Q&A with Wholechain: Traceability in Globally Traded Commodities
Q1: So tell us, in a nutshell, what does Wholechain do?
Wholechain is a blockchain-based traceability solution that traces raw materials and ingredients from source to distribution and retail, allowing businesses to manage risks and increase efficiencies while enabling consumers to make more responsible decisions. Wholechain is part of numerous industry initiatives for interoperability including the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability, GS1’s Seafood Industry Blockchain Interoperability POC, and multiple GS1 industry working groups.
Wholechain began as a spinoff of Envisible, a sustainable sourcing company for retail grocers across the U.S. We designed Wholechain with a user-first approach based on our own experiences in diverse supply chains. Now, Wholechain has been deployed worldwide to help companies trace a variety of globally traded commodities
Q2: Besides seafood, what other commodities are you helping to trace?
Our start in seafood prepared us to deal with almost any supply chain. Given that seafood has over 12k species and probably the most challenging conditions of any industry on the planet, we consider seafood to be the “Frank Sinatra Test” of traceability … if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Wholechain is now being implemented in food and agriculture, beauty and cosmetics, apparel and footwear, and manufacturing; and products we currently or will soon trace include leather, beef, soy, vanilla, ocean-bound plastics, and paper goods. Tracing non-seafood commodities has in turn taught us lessons that we have applied back to seafood.
Q3: Is there anything you’ve learned from a different commodity that has helped you trace seafood products effectively?
While working with Esteé Lauder to trace vanilla in Madagascar, we learned methods to more efficiently capture harvest data from 450 farmers at a vanilla cooperative using only a mobile device in a low/no coverage area. We then applied this scan-to-fill feature across Wholechain and, within months, it was being used by a Mexican Wild shrimp supply chain in similar conditions.
Other industries also have shown us interesting uses of our system that we are now applying to address the many challenges that the seafood industry faces. For example, our work with IDH to trace beef, leather and soy from deforestation hotspots in Brazil has taught us that rewarding good actors incentivizes cooperation from everyone along the supply chain to collect more data, which is necessary to verify deforestation-free sources.
Wholechain’s newest update ramps up the efficiency of data collection based on our learnings across industries. Our templates feature enables customers to pre-set data that never changes (for example, a fishing vessel name and registration number), and at the time of data collection, our system automatically fills out the data. We’ve seen in the Philippines Blue Swimming Crab supply chain — and confirmed with our partners on the ground — that this feature saves time and reduces the risk of creating errors that comes with manual data entry. This feature works on desktop and our mobile app, which we have likewise updated for offline use.
Q4: We saw that Wholechain was one of the 12 winners of FDA’s Low- or No-Cost Food Traceability Challenge. Can you explain how this type of government incentive has benefited the traceability movement?
The traceability requirements from FDA, as well as other regulations (e.g., EU Deforestation, etc), will ultimately impact the entire food supply chain. This means technology solution providers will need to refine their designs and user experience, as well as their pricing models, in order to be accessible to small-scale users. The FDA launching a Traceability Challenge like this is a great way to get more eyes on the issue and to build credibility for those taking new and innovative approaches.
Developing our mobile app specifically with users in mind and a business model that fits user needs helps put technology on track to meet the needs of industry adjusting to meet new regulatory requirements. The FDA’s specific push to make electronic traceability accessible to smaller stakeholders is essential as it will help increase the amount of data flow in traceability, making verification easier for stakeholders further in the supply chain, including brands and consumers.
Q5: Collaboration and partnership seem to be helpful in accelerating traceability improvements. Wholechain doesn’t seem to shy away from these types of opportunities. Can you name some of the groups and pilots you work with to make your system work and how they expand your capabilities?
Our vision for Wholechain is to be a supply chain data pipeline and therefore we welcome opportunities to work with partners across technologies and industries. In recent years we have collaborated on multiple projects to expand our capabilities in the areas of data collection and interoperability (i.e., data sharing capabilities). For example, in partnership with the Global Seafood Alliance and as part of our work with the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability standard, we worked on mapping Best Aquaculture Practices key data elements to improve data sharing across traceability systems. Along a similar vein, we collaborate with other traceability providers using GS1’s EPCIS standard to advance interoperability and data sharing between systems. This type of collaboration will equip supply chain stakeholders to communicate information with their networks as international regulations increase the demand for traceability in the coming years.
Our work with Algorand’s net zero carbon blockchain enables secure data collection that also ensures companies aren’t adding to their carbon footprint by implementing Wholechain’s traceability system.
Q6: As more governments and industry are desiring end-to-end traceability, harvest level data collection is key. SALT understands that fisher adoption of technology has been a barrier, especially in less industrialized fisheries. Wholechain’s technology is said to be affordable and can be used from fisher to end-buyer. Are fishers using it, and if so, how have you overcome this barrier to adoption?
Wholechain was built based on our experience in sustainable sourcing across operations that range in size, resources, and geographies. While we incorporate a number of technologies (blockchain, IoT sensors, etc.), our focus has always been on usability. Our mobile app was designed specifically with the needs of small-scale users in mind, focusing on rapid data capture and usability. Small-scale users can access Wholechain through a free tier, enabling them to share data to downstream partners. The free tier and flexible template system, allowing drag and drop spreadsheet uploads of data collected offline, has expanded our customer base to include fishers across the world, from Thailand, Philippines, India, and South Africa to Mauritius, Norway, Mexico and the US.
Q7: Wholechain goes beyond wild fish and into aquaculture. Can you tell us a bit about that work?
Wholechain serves aquaculture operations to collect data from farm to distribution. In my opinion, many of the near-term opportunities in data collection are in aquaculture because it tends to be a more controlled environment where data inputs, like IoT sensors, are simpler to implement and generally more relevant. Most notably we have an ongoing partnership with the Global Seafood Alliance and we have worked with them on real-time data capture across each of the 4-stars of the Best Aquaculture Practices standard: hatchery, feed mill, farm and processor. We see this as only the beginning for aquaculture as it is poised to expand in terms of data collection and data informed practices in the years ahead.
Q8: And as with wild fisheries data, how do you verify aquaculture data, since blockchain cannot guarantee the data inputs are good?
Wholechain is not designed to be a policing organization or some form of pre-crime (e.g., Minority Report). If we were, that would be a serious privacy concern. Our objective is to enable supply chain stakeholders to capture and share verifiable data, and to provide the tools to establish the veracity of claims being made. Our team does not analyze our customers’ data, and in fact in most cases our team doesn’t even have access to our customers’ data (we have to be permissioned on accounts). Rather, we offer a solution for supply chain stakeholders to collect and analyze data so they can verify the inputs. As products move along the supply chain, Wholechain enables data to be captured that downstream stakeholders can compare against other data sets, import documents, certification standards, etc. The immutable nature of data on a blockchain further creates conditions for data that is inherently verifiable: if a stakeholder were to later alter data out of convenience, the incongruencies would remain for all to see.
Q9: In terms of considerations around worker welfare in the supply chain, does Wholechain incorporate that in its software? If so, how?
Since our founding we have been involved in working groups and collaborations about worker welfare. We have learned that to have a strong claim about worker welfare, companies need to be tracking three Ps: Product, Payment and Person (or identity). We can credit multiple conversations with Darian McBain for her insights in those three pillars. Just to break each of those down, tracing products is Wholechain’s strong suit and for payments we have collaborated with Mastercard in the past around establishing verifiable payments. A person (or identity) is a bit tricky to trace because 1) many workers don’t have ID cards, and 2) any such information represents PII (Personally Identifiable Information), which should not be included in trade or traceability records due to privacy concerns. Our focus to this point has been on mobile identifiers (mobile number or SIM cards) because it is the most ubiquitous form of digital identification in the world. In short, worker welfare is a big challenge, but one we are taking tangible steps toward addressing.
Worker welfare is a highly nuanced and critical issue that requires a great deal of honesty about what can and cannot be verified. Our flexible template allows customizations including for claims concerning worker-welfare. Wholechain logs an immutable record of data along each point of the supply chain, against which stakeholders can compare and analyze to uncover issues. With that said, a lot more work needs to be done in this area and we are actively working with partners to move the needle.
Q10: What is on the horizon for Wholechain?
As traceability becomes a more ubiquitous expectation, increased data collection, interoperability, and connected data points will make it easier to measure an item or industry’s impact on carbon emissions, deforestation, pollution, etc. With an increase in ease of data collection, we see the possibilities for greater efficiency, sustainability, improved environmental impact standards, and a greater level of social good. We aim for Wholechain to be a pipeline for the breadth of supply chain technologies designed to collect, share and interpret that data across industries.