Agri SMEs need extra helping hand to benefit from post-COVID opportunities

Many SMEs innovated during the crisis, but the challenge now is to sustain this momentum, turning short term schemes into long term successes. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Small and medium-sized enterprises will need an extra helping hand to capitalise on the opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic to adapt to the new reality, stakeholders have warned.

On the back of conclusions from two new ‘food foresight analysis’ reports, the outcomes of a joint venture between Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, EIT Food, and accountancy firms Deloitte and Lantern, stakeholders are calling for more support for smaller players in the agrifood sector.

The reports, which offer key insights into how COVID-19 has affected the agrifood systems in South and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), shine a light on the particularities of each region and ways to maximise the opportunities arising from the crisis in each of their specific circumstances.

In this way, the foresight reports are designed to play a key role in helping future-proof EU policymaking by ensuring that short-term initiatives are grounded in a longer-term perspective.

Both make a clear case for the need to digitalise, underscoring the need for innovation in the agrifood sector to transform and increase its resilience.

“All crisis give opportunities,” Begoña Pérez Villarreal, director of EIT Food South, stressed during the launch event of the report, urging that the need to invest in innovative solutions is “more relevant than ever”.

COVID-19 crisis could 'kick off digital revolution in agriculture'

Digital farming is set to boom in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, given its capacity to help the EU farming sector improve its sustainability and recover from the outbreak’s impact. But there are also considerable concerns raised about the pace of this change and whether farmers are adequately prepared for it.

But capitalising on these opportunities is a particular challenge for SMEs, who may struggle to seek funding and also access the kind of knowledge needed to innovate.

“Regarding public investment, we know there are opportunities and they will show up, but there is a bit of concern over how small business can access these funds,” she said.

This is because, in the struggle to cope with the fallout from the pandemic, they may have less energy and resources to seek the help on offer, she added.

Although there are a growing number of smaller players exploiting niche markets, the CEE report states the cost of adaption is “most burdensome to smaller producers, who have a more specialised product and specific clientele”.

At the same time, while the HoReCa and tourism-oriented sectors of the food industry shouldered a large part of the burden of the COVID-19 crisis, SMEs were particularly affected given that they “did not have resources to weather the lockdowns and restrictions”.

However, it also highlights the potential of smaller businesses, concluding that they are also the most flexible and dynamic sector with the agri-food value chains.

“While SMEs have born the brunt of the losses in COVID-19 tourism downturn, many catering businesses were able to offer their services already a few months after the first wave of the pandemic,” it reads, saying many survived either by downsizing or optimising, including via innovative delivery solutions, over the past few months.

The challenge now is to sustain this momentum, turning short term schemes into long term successes and translating these lessons into policy, stakeholders said.

SMEs could lead the change in new EU food policy, MEP said

Europe’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) should have a role in delivering the new Farm to Fork strategy, a comprehensive EU food policy outlined by incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said Austrian MEP Lukas Mandl.

Knowledge exchange and collaboration ‘key’

One way to help SMEs is by facilitating knowledge exchange between more established businesses, as Ana Machado, senior project manager at the leading retail company SONAE, highlighted during the event. 

“I couldn’t emphasise more the opportunities and role of collaboration in addressing the challenges that the food industry is now facing,” Machado said.

She added that she would encourage smaller players to be open to opportunities to collaborate with players from across the agrifood chain to create future proof solutions to the market demands and help accelerate the uptake of the technological innovations on offer.

Machado highlighted the importance of sector associations and programmes such as Horizon 2020 and those offered by EIT Food, for stimulating collaboration and joint projects.

“There are opportunities there in this crisis; it opens up a lot of uncertainty but also a lot of opportunities,” she said, pointing to new consumer patterns such as an increase in e-commerce, new dietary habits, and an increased interest in buying local.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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