Thinking

Power to the People: why technology changes everything for local food

13th March 2014
The internet has changed and so have we. No big bang. It just got faster and easier to access and more of us – a critical mass – made it society’s main means of communication.

And since it became the new normal (2007?) creative minds have reinvented whole industries.

One of the big changes is that groups of individuals can be brought together for their common good. What one commentator calls “trust between strangers”. Before the Internet they would not have been able to find each other.

Here’s more on what these changes allow and how it impacts local food:

Co-buying

One of the big blockers for selling direct is that as a food producer you need to drum up enough trade to make it worthwhile. The Internet helps a disparate group drum up enough combined demand to make it worthwhile for a farmer or food producer to sell direct. This might also be a way for farmers and independent food producers to access cheaper supplies – by buying in bulk together.

Examples: Grouponwww.buyinggroups.co.uk/

Cutting out the middle man

Co-buying is the first step. But the really important one is the availability of cheap tools for sale (i.e. readily available e-commerce software). Companies like eBay and Etsy have provided the kind of sophisticated retail tools that would only have been available to very big companies in the past. Now they can sell them at a very small cost to 100’s of thousands of very small merchants. In the process these trailblazers have demystified retail: efficiently imparting the knowledge to help them become sophisticated merchandisers.

Examples: Ebay, Etsy

Sharing

From a spare car-seat to a house to a power drill; people are now able to rent out their possessions or spaces. In the case of FarmDrop it means hosting the weekly Drop event in a space at a pub or other location that would otherwise not be used. They are only too happy to offer the space in return for bringing a crowd to their premises and putting them at the heart of an important community activity. And it takes another cost out of the supply chain. If any farms have a spare room this is a great way to turn it into a B&B and make vital extra money. It could also be a way to share machinery and tools.

Examples: Airbnb

Crowdsourcing

This is mainly about pooling knowledge. At the moment anything a farmer or food producer sells, and the behaviour of customers is captured by the retailers. And held on to with a vice like grip. We turn that round on its head – giving the Producers, Keepers and Members all the data, and reacquainting them with their customers in the same sophisticated way as the big retailers. Groups like #agrichat (on Twitter) are helping growers pool their knowledge for the collective good.

Examples: Wikipedia

Campaigning & Community

Communities have reawoken to their collective power. The Arab spring was perhaps the best example, but there are now a number of new platforms that exist to allow individuals to coalesce around issues. They are effectively online petitions, but they have already scored some notable victories and responded quickly to prevent legislative changes. Communities like FarmDrop will be able to give an industry a bigger voice. If you want to have your voice heard then you just need to approach 38 degrees and see if they will promote it to their members.

Examples: Avaaz, 38 degrees

Crowdfunding

On the back of the financial crisis it has become even harder for early stage businesses to find money to get started. These crowdfunding platforms allow businesses to find larger numbers of investors who might put in as little as £5. The Internet makes the process so cheap it’s possible to collect small amounts from large numbers. It also means that these new projects and businesses, which are often favoured because “the crowd” believes in their project, are owned by their main advocates. Kickstarter projects get great backing, but they give people gifts instead of stake in the business. For FarmDrop we think it’s an important way to fund the business as it means that the participants on the platforms – Farmers, food producers, Keepers and Members – will have ownership of the business. There are many great examples out there of farms and new food businesses using crowdfunding to fund their growth and involve the community.

Examples: Crowdcube, Kickstarter

The truth is these aren’t ways of working that appeal to corporations. They want to control and command from a central place. This is about giving tools to smaller scale businesses and individuals that allow them to compete with the biggest in the land. These trends are all in their infancy and they are not all certain to progress, but they provide good reason to be excited about the prospect of a more community oriented society. And a much better outlook for local food.

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