Picture: 123RF/TIAGOZR
Picture: 123RF/TIAGOZR

A lack of access to data has hampered countries’ ability to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, and it’s clear that data must be a major component of rebuilding economies about the world.

What’s less clear is how to make the most of data and other related fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the internet of things (IoT). Too often complexities in the data ecosystem, including policy, regulatory or business barriers, lack of trust and issues with digitisation, stand in the way.  

The good news is that progress is being made that offers a path forward. Southern Africa offers key examples in how 4IR technologies can be enablers in getting access to trusted data and driving the economic rebound in the wake of Covid-19.

In Southern Africa emerging technologies are helping the livestock industry face the challenges of a commercial economy.

BKB, a 100-year-old SA-based agricultural company, is making use of 4IR technologies to lead its more than 100,000 clients into the digital age. Jaco Maass, GM of Shift DX, a separate company which BKB established to assist all players in the value chain with digital transformation challenges, says they have been applying 4IR technologies for years in the wool industry in SA, and now the model has been extended to the meat supply chain.

Animal RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags — which use both blockchain technology and AI — enable livestock farmers to generate, apply, analyse and share useful data as animals progress through the value chain (from transporters to feedlots to abattoirs to retailers to consumers).

4IR technologies can be a key enabler in solving inefficiencies in food systems, as well as  supporting income generation and productivity growth for farmers. Given the complexities of the food and agriculture sectors, and the fragmentation of food supply chains, data is key to reducing information asymmetries and improving decision making.

However, food systems lag behind other sectors in leveraging investments for technology innovations, especially in leveraging data and digital innovation to improve the efficiency and integrity of food value chains. An ecosystem approach, rooted in local opportunities, is needed to ensure diverse stakeholders from farm to fork have equal access and benefit from data and digital innovation.

4IR technologies enable communal farmer communities to enter the commercial auctioneering market, which they otherwise would not be able to access. RFID tags are uniquely assigned to each animal and, together with RFID weighing scales, enable trusted data on the animal to be added and written to a provenance and traceability ledger backed by  blockchain technology.

This improves the likelihood of data integrity, as the information system manages the flow of information between the farmer, feedlot, abattoir, retailers and other supply-chain players. Once ready, it accesses a commercial auctioneering market through a digital auction and provides access to bidders, who are then able to verify that the lot meets their own quality standards and the standards of their consumers.

These technologies enable a more transparent, resilient and trustworthy way of sharing data — and unlocking value. They ensure that the market does not discriminate on things such as the size of the farmer’s herd, but rather rewards the quality of the products. In doing so, they create more inclusive access.

These technological advances also allow for the responsible and ethical use of data. In addition to unlocking efficiencies in the value chain, this process can also generate premium prices for the farmer when they can prove certain standards were met. For example, the Responsible Wool Standard certification, which certifies that farmers meet rigorous animal welfare and land management requirements, has yielded up to 20% higher prices and demand in the wool market in a given season.

“With these new technologies, which can include artificial intelligence, blockchain, tokenisation and other, we can now accelerate more opportunities for emerging farmers than ever before to access, apply and use this data in ways previously not possible,” Maass said.

There is a lot of desire from society, governments, civil society and the private sector to access data that can be used for social good. Taking inspiration from this agricultural case study, the same 4IR technology enablers and ethical, inclusive data policies can be applied in domains such as health, environment, mobility and others.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently launched the global Data for Common Purpose Initiative to responsibly enhance the societal benefit from data. Individuals, private enterprise, civil society, research and government institutions will all benefit when data assets are exchanged to stimulate the transition from traditional to data-driven economies.

Aligned with the initiative, the WEF is also working with partners to catalyse regional food innovation hubs as a neutral, pre-competitive and multi-stakeholder platform that strengthens local innovation ecosystems and leverages data and broader innovation for food systems change.

The hubs will collaborate with diverse stakeholders — including, governments, private sector, farmers, investors, donors, and civil society —  to unlock investments, enable policy alignment, improve governance frameworks and capacity building, and thereby enabling shared value creation of assets such as data for food systems.

Promoting responsible and effective personal data protection regulation, breaking down data silos and improving the public’s understanding of these technologies can bring benefits to everyone.

• Hewett is Project Lead, Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology at the WEF.

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