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Commitment is at the heart of their activity. These women and men are inspired by the world to act differently and sustainably, and to make their environment a path of expression, creativity, innovation or solidarity. Finance, culture, crafts, industry or media are all fields embodied by these personalities, who have agreed to be in cahoots with us for a meeting to share their universe.

Michael has been CEO of farmer connect® since June 2020 and is a passionate advocate of his mission to humanise consumption through technology. His years spent at food giants such as Nestlé and Mondelēz have given him a deep understanding of the challenges facing the coffee and chocolate industries.
Based in Geneva, farmer connect offers a blockchain platform that allows farmers, consumers and intermediaries to digitally connect to agricultural supply chains, promising to ensure traceability and data validation by all parties.
Michael is fascinated by technology, great food and how they can be brought together.
He likes his morning coffee black, fruity and light but above all fair to people and the planet.  

Hello Michael, you joined farmer connect® a year and a half ago. What brought you into this world of companies working to generate change towards greater sustainability? 
It's a real construction. I have a passion for all aspects of technology. I got my first computer at the age of 6, I'm a real geek, and at the same time I'm passionate about the food industry. I really like this industry because it is close to people and behaviours, it is very concrete. When the opportunity came up to work with farmer connect®, to take the company from where it was and bring it to growth, there was a kind of logic between technology on the one hand and agri-food on the other. And then at my advanced age now (laughs), to try to make a difference. This difference we want to make, especially at the origin of the products made by the industries we work with, to try to create more value and remuneration at the origin of the products and shared value by bringing everyone along. It's not just the idea of being change activists but it's also about being federators, creating an ecosystem and making sure that people understand that if we don't all work together from the beginning of the chain - from the farmer-producer to the consumer - we don't ultimately make a difference on a large scale. So that's what really motivated me in this farmer connect® adventure. 
It was like an alignment of the planets that made you find your place?
Yes, it's a kind of marriage in heaven. It's both something I'm passionate about personally, the technical aspect, but it's also functional because it's my job, my expertise, so I know what to do. I have found a real mission. 
Can you explain what farmer connectWhat is your vision and what are you doing to participate in this transition to sustainability?
The vision of farmer connect® is to humanise consumption through technology, that's really our mission. And how do we do that, by providing products that contribute to product traceability, transparency behind those products and promote a more sustainable agriculture and value chain. We do this with the help of three tools.
The first deals with the origin of the products: at the moment there is really a big problem at the level of the first kilometre, it is really a murky area, a black box. We don't really know what's going on, it's difficult to go into detail down to the level of the farmer. We have a product which is a kind of electronic wallet: you buy a wallet, it's empty and then you put notes, coins, shopping lists, loyalty cards, credit cards, photos of your children... It will start to look like you. We do the same with farmers and we also offer them to validate the information they put in their wallet with a third party, who will say "yes, I bought or sold such and such a product, at such and such a volume, at such and such a price, this farmer has such and such agricultural practices, he has such and such certificates, he has been in existence for such and such a long time, he works with such and such a number of partners, he has a family, we can see the size of his field, he has never cut down trees next to his field, he uses such and such a volume of water, he emits such and such a volume of CO2, etc. This system makes it possible to inform and validate the information on the origin of products.
It is important to stress that producers remain masters of their data, they own it and they decide where and how it is shared. It is very important for us not to generate a kind of digital neo-colonialism, except that there is a big risk and we have seen in recent years that technology can be used for virtuous or imperialist purposes.
The second tool is a platform that sits in the middle, between the farmers and the consumers. It is a blockchain into which all the data at each stage of coffee production is entered, from the farmer to the dry grinder, wet grinder, port of export, shipping, port of import, warehouse, retailer and finally the brand. At each stage the data enters this chain which is by definition unforgeable and immutable, like all the properties of the blockchain. 
That's actually the added value of using blockchain, it's really to make data more reliable and secure?
Yes, it's a technology that allows different actors to contribute without the actors having to share in a totally transparent and open way all the data of everybody, which would not work in the society we live in. And above all it is immutable, i.e. there is a real incentive to enter verified and correct data because you can always go back, you can always know who, when, what and where the data has been integrated. 
 
And so no one can change or falsify existing data?
Indeed it is immutable once the data is entered into the blockchain. That doesn't mean that the information is correct, it can be false, but in reality there is very little motivation to enter false data because as it is immutable you can be caught by the system, which actually pushes for good practices.
To continue on blockchain, a subject that can be difficult to grasp, it is at the heart of your concept, without it you wouldn't have been able to create these solutions right?
Yes, that was really the origin of the design of farmer connect®, which was born in a value chain. You create a chain and this chain is made up of papers, receipts, cash, emails, Excel files, phone calls. It is still subject to a lot of errors, problems and falsifications. If we want to create trust and value, it has to be more solid and blockchain is an excellent way of ensuring this. It has multiple applications but for the supply chain it is a really good solution. It's almost in the name!
We made the costly but also beneficial choice to partner with one of the biggest blockchain players at the time, which was IBM. It has been our strategic partner from the beginning because we don't just want to do pilots or proofs of concept here and there, we want to make a real difference at the value chain level. That's why we needed a trusted partner so that we could offer security and trust, accelerate and develop very quickly because our customers are big companies. They may be doing a pilot with us but we will already have discussed scalability with them because we are talking about tens of thousands of tons of raw materials that could become traceable, transparent and verifiable. We absolutely had to be equipped for this and that is why we made the choice from the start to work with IBM.
Finally, there is a third product: once you have made all these efforts, you either keep it to yourself or you talk about it. It still makes sense to share with consumers and explain how it is done, which is why we have created a product called "Thank My Farmer which gives access to all the stages in the manufacture of the product thanks to a QR code. It's a web app so there's no need to register or download an application, just take your phone and flash the QR code.
The other thing that allows "Thank My Farmer is to support the sustainable development projects at the origin of the products. If I take the example of the product in front of me, it is a 100% Indonesian coffee produced by UCC, one of the biggest roasters in the world. This coffee is a 100% Indonesian single origin and it just so happens that Indonesia is also the home of the orangutan. This brand is called Orang-Utan and supports sustainable development projects in the Indonesian forest to preserve the environment of these great apes. As a consumer you can participate and support these projects through our application by liking, sharing or donating money, any amount in any currency. The brand itself contributes the equivalent of the amount donated by the consumer. 
Chocolate and coffee are known to be quite environmentally and ethically unfriendly due to the greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use and environmental impact of their production and consumption. Would you say that your solutions contribute to making these industries cleaner?
Yes, I think so, and there are two aspects: on the one hand there is everything that is practical around agriculture and then on the other hand there are the farmers as such. 
When we look at the curves and rates for coffee over the last twenty years, they are either stable or decreasing, whereas world demand has exploded. And if we look ahead to 2050, we have a demand that is multiplied by three because the Indians and the Chinese are starting to drink coffee. It's an explosion, it's really exponential. If we put ourselves in the shoes of a farmer in Rwanda, when the curves show stagnation or decline, would he recommend that his children continue to grow coffee? In principle, no. So what do we do? Do we improve their living conditions and remuneration, or do we do nothing and they convert? In the industry we have no more supply, we can't meet the demand. There is a huge problem, we may find ourselves in ten or twenty years, as selfish little Westerners who love our morning coffee, not having any. And then there's global warming and all the problems with certain crops that are in real danger of disappearing. For example, there are only two types of coffee, Robusta, which grows on the plains and is fairly stable, and Arabica, which grows at an altitude of 1,000 metres. In ten or fifteen years, we may have to climb to 1,400 metres to be able to continue to supply Arabica, even though it is the most noble coffee found in all the premium brands. So there are a lot of threats. 
By the way, a third species of coffee has been discovered or rediscovered, very close to the Arabica, can you tell me about it?
Yes indeed, they found a species of wild coffee that was already known but had been abandoned in favour of the more productive robusta. There is a lot of hope behind the stenophylla There is a lot of hope behind the stenophylla, because crossing it with either of the other two species could make them more resistant to climate change and even improve their taste, in the case of robusta.
 
What are the major challenges ahead for these sectors if we try to summarise them? 
The first and foremost issue is to ensure that farmers always have something to do and in particular something to produce, not only for the industry but also for themselves. We certainly don't want them all to turn to exotic crops that supply the suburbs and streets of our cities because they grow faster than coffee or cocoa. So the challenge is to support local agriculture, to support and promote a minimum wage for all these people and also to ensure that agricultural practices become more virtuous.
Another challenge is to ensure that deforestation is curbed, that less water is used, less fertiliser is used, that carbon sequestration is promoted and that regenerative agriculture is developed. All this becomes possible because farmers and producers have a longer term vision, they are more informed, more connected, more digitalised, more transparent and value is more shared. In some countries, farmers are tearing up their entire crop because the rate for one crop has dropped 15 points and they are switching to palm oil, soya or rubber. It's dramatic because we impoverish the soil, we use a lot of water and when the soil is no longer rich enough, we cut down whole swathes of forest in order to find fertile soil.
The impact we want to have is to help generate more shared value, transparency and traceability, which then allows us to have a premium on the price because the consumer is willing to review his consumption behaviour and consume less but better. This premium must absolutely be linked to the origin of the products. We already have proof that this works.
We have a partnership with Cooxupé which is the largest coffee cooperative in the world and is located in Brazil. It's a single cooperative that represents the equivalent of the fifth largest coffee producing country in the world, and Brazil is the largest producer. They send 60 million 60 kg bags of coffee per year around the world. Thanks to us they are already marketing traced coffee and selling it at a higher price: one of their clients, a coffee trading company called Sucafina (the founder of Farmer Connect was one of them) paid a premium and decided to give 50% of this premium to the farmers and the other 50% to local sustainable development projects because they know that as a trader they will be able to sell this coffee at a higher price to their client. The customer knows that this coffee is traced, so he will be able to claim it from a consumer point of view, who will be reassured and who will potentially buy this coffee more willingly than another one. The brand is happy, the trader is happy because he has sold more, the cooperative has sold more and is happy because the farmers are better paid and because it has financed sustainable development projects.
Everyone is involved and that's the only way it works, because if you hit everyone over the head with a hammer and tell them that they're not doing well or that it should only benefit so-and-so, you're not respecting the intrinsic structure of a supply chain: everyone in the chain must be involved. Perhaps in the long run some players will jump because they have taken too much in the process or they have not played the game or they have not been transparent enough, but I would say that this is a bit of a direction for history, it will clean up the value chain.
If you go up the value chain, retailers have a big responsibility for the income that is paid to farmers. How do you manage to influence things in the sectors that concern you?
A few weeks ago we launched a whole series of references with Amazon in the five largest European countries with their private label called 'Happy Belly', so the retailers are also involved and see the same benefits. In the Netherlands, we have worked with HEMA which is the Dutch Ikea, where 70% of the coffee portfolio will be traced.
 
But are they prepared to reduce their margins? 
In fact they do it because they haven't seen the return on investment yet. They invest with us, they invest in their suppliers, they scrape their margins to do it. 
 
This seems to me to be an important message or signal, given that the margins of distributors in the food industry are generally very comfortable. 
Yes, they do! After all, not all of them do it in a pious way, they also think that they will get an advantage. 
The main thing is that it does and that the system changes!
Yes, and they don't just do it as a marketing stunt. Of course this is a problem and some people could do it on a reference with a communication campaign and we know this well in marketing. They can try to do it with us but it will hold up to a certain point because if their approach does not go all the way, it loses all coherence and therefore it no longer fits into the marketing discourse. If you are present on "Thank My Farmer" and you are traced by the blockhain giving access to all the elements of the value chain, you have to play the game otherwise it's a bit like an elephant in the corridor, it's a dangerous game.
 
So your partners are very consciously engaged in this transparency process.
Yes, absolutely, but I would like to come back to this notion of transparency, which I think should be taken with a grain of salt. If you want to be transparent for the sake of being transparent and really share everything, I don't think that's always very virtuous.
If we take the example of a cappuccino in the streets of Geneva in a well-known chain, it costs between 4 and 5 francs and the reality is that only 1 to 5 centimes go to the farmer. So if tomorrow I come to see you and I tell you that it was 1 centime and that we're going to 2 centimes, the reality is that we've doubled the farmer's income, but if I tell you that it's 2 centimes you'll still find that very shocking. So it's complicated to be 100% transparent if it's not accompanied by education. I don't think we can criticise all the people in the marketing community by telling them that they are only doing greenwashing, sometimes it's necessary to do things in stages, to explain them, to educate so that perception doesn't completely prevail over good practices because that would be counter-productive. There are companies that go step by step and that's quite normal. 
The fact that the will is there, that there is a roadmap to carry out this transformation, is the essential thing. And we must recognise that making such a transition for a company that has existed for a long time can be extremely complicated, but no less necessary of course. 
I also think that it is so important and that we can take a break on 1, 2 or 3 points of profit to invest because the future of many of us is at stake. 
We know that agriculture is the biggest vertical in the world in terms of industry, it affects a billion people every day including employees, farmers, producers. It's the industry that has the biggest impact for good and for bad so if we can transform it we change our lives, our children's lives and our children's children's lives, that's super important.
Tell me a little about the chocolate industry.
Chocolate is a very concentrated industry, there are three major players at the industrial level who process cocoa beans. You have to be able to get into at least one of these companies to make a difference, but the reward is that it can be very transformative. And cocoa is also evolving, like coffee, towards more "single origins", towards specialities, and we are starting to make "clean labels" by removing a lot of things that are not very good in chocolate recipes. It's quite comparable with the evolution of coffee over the last twenty years with speciality coffees, small bistros and also what has been created by Starbucks and all these coffee chains.  
 
A final, broader question, what would you say are the three things that are essential to change the world, to change the paradigm? 
The first thing is to try to move from this idea of competition to an idea of coopetition where we are still in a capitalist system but where we consider that the addition of different forces allows us to create something bigger. We are trying to prove this on a daily basis by bringing together people who have nothing to do with each other on the same platform and in the same project: we have brands, traders, cooperatives who are all competitors on the platform and who never talk to each other because they don't have the right to do so or they are afraid to talk to each other and they use the same services.

Already with more collaboration a lot can be changed.

There is another thing that is quite linked to technology, and that is respect. Respect is an important word, especially respect for the origin and respect for the data. There are some big tech giants who are moving in the right direction but I think they have taken huge shortcuts and done things that should not have been done, so concentrated, so intrusive, so complicated that people are lost along the way and the user is not respected. It's also a business construction, free access leads to business models that we try to hide in order to keep it free. As they say, when it's free, you're the product!

So it's very important to have respect for the people behind the technology and for the technology to serve the people.

The third thing for me is sharing. That's what we're trying to achieve, sharing the value. If you look at coffee, it's a 200 billion market, our ambition is certainly to create efficiency for our customers, but we want to create value because we know that if we only create efficiency, it will only benefit our customers. If we create value, we have a chance of distributing it, if we go from 200 to 220 billion, we have a chance that a good part of it will return to the country of origin. We have to go upwards, create value and re-distribute the value. And never forget where it comes from because without them there is nothing.

Beyond all the legislative, technological and financial aspects, there is the human aspect.

When you know that a farmer in West Africa has never tasted a square of chocolate in his whole life, even though he has spent it growing cocoa beans and doesn't even know where they are going, just making that connection and making it a two-way street and not just a one-way street is very valuable. 
 
Do you receive testimonials from farmers?
There was a report on coffee in the programme TTC on RTSWe took part in the programme, in which they told all the Swiss that their country exports more coffee than chocolate and cheese. On that occasion I did a duplex with Usha who is one of our partners in Brazil and she expressed in her own words the value she saw in it and in particular this link and the excitement she felt to know that people would understand what was behind the coffee they were drinking, what she was doing, to understand that it was the family farm that she had taken over, that there were 20 of them etc. 
 
Thank you very much Michael!
With pleasure, thank you.

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