This is the third 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 one, two, four, and five.
Food procurement company Envisible encompasses every level of the supply chain, working to ensure the seafood it supplies to grocery stores is fully traceable from catch to shelf. That mission was inspired by the founders’ past work to empower food producers with vital digital skills and tools.
Co-founder Mark Kaplan first learned about the power of technology to transform lives through his job with Pampers. Working for the diapers company in 2008, Kaplan helped launch a program in the Philippines where new mothers could text in a key word and be directed to health services in her area.
“That’s where I saw the first-hand impact of mobile in developing and emerging markets, and I never turned back from that,” Kaplan tells Food Tank.
Kaplan has worked on the ground in over 38 countries, including Kenya, Latam, and Russia. It was Indonesia, though, that introduced him to the seafood industry, as well as his Envisible co-founder, Jayson Berryhill.
In 2014, Kaplan’s startup Tone partnered with the U.S. Department of State, mobile technology coalition GSM Association, and the government of Indonesia to improve productivity of small-scale fishers in coastal communities. The goal of the program, called mFish, was to empower fishers while also gathering data on the ocean ecosystem.
Fishers were given a solar charger, a data plan, and a cheap smartphone that could run the mFish app, which was developed in collaboration with the fishers.
“Producers first is one of our themes,” Kaplan says of both mFish and Envisible. For mFish, the tech team continuously tested the app with fishers, using their feedback to adjust the display and usability.
The final app, launched in 2015, used satellite data of phytoplankton to guide the fishers to and from their catch. Fishers could log each haul on the app, and send messages to other users. mFish also enabled the workers to report illegal fishing.
The result was that the fishers’ time at sea was reduced by 80 percent. And mFish achieved “digital inclusion,” Kaplan tells Food Tank, which means that when the program concluded at the end of 2016, the fishers were paying for the mobile data packages themselves.
“The impact on their lives of something that would be viewed as incremental or underappreciated in the U.S. is what motivates me,” Kaplan tells Food Tank.
The experience also countered some misconceptions of low-wage workers.
“It’s frankly the ignorance of corporate people to assume that their workers are digitally illiterate. What we did is we helped fishers to use these applications, but they already knew how to use their mobile phones,” Kaplan tells Food Tank. “We gave them training and opportunity, but then they took ownership of it and earned their living.”
mFish showed Kaplan just how much of a difference being digitally skilled can have on a workers’ livelihood. By reducing their time at sea, the fishers were safer and spent less money on gas – but the impacts go beyond that, Kaplan says.
Training workers and providing them with digital tools can make them more visible in the supply chain, which could protect them from abuse, Kaplan tells Food Tank. A digitally skilled workforce is also more likely to have fair wages and the ability to create a bank account and access health care services, he adds.
Those benefits motivated Kaplan to help create the next iteration of a producer-empowering mobile app. After mFish ended, Kaplan accepted a full-time position with consumer goods company Unilever. There, in collaboration with several organizations including Grow Asia, he launched mFarmer. The mobile app was geared towards improving the productivity and sustainability of smallholder coconut sugar and palm oil farmers in Indonesia—industries that have been linked to widespread labor and human rights abuses. mFarmer could be used to report and distribute data such as the weather, optimal uses of fertilizers, and best practices in regards to sustainability.
While Envisible doesn’t feature the productivity tools of mFish and mFarmer, the time Kaplan spent working with first mile producers still shaped the building of the food procurement company. Kaplan knew the only way Envisible could ensure transparency would be to stretch from the beginning to the end of the supply chain.
“What I learned at Unilever was that sustainability had to be built in from the outset, with that connection to smallholder farmers,” Kaplan tells Food Tank. “And combined with what we learned at mFish and the capabilities that worked for the producers, that informed how we created Envisible. We built traceability into the fundamental specifications of the products that we sell.”
Photo courtesy of Devi Puspita Amartha Yahya, Unsplash