Palm oil cultivation continues contributing to deforestation, creating enormous challenges for the companies that rely on the ingredient for consumer products. Unilever seeks to address these issues through new geolocation monitoring technology.
The company is launching a pilot with the Palo Alto-based tech company Orbital Insight at Unilever’s oleochemical facility in Sei Mangkei, Sumatra, Indonesia. As Unilever explained online, the pilot uses geolocation monitoring through mobile phone network data to help identify which farms and plantations most likely supply palm oil mills within the company’s extended supply chain.
“The technology leverages GPS data — aggregated and anonymized — to allow Orbital Insight to spot traffic patterns,” according to Unilever, which owns brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Dove, Hellmann’s, and Best Foods. “Where there is a consistent flow of traffic between an area of land and a mill, it suggests a potential link.”
Once the data-driven link to palm plantations has been established, the company uses technology and satellite data to monitor these plantations across the entire supply chain. Unilever also has satellite data showing recent fires, deforestation and conversion on peat soils, as well as forest near protected areas and national parks.
“We can get a much clearer picture of where harvested crops are coming from, even down to the individual field,” the company said. “This, in turn, allows us to predict the possibility of issues such as deforestation and, where found, to take action.”
This approach differs from the current technique, which is to take a satellite image, draw a 50-kilometer radius around the mills, and make an assumption that the farms or plantations in these areas are all equally likely to be supplying the mills, Unilever noted.
Instead, the technology being deployed for the pilot combines tens of thousands of satellite images, geolocation data, artificial intelligence, and scalable data science.
“It’s a step change from the current approach and it can model supply chain linkages at scale,” the consumer goods company says. “We’re now working with Orbital Insight to develop and finesse this into an operational methodology, and testing the technology at a small number of palm oil mills in Indonesia and soy mills in Brazil.”