With energy and transport, there are many know solutions and at least an understanding of how to tackle their challenges. Agriculture has so many pressing, complex challenges. It will take a concerted effort from across the value chain and the global community to continue enacting positive change that in parallel supports smallholder farmer livelihoods and protects the environment. Farmforce is proud to be part of that discussion, working with clients and stakeholders to build trust and transparency.