Visionaries is a limited series that looks at figures trying to transform the way we live.
The past year has brought a number of reminders that the connections that create the global economy may be weak. In March 2021 strong wind due to a sandstorm blew a container ship sideways in the Suez Canal, blockade about 12 percent of world trade for nearly a week. And this February trade sanctions about the war in Ukraine, many shipments of fresh products to Russia stopped.
In both cases, the customers of a Korean start-up called Trig were quickly able to find alternative buyers for their perishable products, sometimes forwarding them by sea when they were already underway.
Traditionally, fresh trade is conducted in a relatively binary manner between buyers and sellers. A seller can sell to different buyers and a buyer can buy from different suppliers, but the global fruit and vegetable trade was never really networked – at least, until Tridge came along.
Hoshik Shin, formerly a private equity fund manager at Korea Investment Corporation, Korea’s $200 billion sovereign wealth fund, is building such a network, which has a presence in nearly 100 countries to date. His company works directly with farmers and grocers, often buying from one and selling to the other to overcome the lack of transparency and trust that permeates the global fresh food trade.
And when something interrupts that trade, Tridge can quickly find new buyers in other countries before the products go bad — much like the Internet redirects traffic when a server on a network goes down.
What’s remarkable is that Tridge – the name is a portmanteau of transaction and bridging – works with low margins, small enough not to hinder the flow of trade. It can do this because its activities generate a valuable by-product: data. Tridge records the price, quality, and volume of each item it handles, and sells that data to both sellers and buyers, offsetting all other costs.
The ambition of Mr. Shin is to put that data together into a huge, moving, real-time picture of fresh produce on the planet. Anyone can subscribe to Tridge’s intelligence platform and watch the world grow, harvest, package and ship, from Indonesian mangosteens to American lemons.
Understand the supply chain crisis
This interview has been abridged and edited.
Can you tell us what you’re trying to do with Tridge?
Our vision is to create a fully consolidated supply chain management system for the global food and agriculture industry.
This market is frustrated by a lack of transparency. There is mistrust between even big buyers and big sellers who have been building relationships for decades. When there’s a distribution problem, sellers don’t get paid in full, and when the market is good, buyers feel like they’re paying too much.
Tridge plays the role of a highly transparent intermediary, who is trusted on both sides.
Why more reliable than conventional methods?
Farmers can move to better rating systems and value-added products, and increase their income, as happened with beef. Forty years ago there was not such an advanced beef rating system.
Users can check the market research they need. If there are products they want to buy, they can check the prices and availability of all geographic regions and they can easily place an order.
Suppliers can diversify their sales channels and buyers can secure more stable supply chains. They can easily move from country to country or region to region.
Everything from research to delivering the physical goods can be done in one go.
Can you give an example?
When the sanctions hit Russia, we had 100 containers of oranges on their way to Russia from Egypt. We sent them to other regions, to the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and China. Otherwise we might not have gotten paid or the fruit would have perished.
We don’t suddenly reroute shipments of that size to one country, as the sudden delivery can affect prices in that region. We distribute it in one of our warehouses and then distribute it across multiple markets.
Building a global network seems like a daunting task.
It hasn’t been easy. Building our data platform was the biggest challenge because we are dealing with so many different products. It took five years of intensive work to put it together and map the data on a global scale.
How the supply chain crisis unfolded
The pandemic caused the problem. The highly complex and interconnected global supply chain is in turmoil. Much of the crisis can traced to the outbreak of Covid-19, which led to an economic slowdown, massive layoffs and a shutdown of production. This is what happened next:
And food and agriculture is a very conservative industry. It is a relationship company. Who you know at a retail chain matters. So our lack of historical presence in a rather conservative industry has been a challenge, one we will continue to work on.
To build trust and profile, Tridge implements stricter verification standards than the industry standard. We take responsibility for logistics, payments, deliveries and claims and act as a market maker for more than 15,000 agricultural products.
And it was not easy to get to know the trade processes of different countries, the legal issues and logistics. It may seem simple now that we all get it, but there were nights when we stayed awake wondering if our shipments would reach their destination.
How did this start?
I worked for the private equity investment arm of Korea’s sovereign wealth fund, with a $2 billion fund dedicated solely to commodities investments. I wrote checks from $100 million to $200 million for commodity-related companies. That’s how I got to know the goods space.
Then I built a platform for a kind of network of experts for professionals who could help find raw materials for a fee from a finder – a company like Nestlé looking for an important ingredient in a particular country, or is there someone I’m with? can talk about grapes in France? We gathered nearly 40,000 people around the world, each representing their market, and we compensated people for their connections.
We gained a lot of intelligence through that process.
Energy and chemical deals were quite big, the frequency was lower and the deals were dominated by a few big players, whose influence is huge. So 70 to 80 percent of the network questions from experts came from agriculture and we realized that the market is completely fragmented. No one is dominant.
With products, there are thousands of products and varieties that have never been standardized. So in the beginning we put resources into building a data architecture to structure the scientific varieties, crop types, packaging and grading. Without such a structure, you can never accumulate this kind of data.
So we became a kind of center of gravity. And once our mass was big enough, we could standardize it.
Can you tell us something about the role of market intelligence on your platform?
We collect the data and the data becomes intelligence, and the intelligence attracts users, and many of them become premium users and become our buyers, our suppliers. They start transacting with us, and those transactions create more data and feed back to our data intelligence. So there is a flywheel effect that gets even stronger with time.
When dealing with Tridge, our suppliers can deal with many buyers at once without deploying sellers in many countries. And that aggregate demand gives us a better bargaining position.
Craig S. Smith is a former correspondent for The Times and hosts the podcast “Eye on AI†