The internet of onions
Published on 09 February 2018
If there is a star among the machinery in the Wiskerke Onions pack-house, it is the computerised sorting machine.
As thousands of onions pass through it, this boxy metal machine wrapped around a conveyor belt outdoes its ordinary looks. An infrared scanner looks inside each onion, separating out the ones with defects while its optical cameras sort them according to customer preferences for size, weight, colour and quality.
It’s the first of its kind and one example of the investments the company’s CEO, Chayenne Wiskerke, is making in technology to ensure Wiskerke Onions, an 80-year old family-run company, continues to be the world’s leading onion exporter.
“From our operations to our customer communication to our supply chain, technology and data can help us improve our product, our processes and our service to customers,” says Wiskerke.
The missing piece
In 2015, Wiskerke launched an app for customers, available on all platforms, to give them instant access to data on their onions, including the location of their container, bill of lading, ETA, invoicing, information about the grower, results of the lab analysis and even photos of the onions on departure from the packing-house. For her African customers, who typically do business on their cell phones, the app is critical, she says.
“What I realised was the app gave our customers a better overview than I had of our shipments,” she says. Then Hilmar Smit, her Maersk sales contact, showed her Maersk’s new Remote Container Management (RCM) tool with real-time temperature, humidity and location data. It was a natural match for her increasingly digital business.
“We have 60-70 containers each week on the water for voyages as long as 35 days. Before, we had to rely on a vessel tracking website to follow our containers,” says Wiskerke. “Now with Maersk’s RCM system, we have near real-time location and temperature data all in one place. It’s fantastic and I’m only just discovering how I can use it.”
The next generation
Wiskerke Onions operates in the final half of the Dutch onion supply chain. Dutch farmers sell their onions to Wiskerke, which then packages, brands and exports them - 176 million kilogrammes a year - to a wide range of customers around the world.
At 28 years old, Chayenne Wiskerke is the fourth-generation to take over the leadership. She spent two years after business school working in different positions in the company before taking the lead from her father, Jacob. In addition to managing, she is the head of sales, arriving before sunrise and leaving late in the evening - often wearing her running shoes - with the same bright smile her 75 employees see during the day.
Global demand for Dutch onions has led to record exports in the last few years and more than 130 countries now import Dutch onions. Growing demand from African countries like Senegal and the Ivory Coast as well as Asia is good news for Wiskerke Onions.
“The great thing about this business is that people will always eat onions,” says Wiskerke. “What will change is how we run the business, so we need to be aware of and continue to look for opportunities to grow and to improve, with digital, for example.”
Learning from the data
On her computer, Chayenne Wiskerke opens the RCM dashboard and clicks on one of her containers, this one on its way to the Philippines. A line graph appears showing the current temperature, humidity and ventilation levels just as they should be.
“It’s peace of mind, I don’t wonder anymore,” she says. “And if there is a problem I can look back at the data and figure it out. Was the setting wrong? A problem with the equipment or was it the product itself? But for me the most interesting thing is what Wiskerke Onions and the industry can learn from it over time.”
One question she will be investigating is whether the temperature, humidity and ventilation settings for containers of onions going to the Philippines, Middle East and the United States should be the same.
“Wiskerke has used the same reefer settings we have always used, and since our customers are happy we’ve stuck to it,” she says. “But with RCM, we can use the data to fine-tune for different markets and times of year, or even unique customer needs. That’s where the data and technology really gets interesting.”