Agri-food SMEs need smart innovation plan to address rising challenges

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the agricultural food sector must craft a smart innovation strategy to compete strongly in the global market and effectively deal with complex challenges, according to an industry specialist.

Usuf Tokdemir, an agri-food expert based in Turkey, in an online talk presented at a recent Asian Productivity Organization dialogue said the industry faces growing issues that can only be solved with a well-planned innovation strategy.

He noted that the agri-food industry must prepare and work to feed 9.7 billion people globally by 2050 even as it contends with huge problems such as massive deforestation, climate volatility and water scarcities, soil degradation and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The sector is also up against global competition and changes in trade policies, changes in technology production and services, cybersecurity issues, increased corporate investment requirements, and high external input and resource-intensive agricultural systems.

To cope, SMEs need to develop and implement a long-term strategic innovation action plan, Tokdemir said. This involves certain elements, such as identifying and profiling the opportunities in a clear and detailed way. Another is effectively securing supply chains from the farm to the fork. The strategy also requires SMEs to apply good manufacturing practices (GMP), with focus on good hygiene and laboratory practices and an integrated management system.

Undertaking all these actions “will contribute to growth, productivity, and internationalization for food SMEs,” Tokdemir said.

Expounding on these elements, he urged companies to take on tasks that will make them stand head and shoulders above rivals. SMEs need to build their capacity and expertise, improve visibility and communication with customers and consumers, create a strong brand, gain access to finance, and create an innovation culture and global mindset within their organization, he added.

At the same time, agri-food firms should adopt GMP standards and take preventive measures and conduct regulatory testing to guarantee product quality, safety and traceability. They should also promote visibility, transparency, and standardization along the entire agri-food supply chain, he said.

Food companies must make sure too that they are well-versed in international laws and standards such as the Codex Alimentarius and apply these to their products to prevent issues with labeling, undeclared allergens, microbial contamination, tampering, contaminants and biotoxins, among others.

SMEs are further advised to understand the mind of the end-consumer, who today prefers a tailored and personalized diet of clean, green, ethical and safe products.

Also a must is for SMEs to start adopting next-generation technologies, as Tokdemir noted their growing use in raising agri-food output. Some of these new technologies feature robotics, biotechnology, data measurement, weather monitoring, satellite imagery, heat sensors, and geospatial monitoring.

The expert also underlined the importance of creating a risk management plan to avoid product recalls and forestall safety issues in the market or in the manufacturing plant.

Further, he underlined the importance of fostering a collaborative innovation ecosystem. “This means that we have to create networks, alliances or joint ventures or cooperation with other food SMEs or companies. We have to collaborate on a global scale, not on the domestic scale, with other companies in the international markets.”

Finally, Tokdemir recommended that the sector study other innovation trends gaining momentum across the globe, including those on sustainable urban food systems, agricultural genomics, fertigation, hydroponics, agroecology, and digital farming.

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