Online collaboration to facilitate innovation: insights into the European agri & food value chain

July 03, 2017

INNO-4-AGRIFOOD is an EU-funded project set on unlocking the innovation potential of the European agri & food ecosystem by fostering and facilitating online collaboration. EFFoST is one of the consortium parties and is responsible for dissemination and communication of the results.

Our strategy is aimed at enhancing the service portfolio and skills of innovation intermediaries and SME support networks across Europe by providing them with a blend of demand-driven services and tools. These include a novel set of innovation support services along with dedicated ICT-fueled tools to facilitate their delivery, as well as e-learning courses that will enable innovation consultants to acquire the necessary knowledge and skill-set to support the innovation endeavors of agri & food companies.

In order to deliver a relevant and demand-driven value proposition to our target groups, we had to go into the field to do some research:

  • An analysis of the agri-food value chain was conducted with the aim to identify and conclude on value chain areas which stand to benefit the most from the outcomes of INNO-4-AGRIFOOD. This analysis was based on a review of ‘Strategic Research and Innovation Agendas’ as well as policy documents produced by European-wide and national initiatives. Complementary, a total of 12 interviews were conducted with value chain experts.
  • A survey was launched with the objective of capturing the different needs and characteristics of SMEs in the European agri & food value chains. The survey targeted representatives of companies, technology and innovation providers as well as innovation intermediaries across Europe.

Agri & food value chain analysis

The overarching objective of the value chain analysis we performed, was to identify value chain areas in which agri & food companies stand to benefit the most from our services and tools. More specifically, we tried to shed ample light on the widely diverse and complex agri & food ecosystem by mapping and analyzing its landscape and dynamics. This focus in our research allowed us to conclude on value chain areas with unexploited potential for online collaboration and the need for support services.

Conclusions for the agri sector:

Although all the specific research needs differ according to the specific subsector within the agri sector, a number of generic cross-sectoral topics can be identified:

  • The need for increased and enhanced communication between all players in the sector: In particular, communication between research providers and the farming community with a focus on ‘technology transfer’ are needed. In addition, enhanced communication between both of these and the consumer is essential if novel and more sustainable production methods are to be accepted and flourish.
  • The need for enhanced ICT technologies: Not only are these needed to facilitate the above listed need, but enhanced ICT technologies are also essential for the delivery and management of any novel production methods. In other words, enhanced on-farm management and information tools are essential.
  • Increased trans-national, multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral research activities are essential: This is a recurring theme in all of the ‘Strategic Research and Innovation Agendas’ and should involve manufacturing sectors from outside the agri-food value chain.

Conclusions for the food sector

The insights collected through the review of relevant documents which focus on the food sector indicate that this part of the European agri & food ecosystem is not well-structured and dominated by mainly micro-sized companies. Furthermore, major barriers to innovation appear to exist for companies in the sector:

  • Lack of business skills: There are major deficiencies right across the range of business skills that are necessary for successful innovation.
  • Difficulties in accessing scientific knowledge: It is also clear that the lack of scientific expertise in this sector inhibits its ability to innovate.
  • Need for enhanced training and development units at a local level, equipped with a range of mediators that will guide companies through the innovation process: While the need for these appears to be prevalent across Europe, no concrete conclusion can be drawn with respect to whether the same model will be appropriate for all of them.
  • Economic restraints as well as the large number of micro companies within the food sector may prevent the delivery of the aforementioned in person. Solutions that will effectively leverage ICT will be essential if the more ambitious of the food companies are to be guided successfully through the innovation process.

Conclusions from the interviews

The insights derived from the interviews with agri & food experts clearly indicate that online collaboration is not utilized at its fullest potential and many companies are not yet actively engaged in supporting or enhancing online collaboration. Still, there are many challenges faced by agri & food companies for which they need to collaborate with potential technology and knowledge providers. With this in mind, the potential benefits of online collaboration in terms of enhancing the innovation capacity of companies and addressing their research and innovation needs become evident. In this respect, the role of innovation intermediates is essential.

Needs analysis and profiling

To conclude on homogeneous company profiles in terms of needs for online collaboration, we conducted a survey with the principal objective of capturing the characteristics and needs of companies in the European agri & food ecosystem. The survey targeted representatives of agri & food companies, technology and innovation providers as well as innovation intermediaries across Europe. A detailed analysis of the valuable data collected through the interviews fueled a deep reflection on the findings which emerged and led to the identification of two distinct profiles:

  1. Core agri & food companies, includes farmers, primary producers of agricultural outputs, food processors, as well as logistics and sales companies.
  2. Supporting industries companies, including technology and innovation providers which cooperate with agri & food SMEs (e.g. agricultural machinery producers, software providers etc.).

Core agri & food companies

Core agri & food companies constitute the heart of the value chain. Even though online collaboration appears to be not quite widespread among them and their level of readiness in this respect relatively limited, they are readily willing to establish and utilize such collaborations on a pan-European scale. They acknowledge the potential value it can add to their business. This includes:

  • Access to new markets and customers at national and international level.
  • Finding suitable business and innovation partners.
  • Driving down collaboration costs as well as keeping up with global trends of their sector and adopting innovative solutions in order to seize emerging business opportunities, among others.

To this end, it seems they would rather cooperate with similar companies operating on the same area of the agri & food value chain and/or cooperate with suitable technology providers which can help them to boost their competitiveness through innovative solutions adapted to their needs.

Still, several barriers may prevent this type of companies to effectively integrate online collaboration into their business model:

  • Relatively limited resources at their disposal.
  • The lack of an open mind-set to seek for solutions in the external environment and pursue innovation-driven collaborations.
  • The lack of awareness of innovation platforms tailored to their own needs and / or to the specific characteristics of their sector (especially at national level).
  • Language barriers which may create communication difficulties as well as lack of the ICT skills required to utilize online platforms and tools may also serve as obstacles towards effectively engaging in online collaboration for innovation.

Collaboration with innovation intermediaries can enable them to find out more about the opportunities which are available outside their organizational and national boundaries. However their relatively limited cooperation with innovation intermediaries is an obstacle. Nearly a third of the interviewed representatives of farmers, food processors as well as the logistics and sales target groups have yet to cooperate with innovation intermediaries:

  • Some companies suggested they are unaware of how they might benefit from innovation intermediaries and gain value through their intermediary role in the innovation process.
  • Others indicated that they have not been approached yet by innovation intermediaries and introduced to their service offers.

This finding pin points towards a potential need to raise awareness of innovation support offers within the agri & food ecosystem and especially of novel ones to be designed in the framework of INNO-4-AGRIFOOD. With the above in mind, core agri & food companies appear to need support: not only in the process of identifying online platforms that are suitable for their business and innovation needs, but also on how to utilize those platforms to launch innovation initiatives that address their business problems. The scope of the support would include online platforms and tools that are easy-to-use, without a steep learning curve.

Supporting industries companies

‘Supporting industries companies’ appear to be more “tech-savvy” and familiar with the use of tools for online collaboration and innovation than their core agri & food counterparts and at the same time display a relatively higher level of readiness to engage in online collaboration. Moreover, they comprehend the potential and added value of online collaboration. It seems that they would prefer to collaborate with core agri & food companies which are active in both downstream and upstream areas of the agri & food value chain.

Still, the findings of the survey indicate that online collaboration between supporting industries and core agri & food companies is currently somewhat limited, which hints to the existence of hindering barriers.

  • In particular, one of the main barriers which seems to be preventing the establishment of such collaborations is their perceived lack of awareness of appropriate online platforms which would allow supporting industries to easily identify, interact and partner up with core agri & food companies.
  • A principal disabler to this end appears to be the difficulties that supporting industries encounter in terms of grasping the particular business mentality and needs of their prospective partners within the core agri & food sectors.

Targeted innovation support can help ‘supporting industries companies’ to surpass the abovementioned barriers. In this respect, meaningful support may be provided in the process of identifying suitable platforms in which core agri & food companies participate and present their needs. The ideal platform for them would employ an easy to understand language without scientific and / or industry specific jargon as well as a user-friendly interface, providing the opportunity to conveniently build partnerships. More importantly, however, it appears that industry supporting companies may require guidance on identifying, approaching and mobilizing suitable partners. To this end, some support towards better understanding the business specificities as well as the particular market challenges of their core agri & food partners may also be meaningful.


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