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29 Jun 2021

Interview ETKO: Don’t wait for a disaster – go digital, now!

When Mustafa Akyuz studied agronomy in the 1980s, hardly anyone was talking about organics. Although no chemicals had been used in Turkish agriculture until the 1960, the green revolution quickly made its way into the country, turning lots of fertile, diverse land into agrarian wastelands and monocultures. Nevertheless, inspired by one of his teachers and having suffered serious health problems whilst working with chemicals in a greenhouse, Mustafa dedicated his life to organic agriculture. After working as a consultant for five years, he founded ETKO, Turkey’s first organic certification body, in 1996. Today, ETKO has about 600 certified operators and, besides the main office in Izmir, staff in China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Ukraine. But in 2015, the company lost its accreditation for EU organic – a serious setback for the certifier. In our interview, conducted by Ina Hiester, Mustafa reveals how Ecert Basic helped him and his certification body to get back onto their feet – and how using the tool made him feel ready for further, sustainable growth.

Mustafa, how did you hear about Ecert Basic?

I have known Gerald, the director of Organic Services, for many years. Every now and then when we met, we spoke about the need to digitise and he explained how his audit and certification management software Ecert Basic could help me and my colleagues at ETKO to do so. He was very convincing – but unfortunately, I did not set the priorities right at that time. I think many people experience this: you go to a conference or a meeting, you get enthusiastic about changing something, and when you get back home, you get caught up again in your day-to-day tasks and challenges, pushing your new plans aside, for ‘when it is the right time’…

So, what made you implement the tool in the end?

Well, unfortunately we had to learn the hard way to set our priorities right. In 2015, when pesticide residues were found in one of our Ukrainian operator’s sunflower seeds, we were unable to react quickly enough to clarify what went wrong in the supply chain. By the time we found out what the problem was, our accreditor had already taken the EU organic accreditation from us. Rightfully, they wanted to see statistics, analyses, and reports as soon as possible, they wanted to know exact numbers of how many operators and how many hectares we had certified in Ukraine. At that time, we were managing all records and numbers in simple excel files. So, making all this information available and drawing the right conclusions from it took much too long. On top of that, after losing the EU accreditation, the USDA started to conduct more audits, because they had of course heard what had happened. At the next BIOFACH, I approached Gerald once again – but this time with a clear commitment. We needed change – as soon as possible.

When did you start working with Ecert Basic and what were your challenges in the beginning?

We started working with the tool soon after BIOFACH 2016, but at a very slow pace. The loss of our accreditation also meant losing about 60 % of our income and introducing a new software whilst you are economically struggling is an extra challenge. Moreover, most of my staff had difficulties with both accepting and using the new system, and frequent personnel changes did not help speed up the process, either. In 2018, we integrated our checklists and during the next two years we uploaded more and more of our files – mainly those for textile certifications. In 2020, I decided that real change needs more than just a new software. Therefore, I employed Arda, an IT savvy, dynamic, young man who took control of the tool full-time. And this paid off: ever since, we’ve made a lot of progress.

Did the tool ultimately help you to get your accreditation back?

Yes, indeed! We got our accreditation back beginning of 2021. The accreditation contract actually obliges us, as a precondition, to work with a software or a database like Ecert Basic. I am convinced that it helped greatly that we don’t work with some sort of ‘home-made’ solution, but with a professional tool that is based on a world-leading audit and certification management software, with a competent support team based in Germany.

Is your accreditor satisfied with the ‘new, digital ETKO’ so far?

Very much so. In the past, gathering all the information for a request from our accreditors could take us up to two weeks. Now, it takes only a few clicks to provide them with meaningful statistics, sound reports, and concrete figures.

How does Ecert Basic help you in your day-to-day business?

Let me give you a concrete example. In the Chinese region Xinjiang, the Muslim minority is being severely oppressed, which is why some Textile Scheme Owners have demanded that all existing certifications are withdrawn. With a few clicks in Ecert Basic, we can now identify if we have certified operators in that region and if so, which certifications they hold. A similar scenario occurred with child labour in an Indian province. For us, it is now very easy to quickly get an overview about a situation, analyse it, draw the right conclusions, and react accordingly.

What would you recommend other certifiers who are interested in working with the tool?

First of all: don’t wait for a disaster – go digital, now! The time for change is never ‘right’, but in today’s world of instant communication, you cannot survive without it. And if you don’t have the right person for administering the tool, apply someone, like I did – this is crucial for getting the most out of the software. When you start with the implementation, make sure you develop good checklists. I recommend beginning with one scope, trying it out, and going ahead from there – practically, the checklists can be combined later. And finally, make sure you register and update all information timely, ideally on a daily basis. Data accuracy and timeliness are the backbone of the entire system.

How has the COVID19-pandemic affected your certification activities?

Because we use Ecert Basic, we were able to conduct 10% of our audits remotely. Without the database, this would have been impossible. I am grateful we were already on our way to go digital when the pandemic hit. Having a sound database makes us feel save, and the ‘new digital spirit’ that working with the software has created also encourages us to dare going new ways. Especially in China, where we operate since 2020, we have been conducting remote audits and trainings, and have found new clients – despite the pandemic. We are now ready for further, sustainable growth.

Thank you so much for this very open and inspiring interview, Mustafa.

 

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