From the series “Get to Know the Clusters of the Kuopio Region”
North Savo Agri-food cluster has been officially working for almost a year, but what the cluster is trying to do through its diverse service is to consider the whole food chain or as Ardita Hoxha-Jahja, the cluster manager, puts it “from farm to fork!”. In this article from the “get to know the clusters in the North-Savo region” series, the key points in the agri-food sector have been emphasized. The main topics covered in this article include the reasons behind the cluster’s creation, the main services it offers to members, the importance of this sector in the North-Savo region, the number of companies in this sector in the region, the primary incentives for investors, and how the region can differentiate itself in this sector.
Memberships and Certifications: European Cluster Collaboration Platform (ECCP)
Location: Pohjois-Savo, Iisalmi
Careful study of previous clusters in Europe reveals that they have mostly concentrated on the food processing side and adding value during the processing while neglecting the primary production, such as agriculture. The reason and purpose for the formation of the North Savo agri-food cluster was to span the whole food chain, or simply put “from farm to fork”!
What is the farm to fork strategy: The European Green Deal sets out how to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. It maps a new, sustainable and inclusive growth strategy to boost the economy, improve people’s health and quality of life, care for nature, and leave no one behind. The Farm to Fork Strategy is at the heart of the Green Deal. It addresses comprehensively the challenges of sustainable food systems and recognizes the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet. A shift to a sustainable food system can bring environmental, health and social benefits, offer economic gains and ensure that the recovery from the crisis puts us onto a sustainable path.
In September 2020 Sitra (the Finnish Innovation Fund), in its commentary on the EU Farm to Fork strategy, encouraged Finland to strongly address the remarkable economic opportunities associated with a sustainable food system. Sitra also pointed out the rapid transformation on-going in the food sector, leading to opportunities of Finnish plant-based ingredients and alternative protein sources.
Although in Iisalmi, where the cluster is located, much industrialization is taking place, but the purpose of the cluster is to show that agriculture is also taking place in the region. Despite the presence of large corporations such as Genelec, Ponsse, and Normet in Iisalmi, some individuals who work in these corporations are primarily farmers with agricultural backgrounds. The cluster is headquartered in Iisalmi, although it also has members from other cities in the region.
“We are an ECCP member and have also applied to be a member of the NordicHub. In the future, we intend to join the Smart Specialization Platform (S3 platform) and consider working and cooperating with similar clusters from other regions (such as Etelä Savo, Etelä-Pohjanmaa) to jointly create a food chain roadmap”, mentioned Hoxha-Jahja.
The agri-food cluster offers its members the following services:
Facilitation of member collaboration: The cluster serves as a facilitator and a platform for members to cooperate and share information.
“As an ECCP member, we are considering utilizing the ECCP resilience platform to assist our members in benefiting from it, as there are several risks in the food chain following the Covid outbreak and the war in Ukraine. Companies may use the resilience platform to identify new markets and work with other similar companies located outside of Finland”, said Hoxha-Jahja.
Following the recent global crises (particularly the Ukraine war), the importance of the food chain has become highly vital to everybody. Every actor will benefit from having a resilience assessment tool or a platform to address challenges in the food chain, and the agri-food cluster intends to operate as a key channel to bring members together and assist them profit from working together.
Trend scouting (Ideas for innovative projects): the cluster assists its members in matching creative ideas with appropriate funding, since there are numerous funding opportunities, but there is insufficient time and resources for entrepreneurs to try to innovate a new idea.
“We also collaborate to form a consortium and then apply for a joint project (nationally and globally) to bring innovation to the food chain in this region. It is vital to highlight that finding a partner (either a company, organization, or farmer) at the EU level to work on a project is frequently difficult for businesses to undertake on their own, but it would be easier with the support of the cluster”, added Hoxha-Jahja.
Periodic information dissemination: the cluster aims at keeping its members up to date on what is going on in the food chain at the EU and worldwide levels. To that aim, they publish periodical newsletters with up-to-date information, as well as collect information from various events in which they participate and share it with the members in the hopes that it would inspire them to come up with new ideas.
Promotion of activities (marketing visibility): In order to make the regional food chain companies visible at the EU level, they use the ECCP platform to present their members and provide more information about them, making it much easier for the companies to match with the same company from another part of Europe.
Support of knowledge transfer: The aim is to utilize the research, done at the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (Luke) and Savonia UAS, in businesses/farms through student projects or internships. Additionally, the cluster is intended to foster communication between research organizations and agri-food companies.
For now, members are not charged for using the services, but as the services evolve, it will be needed to evaluate how much fee should each member pay, as there are many types of members in the cluster, ranging from large corporations to farmers.
Applicants working in agriculture or the food sector can fill out the membership form, as well as contact one of the cluster members for help and to receive the MOU to sign. With that MOU, the applicants agree to play their part in the cluster.
The cluster now has 17/18 member companies, which include large corporations, start-ups, and farmers. The cluster tried to involve all key players in the food chain, including companies, farmers (looking forward to increasing the number), the public sector and cities, service providers such as insurance companies (LähiTapiola), banks (Säästöpankki), educational institutions such as Savonia UAS and Ylä-Savo Vocational College and research organisations, such as Luke.
Kiuruvesi city is surrounded by unspoiled nature in the north part of the region and committed to sustainable development. The city is proud to call itself “Finland’s Capital of the Sustainable Development”, still it is critical to develop more sustainable agricultural methods in order to elevate this region to the level of the EU. More milk and meat are produced in this region than in any other parts in Finland. More agricultural research will make the region more secure in this sector, as food security is critical. Valio, a corporation with over a century of expertise, is an excellent example. They are developing a national model to quantify the carbon footprint of milk and beef production in collaboration with Atria and Luke, with the goal of achieving a carbon neutral food chain (read more here). This model can also be utilized outside Finland in other countries.
According to National Food Research and Innovation strategy for Finland, there’s a need to focus on sustainable product production, minimize food waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and so on.
“We must keep in mind that sometimes importing goods from other countries results in higher greenhouse gas emissions, but producing them in Finland results in lower emissions and allows us to create better ways to make less gas emitted products. It would also be beneficial for consumers to be aware of what they are eating”, highlighted Hoxha-Jahja.
According to public data, the North Savo region has almost 2700 firms in agriculture and food sectors such as beverage manufacturing, food and agriculture product manufacturing, forestry, and fisheries. Almost 30% of these businesses are concentrated in the top ten municipalities shown below, with Kuopio having the most.
Distribution of the agri-food companies in different cities of Northern Savo (City / Number of the companies)
Top-notch research facilities, good education (for example, there are well-educated farmers in the region), good advising support (for example, ProAgria provides very good support in terms of business management, finance, and production) are the main incentives that can be attractive to the investors. In addition, in this field the results of researches can easily be applied to the business through different channels, such as university of applied sciences.
Agriculture in Finland is significantly more challenging than in other regions of the world due to the country’s cold weather for almost half of the year. However, if there is a barrier, there is an innovative solution to utilize the land during the months when there is no snow and the soil is ready to develop on. From an environmental standpoint, agriculture in Finland does not require more water usage, given to the amount of snow and rain, as well as its lakes. Furthermore, based on the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO), at the start of 2021, Finland was experiencing a “Good “quality of air with a US AQI number of just 23. With woods covering 75% of the country, it is also known as Europe’s most forested country. By promoting the area in this sector, not only it is possible to offer the potentials at the EU level, but also outside Europe, because enterprises may interact with other clusters outside Europe, such as Canada or Latin America, through cluster platforms.
“We need to start marketing ourselves a little more if we want to attract additional investors to the region. People outside the borders have little knowledge of what is going on in the region in terms of agricultural and food production. Because of the weather in Finland (which is cold for about half of the year), it is difficult to imagine that the country’s agriculture is doing well. The reality is that there are many breakthroughs in the agriculture industry that are unknown outside of Finland and require more marketing to become visible so that investors may come and invest in this area”, highlighted Hoxha-Jahja.
Agri-Food Cluster North Savo Website
 Memorandum Of Understanding.
 In the National Food Research and Innovation strategy for Finland 2021-2035 report, change paths were defined towards a healthy and sustainable global food system that promotes wellbeing of individual and society and offers new economic growth opportunities for the Finnish food system actors based on scientific knowledge and food innovations. The grand mission of the National Food Research and Innovation strategy is to make Finland a global standard for a healthy and sustainable food system which leads to economic growth and to wellbeing of the society. In addition, four sub-missions towards 2035 form the foundation of the strategy which are:
 Air Quality Index (AQI): Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.
For each pollutant an AQI value of 100 generally corresponds to an ambient air concentration that equals the level of the short-term national ambient air quality standard for protection of public health. AQI values at or below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is unhealthy: at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher.
The AQI is divided into six categories. Each category corresponds to a different level of health concern. Each category also has a specific color. The color makes it easy for people to quickly determine whether air quality is reaching unhealthy levels in their communities (read more about U.S. AQI Index here).
Text: Parastoo Jalili
Photos: Agri-Food Cluster North Savo