Editor’s Comment

Up, up, and away Web!

Steven Pacitti – editor

Have you herd (sic) the one about the Internet of Cows? Well, it’s a real thing, said the head of consulting and services at Microsoft at a recent conference I attended in Milan, Italy, during Ipack-Ima. In a jargon-laden presentation addressing the role of technology, cloud computing, drones and networks, Fabio Moioli admitted that the Internet of Things (IoT) has now made it possible for farmers to track individual cows and even monitor their diets and work on genetic improvements of their food.

Knowing the importance of continued innovation – working at a company like Microsoft – Moioli added that one of his company’s latest programmes, AI for Earth, is designed for agricultural use and seeks to help farmers optimise soil use for food growth.

“The tractor of the future will also improve the quality of the soil,” he added. He stopped short of suggesting whether this optimised soil could also be used for the development of crops aimed at producing bio-based plastics, but the ongoing push for Augmented Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence (AI) shows the rapid pace at which technology moves forward. For example, AI has taken voice recognition to human parity as of last year, while AI question answering reached human parity this year.

Where does all of this technology fit into the packaging industry, you might ask? Well, we’ve all heard about the IoT, Industry 4.0, and blockchain; the latter will gather momentum and could find good use in tracking food and packaged products across the supply chain. 

Food and beverage are the main outlet sectors for the burgeoning Italian packaging machinery industry, said Ucima’s chairman Enrico Aureli

“What can be automated, will be automated,” confirmed Moioli. “All of this technology is so powerful that it means we have a lot of responsibility.”

His final slide, clearly an ode to the fictional superhero Spider-Man, alluded to this quote with the strapline: ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. Perhaps quite apt considering he was talking about the Internet of (various) Things and Spider-Man builds webs.  

Moioli’s target with his presentation was essentially the food industry and the reduction of waste, but this also trickles over into the packaging sector. As Stefan Glimm, executive director of EAFA and Flexible Packaging Europe (FPE), added: “It’s not just about using packaging to reduce food waste, but also using it to manage food waste.”

Glimm highlighted several examples of the benefits of using plastics packaging, such as a bread bun wrapped in a PP bag instead of a paper one, which he says reduces waste from 11 per cent to almost zero due to the reduction in dehydration, and garden cress in a breathable PP film, which reduces waste at retailer level by nearly 40 per cent. He also highlighted the reduction in retailer waste when packing steak in modified atmosphere packaging, whilst also extending shelf-life from six to 12 days. 

IMA’s chairman Alberto Vacchi revealed the progress of food packaging for small and medium agro-enterprises in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“This, I call ‘managing’ food waste,” he said. “Reducing bread waste by 3.5g (for 1kg of bread consumed) is sufficient to offset the greater use of packaging.”

It’s all mathematics. Smaller portion packs might use more packaging than larger multipacks, but they reduce food waste – coffee stick-packs, for example – so it’s all about weighing up the pros and cons. 

In Ethiopia, the conversation is less about starving people these days and more about conserving food, said Rahel Moges, who founded Ethiogreen Production and Industry PLC in 2011 for the processing and exportation of fresh 100 per cent Teff Injera (staple grain used to make Ethiopian bread).

“Women traditionally baked Injera using smoke, burning wood. The current third generation of Injera baking involves electric but consumes a lot of energy,” she explained. “The fourth generation is patent-pending. We’re not driving women out of work but instead training them science.”

In conclusion, Moges pointed out that standardisation is key to African food. Food loss, specifically in the area of mangoes, is high on the agenda in Kenya and The Save Food Mango Project was launched five years ago to prevent the exorbitant levels of wastage. Up to 500,000 tonnes of mangoes was wasted in 2015, which is 36 per cent of the total yield.

Having set up a new plant just outside Nairobi in early 2017, Azuri Health specialises in various fruit products including dried mangoes. The peculiarities of the Kenyan mango sector were highlighted by the company’s chief executive, Tei Mukunya, when she said that it is cheaper to buy mango pulp from India than to use domestically produced mangoes, calling it “crazy”.

As mangoes do not last long, hence the waste problem, it is important to process them quickly. In addition, the mango seasons in Kenya are November to March and July to August. “Mangoes ripen in three to five days but can be speeded up using natural agents,” said Mukunya.

2017 was a difficult year for Azuri Health as the main Kenyan supermarket went bankrupt so the company had to find new outlets for local sales. In February this year a German investor came on board with additional funds to support growth.

Now back on track, the Kenyan firm is keen to identify new market segments, increase working capital to buy good quality mangoes during peak season, and invest in capacity building, production management and quality control.

If the issue of mango waste is so high, it begs the question of what companies like Microsoft could potentially do to help the cause. Perhaps the Internet of Mangoes is the future. Or perhaps not.