The big sell: Blockchain for track and trace
Concerns about traceability in supply chains are giving blockchain technology a natural home. Finbarr Bermingham reports on the major initiatives.
In August last year, UK company Provenance announced a scheme to track tuna on the blockchain. In this pilot, Indonesian fishermen sent a text on the company’s blockchain-based app every time they successfully reeled one in. The fish was automatically registered as a digital asset that had been caught legally and sustainably.
From an ethical point of view, tuna is doubly problematic for consumers. Yellowtail tuna is often eaten in sushi and sashimi dishes, yet it is an endangered species that should only be fished sustainably. Also, a lot of the tuna we consume is caught by slaves. Greenpeace describes working conditions aboard fishing vessels “as among the worst in the world, and that includes tuna boats”.
Provenance’s pilot uses blockchain technology to eradicate those risks. For one, the blockchain is immutable – which is a fancy computer science way of saying “can’t be changed”. The digital certification stays with the tuna fish until the point of consumption, when it obviously ceases to exist. This immutability means the “digital fish” cannot be duplicated, counterfeited or tampered with: its provenance is guaranteed. And because blockchain allows data to be entered, shared and viewed across the supply chain, its journey from line to plate is transparent and visible.
What may sound like a quirky science project is actually hugely important work. This was one of the early signs of how blockchain will change supply chains in the years to come.
Why is it needed?
Banks and companies are under huge pressure from consumers to meet sustainability standards. Regulators are clamping down on trade-based money laundering practices, with the Hong Kong government, for one, establishing ground rules for tackling this systemic problem. Blockchain technology can be used to ensure goods are both sustainable and authentic.
But perhaps more practically, using blockchain along with existing tech such as radio frequency identification (RFID), the internet of things (IoT), smart devices and GPS can help satisfy operational problems that plague supply chains everywhere.
“I would say that track and trace technology is at the heart of what we offer. It’s an immediate problem that companies encounter every day: they lose track of goods, and when they finally get a bill from the logistics provider there are lots of charges, and they’ve no idea where they came from,” says Rebecca Liao, vice-president of business development and strategy at Skuchain, a California-based company that builds blockchain solutions for supply chains.
In the trade finance industry, the chatter around blockchain has rightly been in line with the modernisation of an antiquated industry. At the GTR Australia Trade Forum in Sydney in May, Westpac’s global head of trade, Adnan Ghani, listed the three criteria blockchain must meet if it is to reach critical mass: instantaneous transactions, reduction in fraud, and being cheaper than existing proprietary technologies.
The sector is delivering a sea of proof of concepts, but critical mass is a dot on the horizon. Much greater progress has been made on the physical supply chain. Banks’ growing role in financing these supply chains exposes them to such developments. They will inevitably be taken along for the ride. Indeed, some
are already onboard.
Also at the Sydney forum, Digby Bennett, regional sales director at China Systems, described a project which used blockchain to ensure the authenticity of halal goods in the Middle East’s Islamic banking sector. These goods, financed through sharia-compliant processes, must pass through stringent checks in order to meet requirements, Bennett said. This is an arduous task that must be inspected at every port on the supply chain.
China Systems worked with Emirates Islamic Bank to write a blockchain solution that allows them to share this information with Islamic banks on a ledger, via the Dubai Central Bank. That way, they can see which goods are compliant, what financing has been issued and which banks are involved. A real-world need, met using blockchain technology.
Thomas Verhagen, senior programme manager at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) believes blockchain’s role in passing environmental and sustainability standards information up the value chain will help banks clean up their own portfolios.
He says: “In exchange for correct entry of such data, it will be possible to offer services to participants that are upstream in a value chain. An example of this could be providing valuable information, as well as financing, to smallholders in agricultural supply chains in exchange for correct data entry in the distributed transaction ledger of that supply chain.”
In the supply chain this process is well underway, covering goods from household to luxury. We spoke to those creating the most interesting projects to date.
In the coffee industry, the demands on buyers and suppliers are high. Skinny-jeaned hipsters from Dalston to Williamsburg insist on exotic blends that must be sourced sustainably. And for the 125 million people that make a living growing coffee, it is essential that they get a fair wage.
With this in mind, US company Bext360 created a machine that grades the coffee beans grown on plantations in Africa, at farm level. The machine combines with a blockchain-based app developed by Silicon Valley company Stellar to connect farmers with an instantaneous marketplace, and more control over the price they receive.
Stellar co-founder Brit Yonge explains how it works. “In the coffee market the beans themselves aren’t priced until later on in the supply chain. They’re collected from the farmer and sent to the market, and actually graded later on. Bext thought: ‘How can we price these beans earlier on, upstream in the supply chain, so growers are capturing the value they’re grading?’”
The machine analyses the beans at the farm, and makes the weight and grade available to both potential buyers and sellers via the blockchain-powered app. The pair can then negotiate a fair price. But when Bext360 figured out how to grade the beans without taking them to market, they were faced with another problem: the transfer of value.
“That’s where we came in,” Yonge says. “Stellar is a blockchain solution. In this scenario, it’s a patented protocol that allows any asset to be represented as a token. Banks are excited by this because they can represent virtual reality currency as a token and not have to deal with a digital asset like bitcoin. In this case Bext were creative, they saw you can have tokens representing different grades of coffee. As the machine is assessing the quality of the beans, they can issue these tokens that essentially represent an IOU to the farmer. That’s the last part of the problem: how do you actually represent the value?
“We worked with Bext to allow them to issue these tokens. The app puts these transactions on the blockchain… You’re aware of whose beans have been assessed in whatever way, and that they’ve been paid, which is a problem in some markets where people are being robbed. You know that this person produces so many grade A beans and should be compensated as such.”
With legislation such as the UK Slavery Act in enforcement, this type of solution could offer buyers and lenders reassurance that their supply chains are clean of such practices. It’s the kind of real-use scenario that excites a nascent industry.
Collin Thompson, co-founder of Hong Kong-based blockchain company Intrepid Ventures, tells GTR: “These coffee beans are going to Starbucks anyway. It gets 10,000 of these small growers and they don’t know where they came from… What if there was an insurgency that took those beans over and it got into the supply chain? You want to be able to know how it got into the supply chain and if people are getting paid fairly.”
Arguably the most ambitious efforts we encountered in researching this article were in the US cotton industry. As with most physically traded goods, the paperwork is arduous. “For a 40-container shipment of cotton, you’re talking a three-inch binder full of paper. And that’s a small shipment of cotton,” says Mark Pryor, CEO of The Seam, a commodities software company based in Memphis, Tennessee.
Traceability is another pain point. In order to work with high-profile buyers such as Levi Strauss, H&M and Gap, cotton must meet standards set by the Better Cotton Initiative – a multinational non-profit that promotes the use of organic cotton. These two needs in mind, The Seam has been working on a blockchain solution that will, in effect, “kill two birds with one stone”.
“We’re going to have a consortium-based blockchain initiative that will be available from field to fabric and everywhere in between. That’s why we came up with the ‘cotton blockchain’, not the ‘agri blockchain’. This is specific to cotton, and the nuances and idiosyncrasies that commodity presents. We’ve had a very positive response from all areas of that supply chain, from retailers, to spinners, banks, freight forwarders, to producers, gins, warehouses, merchants and everyone else to come together and work with us to make this a reality,” Pryor explains.
Of course, this won’t be the first usage of blockchain in the cotton industry – last year, the first cross-border transaction between banks using blockchain technology took place on a shipment of 88 bales of cotton from the US to China, involving Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Wells Fargo and Skuchain.
However, Pryor describes The Seam’s work as more of an ecosystem than a solution, given that it will include all areas of the supply chain. Three pilots are set to be launched, having successfully moved through the proof of concept stage: one for smart contracts, one for physical shipment of cotton, and one to enable retailers to track and trace the finished product.
The company has been developing the blockchain ledger in house and will start the three-pronged pilot in July, where it will be used to track and trace a real deal.
Pryor explains: “A lot of the pilots out there aren’t real. They take one little subset of supply chains and say they’re done on blockchain, but it really didn’t prove that the technology worked. It was something that was done in a room or maybe somebody took a piece of data and walked it across to another office. That’s not what we want to do.
“We want to do a real contract. We’ve already agreed with the parties, it can’t be disclosed at this point. But they’re major merchants, textile mills and players along the way. We’re going to do a real contract trade in July. Then we’re looking at the export shipment and documentation to process flow and all that, a digitised ledger for verifying information along the supply chain, that will happen in January.”
The timescale is dictated by the nature of the industry: cotton trades typically happen in July, and this will be a real trade, conducted alongside trades done using traditional processes.
Shipment occurs after the harvest, between November and January. Finally, the retailer will have visibility back over the supply chain by February, at which point they will have received a cargo of cotton, tracked from the farm, along the blockchain.
According to Paul Sam, who leads Deloitte’s fintech practice in China, a blockchain project reaches critical mass when two to three players in an ecosystem move first. “It’s like a snowball effect,” he tells GTR.
For the “cotton blockchain”, critical mass is something it already has. The Seam is partly owned by Cargill, Olam and Louis Dreyfus, three commodity trading giants. The initiative already involves the biggest cotton exporters in the world. The Seam is also talking with banks such as BNP Paribas and HSBC about getting involved. If the pilots go well, Pryor says, the support is already there to roll it out on a fully operational basis.
“Agri companies have an existential need,” says Collin Thompson at Intrepid Ventures. “There’s a compliance issue. If a bank launders money for Pablo Escobar, they pay a US$1bn fine and that’s it. But if you have a problem in the supply chain, in the food area, the government will shut you down!”
This “existential need” means food companies cannot afford to get it wrong when it comes to sourcing their goods. According to Rebecca Liao at Skuchain, blockchain can be applied to pretty much every product in the agri food space to ensure quality control. Skuchain has been working with companies looking to improve their traceability across the board, from dairy to fruit. In one case, Skuchain was approached by a commercial bank that finances commodity trading.
“Their problem is that their internal policy says you can only offer [the set] commodities price for this good. Take avocados for example,” she explains.
The bank is only able to offer the quoted commodities price for standard avocados, but what happens when the farmer says his avocados are organically grown, or they’re non-GMO. The bank has no way of verifying the provenance of these avocados. What, for example, happens if they got mixed up with a batch of non-organic avocados?
“They need some sort of track and trace technology that will allow them to offer a higher price for premium avocados and stop losing out on deals,” Liao says – and so Skuchain built them a solution that bolts onto their existing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) systems.
She explains: “The farmer would be the starting point. Using the Skuchain mobile app, the farmer would apply a code to the shipment of avocados. They scan that code using the mobile app. As soon as they do that they can get an encrypted POP code, which stands for proof of provenance, onto the blockchain ledger. That indicates to the ledger: now we have this unit that has been recorded onto the blockchain.
“There can be as much data as you want associated with that POP code. So the farmer would say it’s non-GMO, organically grown, the temperature he stores the avocados after they’re picked, their spoilage, etc. This can be done manually or using sensors that can provide this information – sometimes these sensors are more accurate than people.”
The POP code stays with the avocado throughout the supply chain, from the farmer, to the truck, to the shipping company, until it ends up as guacamole on a brunch plate in Singapore or Melbourne.
Liao continues: “We have unitisation technology on the back of the POP code, which means they can be subdivided, aggregated onto a master POP code. There are several ways you can manipulate this piece of encryption, but they will continue to track the goods all the way from point of origin to the hands of the consumer.”
Meanwhile, the only thing people involved see is a smartphone app. The blockchain is invisible, in the same way that most people won’t be aware that they’re using SMTP for email. This is one of the major advantages of distributed ledger technology: the investment is at the top of the supply chain. Everybody else accesses it through a smartphone or laptop, meaning its rollout to remote farms and plantations in, say, Indonesia or Tanzania, is relatively simple.
Diamonds (and wine)
Having spent the early part of her career working to make objects more traceable through RFID technology, Leanne Kemp knows a thing or two about supply chains. When she saw what people were doing with cryptocurrencies a few years back, solving issues around visibility, double spend and secure transfer of value, she had a “eureka” moment.
“Because I hadn’t come from a payments background, I looked at the technology in cryptocurrencies and started applying this to an object instead of a piece of money,” she tells GTR. By applying the same principles used in bitcoin platforms to physical assets, she saw how blockchain could be used in the physical commodities space. Everledger was born, and now Kemp is one of the most respected authorities on blockchain in the world.
Everledger is at the cutting edge of blockchain-based track and trace. The company has devised solutions that ensure the authenticity of high-value goods, such as diamonds, wine and fine art. Each of these markets faces crises of authentication, after being plagued by issues around counterfeiting and ethics. There are said to be more bottles of New Zealand wine on the market today than have ever been manufactured, while the problems of blood diamonds are well-documented.
“The marriage between provenance and procurement is a natural evolution towards transparency. With transparency comes sustainability both at an ethical trade level and from a financial point. Now we’re seeing governments pass legislation to ensure transparency and sustainability is incumbent upon directors and companies in the local market in the UK – you can reference the Slavery Act as one of those pointers,” she says.
Most notably, Everledger created a global digital registry for diamonds, powered by blockchain. The platform digitally certifies diamonds traced through the Kimberley Process – the global initiative established to stop conflict diamonds from entering the mainstream market. Diamonds may be “dumb objects” [aka those inanimate objects which are not smart – unlike modern mobile technology], but they lend themselves to such a solution better than, say, slabs of copper which are indistinguishable from one another.
Kemp explains: “The beautiful thing about white diamonds is the perfect bedrock, we can incarnate the physical object into the blockchain. We can extract 40 metadata points around an identity, and actually digitally incarnate that. Also, the diamond industry has control points. It uses certain types of science and scanning to then give the opinion of the expert, but also match that with machine.
While we’ve seen how blockchain can be used in areas such as food and textiles, Kemp says these supply chains are “complex” and perhaps don’t lend themselves as naturally to the technology as diamonds.
“We’re very disciplined about what we do, and applying it to items like art and antiquities, things that have generations, that need to consider provenance. We’re not really too excited about things like fish, or tracking perishable items, we think that can be best served by other companies.”take me back