Better than 2020 Vision: Digital marketplace for rural agro-economies in Colombia
User-led design of digital platform to streamline buying and selling of agricultural goods between farmers and buyers and maximize impact
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Farming Data Limited
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Inés Cavalier, Patrimonio Natural
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
3 places in Colombia: Risaralda (area of 4,140 km^2), Caquetá (88,965 km^2), and a municipality called El Carmen de Bolívar (945 km^2)
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Our team has been living and working full-time in Colombia for nearly a year, immersing ourselves in the local culture and getting to know the food security challenges affecting millions of their country’s population, particularly those located in rural areas. Additionally, one of our founding members previously spent time volunteering in Colombia, giving us further on-ground experience and local connections. Having these experiences gave our team the desire to return and work on the problems that most affect people in rural Colombia.
Moreover, our lead collaborator Patrimonio Natural is a large NGO with a mission of preserving the unique and threatened natural heritage of Colombia. This includes reforestation efforts in the Amazonian and Caribbean regions. We collaborate closely with their team, who inspire us with their passion for defending the incredible diversity of ecosystems and fighting for the rights of the communities who depend on them.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The rural agricultural areas of Colombia are culturally and naturally diverse with unique species and ecosystems, regional characteristics, and dietary preferences. In the coffee-growing region of Risaralda, temperatures are moderate but may become cooler as you climb uphill on the mountains. The altitude ranges from 1,410 to 1,700 metres above sea level, creating difficult mountainous conditions. In the past, farmers had to find ways to optimize and transform the mountainous farms into a perfect place for growing coffee. The Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia, recognized by UNESCO, signifies how farmers have tightly knit the production of coffee with their relaxed and welcoming lifestyles and unique local practices.
As we move south towards the gateway to the Amazonian region of Colombia, we find Caquetá, a truly tropical area with high humidity and warm to hot temperatures. Thunderstorms can last for days, filling up the seven major rivers flowing through the department. Farmers here in Caquetá grow various Amazonic fruits and indigenous nuts, such as arazá and sacha inchi, respectively. However, in order for farmers to reach buyers at marketplaces or their closest towns, it may take them several hours.
Moving north towards the Caribbean region of Colombia, the municipality of El Carmen de Bolívar has high temperatures, which swing between extreme rain and dry seasons. The unpredictable rain periods have made it difficult for farmers to reap sufficient yields, as often a long dry period can destroy young seedlings. The Colombian Caribbean food system comprises a diverse heritage: from hunter-gatherers, agricultural indigenous groups, crops introduced by Europeans and even African products and food traditions. Thus you can have ancient forest-sourced food such as the Orejero edible seed prepared from native trees, or the Guáimaro fruit, also known as the Ramón tree, important for early Mayan populations. Wild animals such as the armadillo, the paca forest rodent, the pava bird, the tree iguana are a few ancient foods with a 10,000 year history and distinctive "wild" flavours and preparation techniques. The agricultural contribution is mainly based on root plants: staple foods with high caloric value - such as manioc, yam, sweet yam, wild arrowroot, mixed with African herbs such as Cimarrón Coriander.
Despite the biodiversity, displacement and rural conflict in Colombia have affected seed and crop availability. Our collaborator Patrimonio Natural has traced seed guardians, traditional campesino farmers or ethnic farmers, to strengthen and promote seed exchange fairs, where agricultural traditional practices regarding "lost or rare" seeds are reintroduced in the farms.
For household incomes, Caribbean farmers are masters of multifunctional activities, but many are still not able to surpass the national poverty line. Many depend on government subsidies, work in other farms, and farming animals when they have the money to buy those animals.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Asymmetry of information access, as well as gaps in data collection, lies at the heart of many great challenges in our food system and is intricately interwoven with the six themes.
Around 41% of the rural Colombian population work in agriculture, highlighting its importance in supporting livelihoods. However, not every farmer has similar access to information to make informed decisions about when to sell their products. Volatility in the prices of crops in informal markets, based on poorly matched supply and demand, further create financial risks for low-income farmers.
The current absence of reliable large scale datasets on rural agriculture, especially markets, makes it challenging for local regional governments to make evidence-informed policies. The complexity of informal chains is a major reason for suboptimal results in past policy interventions.
For instance, while we can make approximate calculations of the differences in coffee prices that farmers receive versus retail or roasteries, we have not been able to identify how many farmers are affected by this, where it is true, and what the variance might be. In other words, what are the highest or lowest prices that farmers receive for the same quality produce? Are certain members of underserved groups, such as women in post-conflict areas, receiving lower prices than their counterparts?
Unless we take a holistic systems approach, governments cannot appropriately design and implement policies to raise families out of poverty and overcome food insecurity.
When isolated rural farmers do not find buyers willing to pay a price that offsets their transport costs, those agricultural goods may be either unharvested or left to waste. Improving the efficiency and integration of smallholder agriculture is not only beneficial to increasing farmer income, but also in reducing post-harvest waste and environmental impact. It is a challenge to reward those who adopt sustainable agricultural practices as other players in the value chain may not have access to this information.
Displacement and rural conflict in Colombia have affected seed and crop availability. There is huge potential to re-discover “lost or rare” crops and link them to specialized markets focused on reintroducing rare or forgotten flavours.
The advent of mobile technologies and analytics are wonderful opportunities but run into barriers of accessibility, particularly in rural areas. The transition from 2G to 3G/4G has been slower in Colombia than other LatAm countries. There is also a gap between urban and rural mobile data usage rates: 67% versus 45% of connections. As our food systems start to use digital tech, it is both a current and future challenge to ensure that no one, particularly low-income populations using 2G, is left behind.
When adopting solutions, there is bound to be a need for cultural transformation, which also risks the erosion of local traditions. A challenge for 2050 as we transform the efficiency of food systems in rural Colombia is how to maintain inclusivity for all stakeholders and preserve cultures whilst integrating technological advances.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our vision of an integrated digital system to streamline trading of produce between farmers and buyers will generate accessible data that positively impacts on the six themes.
Making it easier for low-income farmers to better integrate with supply chains and to manage organisations that sell volumes collectively are key to a stable and fair economy in rural Colombia. Our platform directly addresses the issue of market exclusion by enabling farmers to trade with a buyer or cooperatives using their own mobile phones. Users are provided with location-specific information about prices in their exact location, giving them more power when negotiating with potential buyers. By better matching supply and demand, we help to decrease the financial risks presented to lower-income farmers.
To understand the complexity of informal supply chains, our platform generates and analyses data to return locally relevant information back to users, small businesses, or policy makers. It is important to know in real-time (1) where there are sudden hotspots of changes to market volumes or prices, (2) whether members of marginalized groups in post-conflict areas are more frequently subjected to unfair prices, and (3) what are the measurable environmental impacts of specific agricultural products entering informal supply chains.
Enabling farmers to sell their products more efficiently, and for local buyers to know the anticipated quantities and time availability of supplies near them, can overcome gaps in knowledge about real-time supply and demand, and reduce the possibility of wastage on farms. There is also an option for farmers to self-report how much produce they did not manage to sell. Furthermore, we will be introducing a new sustainability certification in the platform for rural Colombian farmers that tracks on-farm environmental impact factors and traces this to each crop offered for sale.
Our platform shows a discoverability map for users, pinpointing the availability and production of common produce and “lost or rare” crops. This can strengthen the re-introduction of indigenous crops and increase awareness about the diverse types of food recipes from traditional groups.
Our platform directly addresses the issue of leaving no one behind in the journey to mobile 3G/4G broadband. We purposefully ensured smooth integration with SMS and voice menus, so that people only with basic mobile phones, low literacy, or poor mobile data can also access essential platform features.
To integrate technological advances with local cultures, we prioritise user-led design of the platform and constantly iterate new improvements based on user feedback. We based the key transactional stages of the platform on how farmers and local cooperatives in reality conduct transactions, therefore reducing behavioural differences when using digital platform for trading.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Our grand vision for tomorrow is for all crops being grown in Risaralda, Caquetá, and El Carmen de Bolívar to enter supply chains efficiently, that no crops are wasted, that farmers earn a higher income, and that families have stable access to food, despite uncontrollable challenges like market fluctuations and climate change.
Many farmers from these regions of Colombia currently have to find work off the farm in order to supplement their household incomes. We want to ensure farming provides a stable livelihood and a future for the millions of people who work hard and are poorly rewarded whilst feeding millions more throughout Colombia.
Food traditions can be lost or recovered and enriched "one bite at a time". The loss of a black maize seed or a rare purple yam depends on cultural activities related to food, beginning with that "homely flavor" or "my grandmother’s kitchen" smell and taste. It is enhanced through daily preparations founded on the nearby crop and kitchen gardens, and can be recovered through tasting events created with the local people and knowledge
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Farming Data and Patrimonio Natural are collaborating to address food security issues affecting thousands of small-scale farmers in rural parts of Colombia. Our vision is to tackle the asymmetry of information and increase transparency and connectivity so that we can maximize the positive impacts of streamlining the selling and buying of agricultural goods.
Our digital platform is designed to restructure rural supply chains from the ground up. By working closely with farmers and cooperatives, we have developed a digital system based on mobile technology that is already in their hands. A lot of exploitation in the supply chain comes from the isolation and lack of coordination amongst rural farmers, which allows people further up the supply chain to take advantage of them. By helping farmers to organize and cooperate from the bottom up, the entire system is based on a stable and fairer foundation, that is not vulnerable to the same kinds of exploitation.
Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Moreover, 41% of the rural population work in an agricultural system that is currently highly fragmented, inefficient, and wasteful. From an economic, cultural, and dietary perspective, the connectivity provided by digital technology presents an amazing opportunity to stimulate these rural economies. Getting more income to these communities not only helps farmers, but has knock-on effects that benefit all other local businesses. For the poorest communities, increases in income allow families to buy a broader diversity of nutritional food they may not themselves produce, and begin to afford essential healthcare and education for their children.
From an environmental perspective, rising demand for Colombian produce can be satisfied by increasing the production land area or reducing the amount of waste. Climate change means we cannot afford to continue deforestation in regions like Caquetá. So we must ensure that what is already produced is not wasted and farmers who invest in sustainable practices are rightly rewarded. Better coordination also offers a solution here.
The problems encountered in the Colombian food system are not going to remain static. They are currently poorly understood, especially in rural areas, and will change over time. Making a digital marketplace available to rural communities addresses the immediate market access problem. But it also means that the markets are no longer informal. This means policy makers no longer have to play “catch-up” when it comes to data collection, which currently is very expensive to gather and rapidly becomes out of date. We can continually analyse the state of the system, in terms of actual prices received and volumes produced, and make targeted interventions, such as improving access to inputs or infrastructure for the regions that most urgently need it.
The growth of mobile phone adoption in Colombia is a transformative opportunity to bridge the urban/rural divide. At the moment, the development of mobile applications has often neglected rural farming communities, particularly as usage rates of mobile broadband are lower in rural settings. By tailoring local content that is relevant to smallholder farmers, we are co-creating a suitable digital tool for farmers and other members of the rural community to participate dynamically when buying and selling agricultural goods.
Our work is grounded in the needs of communities: we focus on working hand-in hand with small-scale farmers, cooperatives and local buyers, making continuous improvements to the platform based on their feedback. This collaboration with our end users is our primary guiding principle. We believe that rural communities deserve the same quality of digital services available to people in the cities in Colombia or in higher income countries.
Inspiration: Achieving better than 2020 vision
We believe platform-based solutions are the key to addressing systemic problems in agriculture. There is no single solution to the problems we face, but arguably, many of the technologies needed to improve food systems in developing nations already exist. Therefore, we do not need to wait for a new invention to come along, we need better ways of organizing people, structuring systems, to improve the livelihoods of the people at the bottom of a system that is currently structured to perpetuate their exploitation.
Working towards our 2050 challenges may be a slow process, but we should not be complacent in thinking we have 30 years to solve these problems. They are affecting people every day. This is why our vision is not just for a better 2050, but for a better tomorrow.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?