Vietnamese Food Safety Gets Support from Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden

As part of my work into being a part of the solution to cleaning up the Vietnam agricultural value chain, I went to an event on 14 December called DiploHack Hanoi: Trust in the Food Chain, held in Hanoi at Up Co-Working Space at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology. Diplohack was put on jointly by the Danish, Dutch and Swedish Embassies in Hanoi.​

Diplohack Hanoi: Trust in the Food Chain

Diplohack Hanoi was based around an 8-hour event based on a Hackathon model. I didn’t do a count, but I would say more than 60 people came together and they then divided into six groups where they brainstormed a solution to the problem of “Trust in the Food Chain” in Vietnam.

The focus of the Diplohack Hanoi, which was part of a national Diplohack project put on jointly by the three governments, was the Trust in the Food Chain event. The Diplhack was different stakeholders focused on creating a solution that would help Vietnamese ensure their food is good, healthy and safe. That would empower public authorities, food producers, retailers and consumers and promote transparency. All of the people who came together and were inspired to create Trust in the Food Chain created the event based on the belief that it would be good to increase the flow of information in the food chain and help make Vietnam more of a “farm to fork” agricultural economy.

In essence, it was all “good government” folks whose motivation for doing things are not based on financial gain but on sustainable nation-building, with an emphasis on Western liberal middle-class values.

Here is how Diplohack described their event:

Diplohack is a new way of bringing together civil society, industry, students, IT experts and diplomats to brainstorm and come up with new ideas on how to tackle important issues. This Diplohack on trust in the food chain has the ambition to inspire and encourage us all to think about these questions, and to develop innovative ideas to use technology to establish trust in the food value chain.

My First Hours

I think it is important to note that I wasn’t actually invited to the event, I had just finished teaching my class, saw a post on Facebook, found the website, am interested in the topic and just showed up.

The Diplohack website itself had a message pointing to a Facebook page with a phone number saying you get information but when I tried calling, no one answered. But, after a few posts on Facebook, I got the address — from three different people (the ecosystem is very supportive). Even though I couldn’t find the address, I actually thought it would be a talk show type event.

But, instead, I found out it was a private event and it was structured around a morning explanation period and then an all day brainstorming period. I arrived after lunch while people had just started an active brainstorming activity.

In other words, I was an interloper and , unfortunately, I was actually entering the event at a very bad time because I was interrupting a working session. Luckily, someone I knew was part of the first group I encountered. I asked him what the best thing I could do would be and he said “have a cup of coffee,” meaning the activities had begun and it would be very inappropriate to try and network.

I took his advice, got a cup of tea and walked around and saw the six groups of professionals working diligently on different problems. I didn’t have a sense of what they were working on or if they had a common goal or specific segments or what next steps were or anything like that.

The DiploHack Pitches

The six groups worked individually for hours and then I finally found out what the goal of the event was. Each of the groups brainstormed information-based startups that could be used to help establish “Trust in the Food Chain” in Vietnam and then put together 3-minute pitches. It was a single-day event based on the hackathon model.

I don’t know anything about the rationale or logic of forming the groups or if it was just random people. Before the pitches, I did some networking and met some people connected to embassies, Vietnamese government and farmer organizations which can help, I hope, in the future.

Here is a brief summary of the six pitches. Remember, the focus of the brainstorming sessions was “Trust in the Food Chain.” The first group focused on the logistics supply chain and suggested an app that would enhance traceability. The next one focused on building a type of Wikipedia, “Foodpedia,” that Vietnamese could use to build profiles of their food choices and, with the government’s help, could keep track of violations within specific areas and markets. In this way, the website would allow people to have intelligent data about their food. The next three were all based on apps that would help inspire consumer confidence and enhance transparency. They did it in different ways, but all three focused on how to enhance trust in certification, reputation and transparency. The focus of all the apps was that the consumer would be able to use it better trace and verify where the food came from. So, again, traceability was a key aspect, as was certification, in all three apps.

The final project was presented as the most overarching and policy-focused solution. It had to do with a “risk-based approach” and focusing on the misuse of chemicals. They suggested an agro-chemical control process with the acronym ACCESS that would improve monitoring and controlling inputs. The basic conclusion was that the government lacks resources to enforce what the input providers are putting into the system. They really didn’t come up with a product, as much as outline the problem.

Leaving Diplohack

Each of the six team were being judged by a panel but I had to leave so didn’t actually see which was awarded the winner. I’m glad I went to Diplohack because it was good to see the Western countries focus on this. I think all of the products that were created would be good in the hands of educated, middle-class consumers who were interested in taking time to think about the food they eat. The type of people who go to Whole Foods in America, maybe. Those people do exist in Vietnam, and the Foodpedia product could be extremely useful if the government were willing to support it with information about violations.

While I did enjoy the Diplohack and was really glad to become introduced to some people working on the food security issue, my feeling is that there wasn’t enough of a distinction between supermarkets and wet markets. Also, I don’t think the farmers were represented enough in any of the solutions. From my own research, I think that the group that focused on monitoring input providers was right on track.

Diplohack Hanoi focused on the Vietnamese consumer and his “Trust in the Food Chain” which is at the very end of the supply chain. I think following the advice of the group that concluded that the government needs resources to focus on monitoring and controlling was right on. The input sector needs to be governed in a very transparent and harsh manner. The Vietnamese farmers, and the traders and large suppliers to the wet markets, need to know that the Vietnamese legal system is focused on food safety. In my view, the most disruptive solution, the one that will create the most “Trust in the Food Chain,” is the one that will focus on the agricultural legal system and provide a means for farmers to make contracts that they can trust and that can be enforced.