Using Data to Shine a Spotlight on Food Suppliers

This is the fifth part of a series exploring the history, technology, and partnerships of Envisible, a sustainable food procurement company aiming to make supply chains more transparent. Read parts onetwo, three, and four.

Food procurement company Envisible is utilizing identity verification technology to make food producers more visible within supply chains.

The mobile program, called ZenKey, is designed to protect and ensure the fair use of each user’s personal data. Additionally, Envisible aims to leverage its suppliers’ demand for the mobile technology to expand broadband in rural communities.

Envisible procures and sells sustainable, minimally processed food, thanks to a suite of traceability technologies housed within its sister company, Wholechain. The backbone of Wholechain is a blockchain technology that connects and illuminates each step of the supply chain. Each verified Wholechain user, including food producers, reports in as the product moves through the supply chain.

Envisible co-founder Mark Kaplan tells Food Tank that the verification is where ZenKey comes in. ZenKey is a joint venture between the three major telecommunications companies in the United States—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon—that uses a mobile phone account to verify identity.

Because mobile companies require photo identification to purchase a cellphone plan, they have verified data on each person with a registered account, Kaplan says. He goes on to explain that telecom networks are closed, which means no person or company can mine or sell the data.

One of the biggest problems in food sourcing, Kaplan says, is that the identity of farmers, fishers, or other producers in supply chains is often opaque.

“I think it’s one of the top three main issues that’s plagued the food system,” Kaplan tells Food Tank. “So much food, particularly in the U.S, is consolidated with a few overly empowered players.”

Large food companies in the U.S. source from a variety of contracted farms, making it difficult to determine the source of a product on a grocery store shelf. By requiring each of its users to login to Wholechain via ZenKey, Envisible can quickly and easily verify the identity of its suppliers—and confirm where its products are coming from.

But having a mobile-based traceability platform isn’t accessible for all Envisible food producers. Some of its fishers, particularly in Alaska, lack connectivity. And as Envisible looks to expand into pork products, the company has found that hog farms in Indiana don’t have access to high-speed internet, Kaplan says.

That is part of the reason the company is working with the Refresh Working Group to expand broadband access to farmers and fishers interested in a ZenKey-verified Wholechain account. The Refresh Working Group brings together food, agriculture, and technology experts from across the U.S. to discuss the potential role of technology in food and agriculture systems.

“Envisible has submitted a proposal to ZenKey to expand broadband access,” Kaplan tells Food Tank. “The more suppliers that need access, the more of a business case ZenKey has for building more broadband towers.”

ZenKey hasn’t signed off on the proposal yet, but luckily Kaplan has experience expanding mobile access to rural communities.

In 2014, Kaplan’s startup Tone worked with the government of Indonesia to improve productivity of small-scale fishers in coastal communities as part of a program called mFish. Tone also partnered with the local telecom company XL Axiata to build a small cell tower in the fishing village.

“The proposal was that these fishers could become paying high speed mobile subscribers,” Kaplan tells Food Tank. “And when we released mFish and the fishers saw its capabilities were improving trade, nearly all of them did become paying high speed mobile subscribers.”

Kaplan is hopeful the same thing can happen in the U.S. By showing ZenKey that remote farmers and fishers are interested in paying for broadband, Kaplan aims to expand access and grow his base of Wholechain users.

Photo courtesy of Nick Fewings, Unsplash

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