From crop to cup: tea com­pany uses blockchain tech­nol­ogy to raise yields

The National - News - - IN DEPTH BUSINESS - Carrington Malin is an en­tre­pre­neur, mar­keter and writer who fo­cuses on emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies

One of the most mem­o­rable lines from sci-fi com­edy The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the in­tro­duc­tion to its tea-drink­ing, cen­tral pro­tag­o­nist Arthur Dent. The orig­i­nal ra­dio script of Dou­glas Adams says of Dent: “He no more knows his des­tiny than a tea leaf knows the his­tory of the East In­dia Com­pany.”

Tea was a re­cur­ring theme in Adams’ work, not least of all be­cause it pro­vided a point of con­trast. What could be more far re­moved from sto­ries of space travel, ro­bots and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence than the hum­ble tea leaves?

It seems tea may not be that far re­moved from tech­nol­ogy these days at all. The des­tiny of a tea leaf may soon be tracked in some de­tail, al­low­ing tea drinkers any­where in the world to see ex­actly where the leaves came from.

Last week, the 180-year-old tea pro­ducer As­sam Com­pany in In­dia un­veiled plans to in­tro­duce AI, Big Data and blockchain to help in­crease tea plan­ta­tion out­put by nearly five times to reach a tar­get of 50 mil­lion kilo­grams of tea within the next five years.

Asia has be­come a mas­sive con­sumer of agritech and Asian agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers will spend bil­lions of dol­lars on AI over the next few years. So, it should come as no sur­prise that In­dia has al­ready de­vel­oped a va­ri­ety of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies to in­crease agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion.

For ex­am­ple, In­dia’s gov­ern­ment pol­icy unit Niti Aayog (which has been tasked with de­vel­op­ing the na­tional AI strat­egy) re­cently part­nered with IBM to em­ploy the tech­nol­ogy to de­velop crop yield mod­els. IBM In­dia will soon also launch pi­lot stud­ies in three In­dian states to help sup­port lo­cal farm­ers make de­ci­sions with im­proved data on weather, wa­ter and soil to boost pro­duc­tiv­ity.

In the con­text of how emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies are trans­form­ing mod­ern industries, it makes per­fect sense that the agri­cul­tural sec­tor should use this new tech­nol­ogy to col­lect and an­a­lyse farm data bet­ter, fore­cast weather more ac­cu­rately and iden­tify ef­fi­cien­cies to in­crease pro­duc­tion.

What is in­ter­est­ing about the As­sam Com­pany’s tech plans is how they will af­fect not only pro­duc­tion at the tea plan­ta­tion and ef­fi­ciency in the sup­ply chain, but the ac­tual con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence of buy­ing and drink­ing tea.

The old­est tea farm­ing com­pany in the world, As­sam Com­pany was orig­i­nally in­cor­po­rated in the UK by the Royal Char­ter of the Bri­tish Em­pire in 1839, within weeks of the first ship­ment of tea leaves from In­dia’s As­sam re­gion be­ing auc­tioned in Lon­don.

Last year, the com­pany was bought by Abu Dhabi busi­ness­man B R Shetty, via BRS In­vest­ment, after an ex­tended pe­riod of fi­nan­cial un­cer­tainty for the tea grower. The As­sam Com­pany has 14 plan­ta­tions across the In­dian state of As­sam and pro­duces 11 mil­lion kilo­grams of tea, all picked by hand in the tra­di­tional method.

Post-ac­qui­si­tion, Mr Shetty is lead­ing an am­bi­tious strat­egy to trans­form the his­toric tea pro­ducer into a 21st-cen­tury dig­i­tal en­ter­prise, which will also im­prove the lives of its 26,000 farm­ers. As­sam Com­pany held a seven-day tech­nol­ogy work­shop ear­lier this month at its flag­ship Mai­jan Tea Es­tate, to­gether with US agritech com­pany SmartFarms to help cre­ate so­lu­tions for the tea busi­ness us­ing Big Data, blockchain and AI.

Among its goals is to use AI to in­creas­ingly use farm data and smart drones to more ac­cu­rately spray plants with pes­ti­cides and fer­tilis­ers, As­sam Com­pany also aims to de­velop a so­phis­ti­cated blockchain sys­tem that tracks tea crops through­out the sup­ply chain.

The global food in­dus­try is be­com­ing a big user of blockchain tech­nol­ogy. Food sup­ply chains can be highly com­plex, to the ex­tent that the ori­gin of food in­gre­di­ents can be dif­fi­cult or even im­pos­si­ble to trace. A cer­tain per­cent­age of loss has al­ways been built into food sup­ply chains due to prod­uct de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, dis­ease or sim­ply poor man­age­ment. For this rea­son, Nes­tle, Unilever, Wal­mart and oth­ers are de­vel­op­ing blockchain so­lu­tions.

As­sam Com­pany and SmartFarms are de­vel­op­ing a blockchain sys­tem that will trace the des­tiny of a tea leaf from the worker that picked it off the tree, right through to the con­sumer pur­chas­ing it any­where in the world. The sys­tem will pro­vide im­mutable proof of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, au­then­tic­ity and qual­ity as­sur­ance.

The up­shot of all this is that a tea drinker in Dubai, Lon­don or New York will soon be able to use a mo­bile app to trace where the leaves for their cup of tea came from, chang­ing the na­ture of the drink­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for­ever.

The tea drinker will be able to not only ver­ify the re­gion and farm from which the leaves orig­i­nated, but even see which farmer has plucked the leaves.

The new sys­tem will also al­low you to do some­thing that has been so far com­pletely im­pos­si­ble to do via tra­di­tional sup­ply chain mod­els: thank the per­son that picked your tea leaves.

As­sam Com­pany plans to make it pos­si­ble for a tea drinker, any­where in the world, to also be able to re­ward the farm­worker. I’m sure that Adams would have ap­proved.


As­sam Com­pany and SmartFarms are de­vel­op­ing a sys­tem that will trace a tea leaf from the worker that picked it to the con­sumer

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