Controlling China’s sprawling food supply chain has proved a frustrating endeavor. Government regulators and state-owned agriculture companies have tried to tackle the problem in a number of ways — increasing factory inspections, conducting mass laboratory tests, enhancing enforcement procedures, even with prosecutions and executions — but food safety scandals still emerge too often.
Chinese technology companies believe they can do it better. From the farm to the table, the country’s biggest players are looking to upgrade archaic systems with robust data collection, smartphone apps, online marketplaces and fancy gadgetry.
The founder of the computer maker Lenovo started Joyvio, the agricultural company that tracks kiwis and other fruit from planting to delivery. The Internet giant Alibaba directly connects consumers with farmers via an online produce-delivery service. A gaming entrepreneur is running a pig farm on the side. And Baidu, the country’s leading search engine, is developing a “smart” chopstick that tests whether food is contaminated.
City dwellers can buy directly from farmers through Jutudi, a pilot program created by Alibaba that has about 10,000 users. An e-commerce twist on the “buy local” movement, Jutudi lets users buy regular deliveries of vegetables and fruits from farms across China. Consumers can even pick their own plots in a sort of virtual farming, although deliveries may come from multiple places.
Joyvio is taking on a bigger challenge: the entire food chain.
Started in 2009, it is now the largest provider of kiwis and blueberries in China. It controls everything, picking what seeds are planted, then tracking and collecting data each step of the way.
Taking a similar approach to Lenovo’s, Joyvio focused on acquiring technology and know-how to build its business.
Executives studied foreign agriculture businesses. Joyvio hired a top American agronomist who specialized in the development of preservatives and microorganisms that work as natural pesticides. The company bought farms in Chile and Australia and partnered with two large Chilean fruit companies.