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Transforming the Food Supply Chain, One Refrigerator at a Time

June 8, 2022

By Rodrigo Balbontín

It was a day full of excitement, undisclosed levels of caffeine, and spectacular views of the dramatic Bangkok skyline as teams of young software developers from around the Asia-Pacific converged on the Thai capital last month for the sixth annual APEC App Challenge, a coding competition supported by Thailand, the APEC Secretariat, The Asia Foundation, and Google.

The App Challenge is a contest in which two-person teams are given 24 hours to build software solutions to pressing social problems and pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. The competition begins with a theme chosen by the APEC host economy—this year, Thailand—and a challenge that aligns with it. The 2022 APEC theme is “Open, Connect, Balance,” which expresses a vision of resilient, inclusive, and sustainable growth. With our Thailand hosts, we challenged this year’s competitors to develop a digital tool and a viable business model to help small farmers and entrepreneurs in the food supply chain transform their businesses to advance the “bio-circular-green” economy.

App Challenge contestants Sarinah and Nursheila, from Brunei Darussalam, capture Bangkok’s dramatic skyline (photo: The Asia Foundation).

On May 19, 14 teams from 12 APEC economies began their race against the clock. In just 24 hours, each team had to develop a viable app, a short video showing how the app works, and a pitch to persuade judges of the technical merit and business potential of their ideas.

The competing projects were as diverse as the food value chain itself. There was an app for networking farmers, an app for cutting training costs using virtual reality or matching trainees with trainers, a financial services app to help small farmers navigate market uncertainties, an app to trace produce from farm to market with QR codes, and a variety of others.

The three winning projects were praised for their inventiveness, their potential impact and scalability, and how the teams addressed this year’s challenge. Daanish Husain and Brandon Him from The United States won third prize for Sprout, an app to boost farm revenues by connecting farmers to help them achieve economies of scale. Second prize winners Matt Cabanag and Michael Bauer from Australia created Agri Automations, an app that uses smart-phone photos to diagnose crop diseases. First prize went to Palakon Kotchapansompote and Peerawit Tungwongsin from Thailand for [email protected], an app that promises to change the way its users eat and help them manage their groceries to minimize food waste.

Palakon and Peerawit coding day and night (photo: Faisal Ariff / DMAP)

Using [email protected], the user—an individual or even a restaurant owner—can take a photo of the contents of their fridge and receive suggestions for healthy food combinations and how to minimize waste. The app also connects consumers to organic food producers by mapping where organic foods are sold.

Developers Palakon and Peerawit, who hail from Bangkok, had been looking for an opportunity to test their ideas about improving people’s diets and reducing food waste, waiting for a coding event that focused on sustainable foods. When the 2022 APEC App Challenge was publicly announced at the beginning of March, they quickly applied.

The two engineers believe their winning idea can contribute to the green economy in several ways: by expanding the market for organic food, significantly reducing food waste, and improving people’s health.

Organic food consumption is fairly new in Southeast Asia and is just beginning to spread beyond the early adopters—upper-middle-class and high-income consumers. The app promises to increase the demand for organic foods by seamlessly offering healthy, organic alternatives to consumers, and to increase the supply by facilitating access to niche markets for organic food producers.

Palakon and Peerawit also believe their new software tool will reduce household food costs by providing dietary advice and menu suggestions that use what’s in the fridge more efficiently.

Screen shots from [email protected]. The app can recognize and keep track of the food in your kitchen, tell you what’s getting old, make recipe suggestions, identify missing ingredients, and point you to local organic food markets.

[email protected] also fits comfortably with the growing public acceptance of “health tech.” An extension of the app can track how users are eating and identify the foods and nutrients they need more of or should avoid, a nice fit with existing software tools that track weight, movement, blood pressure, and other dimensions of users’ health and lifestyles.

The three winning teams each received a cash prize to continue their development work: US$4,000 for first place, US$3,000 for second place, and US$2,000 for third place. But an idea only becomes an innovation when it is implemented, and the next step also includes support from a network of developers.

Palakon, Peerawit, and all the 2022 competitors have been invited to join Digital Makers Asia Pacific (DMAP). Launched during the 2021 APEC Economic Leaders’ Week, hosted by New Zealand, DMAP is a network of participants from the five previous rounds of the APEC App Challenge: Viet Nam (2017), Papua New Guinea (2018), Chile (2019), Malaysia (2020), and New Zealand (2021).

Members of DMAP, Digital Makers Asia-Pacific, gathered in Bangkok to mentor contestants in the 2022 APEC App Challenge (photo: Faisal Ariff / DMAP).

DMAP provides a community for developers and entrepreneurs from around the Asia-Pacific to exchange ideas and conceive new solutions for social and environmental challenges, and to support the next generation of socially committed coders. Palakon, Peerawit and all the 2022 competitors were advised and mentored by DMAP members in online sessions before the event, and on site during the 24-hour coding competition.

Through DMAP and its networks, the participants can find new opportunities to pitch their ideas and bring their projects to market. The DMAP community also offers support and ideas for developers who want to contribute to society in other ways, such as training and mentoring future coders from underserved communities.

The APEC App Challenge and its DMAP network are fostering a diverse group of young talents in the digital economy, young developers with different skills but a common goal: building digital solutions that have social value for communities and offer new solutions for policymakers in the Asia-Pacific.

We hope to receive more news from Palakon, Peerawit, and all these young developers soon.

Watch this short video about the APEC App Challenge.

Rodrigo Balbontín is a program manager for technology programs in The Asia Foundation’s Program Specialists Group. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Thailand
Related programs: Technology & Development
Related topics: APEC

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