Grain gain: groundbreaking technology helps farmers

04 May 2017

Author: Angela Saurine

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Emma Weston is passionate about ensuring wheat farmers get paid fast and fairly. Her company, AgriDigital, is revolutionising the agriculture industry after conducting the world’s first live settlement of a physical commodity via blockchain.
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Getting paid fast and fairly for the work we do is something most of us take for granted. But for wheat farmers, this isn’t always the case. It was with that in mind that Australian entrepreneur Emma Weston co-founded a startup that uses blockchain to help farmers get paid in real time.

“Delivering grain and getting paid for it is not the same as buying a coffee at a café,” Weston says. “When you order a latte and you get that latte, the barista is not going to accept you paying in another 30 days. He doesn’t know who you are or if you’re good for the payment.

“The reality is that’s what farmers do when they deliver grain to a silo. They don’t know if they’re going to get paid. We want to create a reality where a farmer’s payments are secure.”

In December 2016, Weston’s company, AgriDigital, conducted the world’s first live settlement of a physical commodity via blockchain. Also known as distributed ledger or shared ledger technology, blockchain records all transactions for an asset in a new type of database that can be shared with many parties, but never changed or deleted.

Each record, or transaction, is entered into a ‘block’ and as more transactions occur, each block is chained on to the previous and subsequent blocks, forming a full and complete record. It also allows smart contracts, where the terms of the contract are recorded in computer code and able to auto-execute on the shared ledger.

Weston believes blockchain has the potential to make trade more efficient, reduce fraud and make it easier to trace food through the supply chain.

“It creates a perfect audit trail for all parties,” she says. “When you can absolutely depend upon that data, you can depend on the record of ownership. You don’t have to know or trust each other to do business confidently.

"We are highly motivated to create a safe ecosystem for farmers to operate in – payment security is a big part of this. Technology has a clear role to play in de-risking farming, reducing financial and operational stress and of course the emotional impacts on farmers, their families and local communities".

Finding her way

 The original AgriTech team: Eduardo Santos de Paula, Ben Reid, Emma Weston, Bob McKay, Eric Hartono at Sydney
The original AgriTech team: Eduardo Santos de Paula, Ben Reid, Emma Weston, Bob McKay, Eric Hartono.

Weston hadn’t planned on a career in either agriculture or technology. She studied law at the University of Melbourne, and worked in private practice after graduating, but quickly realised working towards becoming a partner in a law firm wasn’t for her.

Her path changed when she received a phone call from a recruiter asking if she was interested in a role as an in-house counsel at the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) at a pivotal time in its history. The organisation held the export monopoly for wheat, and the domestic market had been deregulated a few years earlier. The government would no longer guarantee wheat payments to farmers and it had to privatise.

“Before that I didn’t really have a lot to do with agriculture,” Weston says. “But I loved my interactions with farmers. I found them really authentic, fantastic people to work with. I liked the mission of making sure the farmers received a fair price for the wheat they sold and that they were assured of payment. I got very enamoured by that whole mission and I haven’t really left agriculture since.”

After three years in the legal team at AWB, Weston moved into management and worked in various positions. This gave her an understanding of all aspects of the industry, from grain research and development to seed breeding and seed sales and how grain performed when it became flour, dough, bread or pasta.

When opportunity knocks

Weston first met her husband and business partner Bob McKay, who comes from a farming family from Warren in northwestern New South Wales, when he managed the domestic trade division at AWB. After the complete deregulation of Australia’s wheat market, Weston joined McKay’s company Agfarm with a view to growing it from a small grain agency to a grain broker representing farmers, before moving into finance.

After selling the business a few years later, the pair partnered with former Agfarm employee and farmer Ben Reid to start AgriDigital – a technology company leveraging their expertise across the whole supply chain.

“We always had a view that technology was going to make agriculture better, simpler, more efficient,” Weston says.

Australia leading the way

Australia is a leader in blockchain – something that can be partly attributed to the Australian Securities Exchange replacing its current settlement system (CHESS) with blockchain-enabled software.

“That’s a massive vote of confidence for a new technology that has spurred innovation and experimentation,” Weston says. “We’re lucky to have started AgriDigital at a time and in a place that was very conducive to bringing that product to market. Blockchain also emerged at the same time as we had an explosion of startups after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put innovation on the national agenda.

“Australia, while relatively small, is a complete market when testing new technology so it’s an ideal test bed for other countries. If something works here, it’s likely to work elsewhere.”

In 2017, AgriDigital plans to introduce a provenance blockchain product to market that will make data records transparent so it’s easy to trace where food comes from and how it’s transported through the supply chain. “Buyers and consumers want to know that they are getting what they paid for; for example, that what is being grown is truly organic,” Weston says.

AgriDigital also plans to export its digital technology to Canada, which has a similar agricultural market to Australia’s. “Canada is a great market because the grain goes down into the US, which is an even bigger market, so we can continue to grow our product,” Weston says. “We’re already talking to potential customers in the US as well. It’s very exciting.”

 AgriDigital founders Ben Reid, Emma Weston and Bob McKay win the Westpac BlockHack in 2016
AgriDigital founders Ben Reid, Emma Weston and Bob McKay win the Westpac BlockHack in 2016

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