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Food transparency in Asia: Regional trends and startups

Thomas Hayes, Analyst
February 16, 2021

The drivers for increasing transparency in food systems are plenty: supply chain optimization, expediting recalls, preventing economically motivated adulteration, and the list goes on. In Asia, this issue quickly came to the fore after the 2008 scandal involving infant milk adulteration in China, poisoning 300,000 children. Much has been done since then to mitigate such issues, but there is still a persistent need to improve transparency in Asia's food system. As of late, transparency initiatives have ramped up for several of the region's key agricultural outputs, such as palm oil and cocoa, including efforts to prove sustainability and fair labor practices.

To add further complexity, there is a growing need to provide visibility into the goods themselves but also the identities of producers and processors. Quite often, a buyer and a seller are operating in silos, restricting market access. This is especially the case in India, with platforms arising to match smallholder farmers with market buyers to help growers sell their crops at a profit. India's government has even stepped in with its online trading portal, eNAM.

To address the different layers of transparency, consider these Asia-based startups as exemplary of the regional landscape of tech developers:



Note: Regional scope includes West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia.

Food traceability tools:

Much like the global food traceability tools landscape, the majority of companies in the space are software-based. VeChain made a mark in 2019 by rolling out its blockchain platform with Walmart in China, allowing consumers to access information about product origins, transport history, and more. Meanwhile, DiMuto out of Singapore is looking to compete. Between 2018, when the company was founded, and November 2020, it claims to have "tagged over 30 million fruits and tracked and traced over US$100 million worth of agrifood trades" across eight countries, including China, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. Given the vast quantities and values of goods exchanged, there is ample room for competitors to comfortably operate. What remains to be seen is the interoperability of traceability platforms from Asia, currently a focus in the U.S.

B2B market linkages: 

As mentioned, the need for market linkages is most apparent in India, and hence, 16 of the startups in this segment are from there. These companies either focus solely on providing market linkages (e.g., Agrilinks) or offer a suite of services where market linkages are one component (e.g., VeGrow). Striking a balance between profitability and credible differentiation will be key for these companies. As this space matures, be wary of those like Fresh VnF that overextend claims.

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#LUXTAKE:

Similar to the startup landscape for food safety in Asia, the density of developers is relatively low. This signals opportunity for other stakeholders in the ecosystem, from both the public and private sectors, and some have already made strides in doing so. Going forward, anticipate a convergence of traceability tools and market linkage platforms; ultimately, transparency is needed not just for tracing's sake but to also optimize food access. 

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