"Digital technologies offer smallholders the chance to fundamentally transform their livelihoods, so we are working in a very exciting space."
- David Ryan
Can you introduce our readers to the Digital Innovation Lab and what it has set out to achieve?
DR: Our leadership team designed the lab late last year and we have five strategic digital initiatives focused on increasing smallholder productivity and the experiences of our channel partners. We are focused on creating transformation in both behaviors and mindset, and these goals were the key elements that we focused on when we had our “how” conversation.
We knew that connecting with our intended customers through conventional means would be frustrating, bureaucratic and too slow for what we need to achieve. Instead, we have “digital champions” based at a local geography level that are the heartbeat of the work that we are doing. We also established an innovation lab, specifically in Singapore, with the goal of providing a portal between the Syngenta organization and the digital ecosystem that exists in Singapore. The people in the lab really determine its success. We reached out to the global Syngenta organization to find the people with the experience and drive to push digitalization.
DS: Engaging with our customer bases goes far beyond simply creating digital tools like apps. We need to drive an emotional connection with our target demographics, and tailor our approaches to who they are. This is true to all industries - for example, digital banking did not kick off immediately after the apps were created, but required engagement with users in order to persuade them to incorporate it into their lives - but particularly with agriculture, we need to be able to appeal to 55-year-old farmers who are not familiar with digital technology.
How are you seeing the demographic in the ASEAN region change and how are you addressing it?
DR: As recently as eight years ago when I first came to Asia, the landscape was very different. Mobile phones were not as ubiquitous as they are now; channel partners were using physical log books and cash transactions, and so there was little connection between the farmed land and the value chain. Today, 96% of the 450 million smallholders in APAC own a mobile phone, and we are seeing channel partners leap forward in terms of technology. We are not witnessing a traditional evolution from logbook to fax machine to computer; they are leapfrogging straight into using tablet computers to manage their businesses. There is such a development in terms of ability to connect to the value chain downstream. Digital technologies offer smallholders the chance to fundamentally transform their livelihoods, so we are working in a very exciting space.
What is the importance for Syngenta of leveraging on Industry 4.0 technologies?
DR: At Syngenta, we recognize that we are in the midst of a digital revolution, and we view Industry 4.0 as both an era and a way of working. We approach topics like data analysis, robotics and backend software solutions with the intention of playing a lead role in making the digital revolution a success.
How is Syngenta utilizing the Unilever Foundry to collaborate with companies from other industries?
DR: Data is the common denominator in everything that we do. Our work is focused on making engagement with data more accessible; for example, we are working with a med-tech start-up that has created a system which consists of a mobile phone, a blood pressure sensor and some wearable elements. Incorporating a mobile phone as an integral element removes all of the barriers to entry to med-tech, for example for those in rural areas. We are considering how to transfer these ideas and these technologies cross-industry. We may transfer some of the technologies that we are using in med-tech into agrochemicals; for example, the Bluetooth chips that we use to measure blood pressure may also have applications in agriculture such as measuring soil acidity.
DS: At Syngenta, we are leapfrogging adjacent technologies that are innovated in other industries, which accelerates the progress of our development. This kind of collaboration is fairly unique not only to Syngenta but also to Singapore because Singapore is so small. In other countries that are focused on digital innovation such as the UK, there may be 14 or 15 digital hubs throughout the country specializing in different things, but because they are far apart, the connection between specializations is not as strong. In Singapore, all of the hubs are joined together and it is a real hotbed for innovation, which is why we locate our innovation lab here. The digital intensity in Singapore is unprecedented in terms of scope, capability and opportunities to connect to the digital ecosystem.
What challenges are you facing in terms of connectivity across APAC?
DS: We face challenges in terms of connectivity in more remote regions in APAC, but this actually turns into an advantage for us as we are able to experiment more. We have a base of 450 million smallholders, which allows us to experiment quickly. In a bigger market, you can do lots of small sprints, whereas in the UK you could only do 4 or 5 experiments per quarter. Digital is the key to unlocking the productivity challenges that we are facing. The conventional approach towards unlocking productivity has limitations because of scope and cultural aspects, and digital takes this away.
We have had particular success with line engagement in Thailand. In a period of 30 days, we progressed from capturing growers’ details on a clipboard and translating them into QR codes. By leapfrogging into the existing technology and capabilities of the capture mechanism, we were able to completely change the landscape. We are working to educate our workforce to be digitally savvy, and there is definitely a generational divide. If you can capture a farmer through their children, who have been digitally engaged for their whole lives, this education is easier. We empower our smallholders to make timely decisions to improve their productivity, and to work around traditional constraints regarding credit and product purchasing. Empowering smallholders is where the game changes, and that is why we are so excited about our experimentation in Thailand.