Unilever and Vodafone unite to help Lipton tea smallholder farmers

Unilever and Vodafone have teamed up to develop a technology that better connects smallholder farmers to Unilever and each other.

The clever new innovation has paved the way for a slicker auditing process and new, more effective ways for farmers to share best practices that increase yields and improve livelihoods.

The innovation comes in the form of an app, called ECOTAB, which is designed to replace the cumbersome paper-based field audit process. Unilever and Vodafone have piloted the technology in Turkey as part of Lipton’s Sustainable Tea Agriculture project. The project, which Unilever runs with the Rainforest Alliance, introduces measures that improve the social, economic and environmental impacts of tea production.

Turkey, the world’s fifth largest producer of tea, is one of Unilever’s main tea growth and production centres, with Unilever employing more than 15,000 farmers in its three local factories.

With the introduction of ECOTAB, Unilever can now issue and track audit plans for all its smallholder farmers in Turkey digitally, saving Unilever time and money and improving its data quality.  Unilever is now looking to distribute 3G-enabled iPads to regional field audit staff to leverage the full impact of the new app.

Auditing more than 15,000 smallholder farmers

Unilever regularly audits its tea plantations in Turkey to ensure its smallholder farmers meet the high standards of sustainability set by the Rainforest Alliance. Previously, this involved manual recording of audit data on paper, collating and archiving audit forms in the factory and retyping data to allow reports to be generated, before being physically stored for at least three years.

Now, with the ECOTAB technology, audit plans are issued digitally, and can be tracked on a daily basis. All audit data is uploaded directly into the central database, eliminating delays and improving data quality. The associated time, cost and environmental savings frees up Unilever staff to put more energy towards future sustainability initiatives.

Previously, taking soil samples involved completing a paper form and attaching it to a soil sample bag, which could get detached or damaged. Now, with the new optimised process, a digital record is stored on the iPad, and is automatically time-stamped and geo-tagged. The sample itself is securely labelled with a corresponding sticker, complete with a digitally generated serial number. Sample information is now sent virtually to the lab for assessment and results are reported back through a web interface. Unilever’s auditors can choose to deliver the results to the farmer either in person or by email.

A more sustainable approach

The introduction of ECOTAB to the field is helping Unilever to meet its sustainability commitments through more accurate data and quicker turnaround times, allowing farmers to get a clearer understanding of where improvements are needed, faster. This enables faster introduction of agricultural improvements, larger and better quality crop yields and, ultimately, greater profits and livelihoods for local farmers.

In 2013, Unilever and Vodafone won an Ethical Corporation award for this work.

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