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Bringing the Farmer’s Market to the Internet

How could we bring the experience of a farmer’s market, where farmers sell high-quality produce directly to consumers and restaurants, to the internet? Let’s say a few farmers, all of whom create organic and high-quality produce, want to work together to create an online webshop with a common brand. Probably the 3 most important factors for the success of such a network of farmers would be: - Consumers experience the network consistently as a common brand - Farmers in this network work using similar patterns for managing product information, stock, order management, and logistics - A technological backbone that supports all of the goals that takes into account the diversity of situations (e.g. good and bad internet connections, limited time/resources given the main business is growing crops, not operating computers, etc.). This technological backbone must be capable of making farmers more efficient in their daily tasks, and easily grow with them as their business grows.

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The concept would probably work well for any group of small businesses that want to work together to provide a common brand experience to customers. I picked farming as an example, as farmers tend to have already organized themselves into collaborative networks. A few key challenges:

  • Members of the network must share a common set of values. All of the members must be equally willing to give as much as they get from the network.
  • Logistics coverage would initially be limited to local areas, as the involvement of a large logistics operator with national coverage would make the costs unattractive (delivery costs might even be more than the cost of the produce).
  • There must be a facilitator who helps organize the network and be the brand steward.

In order to organize the members of the small business network, it’s probably necessary to identify the facilitator, and a cross-section of members who best represent the network. Through a series of small workshops, business analysis techniques like knowledge modelling and value network analysis can be applied to extract the optimal communication patterns. The important thing is to create a concept that people can see working as soon as possible, and the goal of these workshops should be focused towards producing a working concept within a few days. The implementation effort would then be around implementing the technological framework and backbone. The average time to get this all working, from concept to production, should be no more than 2 to 3 months.

I’ve been working with a bunch of other technological enthusiasts to make this concept work for the past few years. We recently got the concept working for a network of 50 farmers in the Netherlands. We’d really like to see it working in other places around the world, but we’re conscious of the fact that we might need some transformations to get there. We’d be happy to hear from anyone who would want to realize the concept in other forms, and help us bridge those transformations together.

Specifically for Caldas, we would suggest working together with existing agricultural cooperatives like Alto Occidente Coffee Cooperative of Caldas (CCAOC) to create marketplaces where consumers, restaurants, and cafés around the world can order directly from CCAOC. We believe organizations like CCAOC have a good understanding of the entire value network from grower to customer, and can tell us which participants currently create or reduce value. This value network must extend to the local communities in Caldas that directly or indirectly support agricultural cooperatives. Perhaps CCAOC already have an understanding of the nature of the value they want to create (better products, better relationships, better transparency, fairer prices for growers, etc.), and this value creation will create a better brand experience for consumers. The network should also understand its role in creating value structures in Caldas from the onset, so that the goals of the network aren't reduced to creating wealth opportunities for a few farmers. Good products are created in stable and supporting communities, and building a complete agricultural network would need to consider how the local community beyond the agricultural cooperative contributes, supports, and receives value.

How do you envision this idea making money?

Passionate restaurateurs and chefs increasingly want the best produce to create their menus. And the best of them already take the time to go to farmer’s markets to buy directly from farmers. We help take that relationship online. A restaurant chef recently told me that what he really likes about the concept is the ability to get detailed information about each kind of product, and getting a chance to know the person who grew the product. Nothing can replace being there, but we can try and get close to that experience. Similarly, discerning families who want the best quality products find the option to buy directly from the source a refreshing alternative. These discerning customers don't mind paying a little more for an excellent product, and the money raised by the business will be spent expanding the network to cover more farmers and build logistics coverage.

How does this idea create social impact, particularly around improving health?

The focus on high-quality organic food products will raise the consciousness with our target market in understanding the benefits of slow food. We believe helping small farmers connect directly with customers will help them get fair prices for their products, and eventually help them grow. Finally, creating marketplaces around good food will help create good health.

How does this idea add social value at every step of the process?

We believe small businesses are the cornerstone of social value construction (the name we've been using to organize our activities is "coena", which means corner in Bengali). By helping small businesses adopt demand and supply network best practices, we can create an environment where they can participate as business equals with their larger counterparts.

What are the short term steps we could take to implement this idea tomorrow?

We have recently got this concept working in practice with 50 farmers in the Netherlands, and we would like to make the concept work in other parts of the world. We see our role as principally providing a working technological framework along with some business analysis methodologies, and we would like to work with other organizations to concretely realize working implementations or solutions. We believe understanding the practical challenges that small businesses experience is key to setting up effective networks before putting solutions together. Small businesses work in distributed (geographically and virtually spread out), disruptive (need to do a lot of things at the same time), and de-centralized (each business has its own process and way of doing things). In order to make this concept work, solutions need to embrace these characteristics. The first step is to identify working groups of small businesses that have identified the effective patterns of working together, and have strong intent in working together. Through focused workshops with a few representatives, a model of the network can be realized. Decisions of how things should function should be filtered through such a model. The technological components are designed to enable a living network, and are initially focused towards helping members work through their basic operational steps. We usually realize working networks in a space of 2 to 3 months. As a first practical step, we would be interested in getting in touch with agricultural cooperatives in Caldas like Alto Occidente Coffee Cooperative of Caldas (CCAOC) to determine if the circumstances exist to take such an idea forward.

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