During exchanges with social entrepreneurs working in the agricultural industry, we have noticed a phenomenon that many entrepreneurs can attest to: nowadays, young people who are passionate about helping small farmers tend to “copy” the existing business model again and again, which is to look for small farmers needing assistance with marketing and online sales of produce. However, the reality is that the problems in the agricultural industry require more than just “selling small farmers’ produce” if they are to be solved.
“Most people can only see who the disadvantaged ones in agriculture are, so helping small farmers has become the main focus for most social enterprises working in this industry. However, if we wish to achieve sustainable development in Taiwan’s agricultural industry, we need to take the other end of the spectrum into account and encourage the participation of more ‘vigorous farmers’. The idea of ‘vigorous farmers’ here refers to anyone who is young, energetic, dedicated to the agriproduct value-adding process and highly innovative,” said L.J. Chen, a member of the board of Buy NearBy.
It is not that we are calling for everyone not to help small farmers. What we are suggesting is that would-be entrepreneurs try to explore all possibilities rather than only look at one dimension when working on a solution. Greenvines, an increasingly popular social enterprise that has been covered by the Bloomberg Businessweek Chinese Edition, is widely considered as the best example in agriculture for entrepreneurs of a new generation to look to.
Greenvines’ three co-founders originally worked in the finance industry. Being passionate about agriculture, they co-founded Greenvines and set up their own bean sprout farm. All aspects, including research and development, production and sales, are carefully handled to transform bean sprouts into highly marketable personal care products that meet the needs of consumers.
If more innovative enterprises like Greenvines are willing to join the industry based on their environmental sustainability concerns and market demand, the whole agricultural industry will experience a surge of vitality and hopefully say goodbye to the label of being “low income”.
“If I am neither a small farmer nor a person equipped with knowledge of agricultural technology and relevant experience, what kind of role should I pursue in this industry?”
Actually, you can simply embrace your own expertise to take part in the agricultural industry. Sharing production risk with front line producers and creating value together could also be considered as an option.
In developing environmentally-friendly agriculture, business operations and value-adding processes are faced with many difficulties, such as a lack of economies of scale, low cost-effectiveness and inadequacies in laws and regulations. A rice farmer practising environmentally-friendly farming once said that rice farmers like him are often caught in the predicament of not being able to find a combine harvester company willing to harvest their rice. The main reason for this is that environmentally-friendly farming requires combine harvester operators to carefully clean their machines so that rice grown by conventional farmers will not mix with that of environmentally-friendly ones, which has increased operation times and manpower costs for combine harvester companies. Therefore, farmers have to try their luck in finding combine harvester companies that are willing to help out.
Another predicament that small farmers face is that it is very difficult for them to find a food processing company with advanced technology that is willing to process their crops. Some small farmers cannot make a living simply by growing their crops. They need someone to value-add their crops using food processing equipment before their products can be differentiated from other existing products on the market. Even though there is an ever-increasing variety of processed farm products on the shelf, advanced technology and equipment are mostly owned by large companies with well-established brands. On the other hand, a large number of small farmers can only rely on outdated technology and equipment, so their food processing capacity is severely limited, resulting in the loss of many business opportunities.
The founder of Buy Directly from Farmers, Jin Xinyi, shared a funny but sad story. “Once when we wanted to develop wheat-based biscuits, it took us a while to find a food processing company that was willing to work with us. Originally, we wanted to have biscuits printed with an image of a wheat field, but due to the limits of processing equipment and technology, the processing company could only use the same old Eiffel Tower mould to make the biscuits. The end product looked very bizarre and we felt so embarrassed selling it to our customers.”
In addition to the above-mentioned predicaments related to production machines and processing technology, logistics and refrigeration technology also need adequate investment to explore more new possibilities.
If you are eager to shake up the status quo of Taiwanese agriculture, please go to the front line of the agricultural scene to observe for yourself and think about these questions: In the entire value chain of agriculture, what kinds of needs have not been satisfied? What kinds of resources can I bring to this industry? Eventually you will realise that when you embrace your expertise and find a suitable position, you can also become a backbone of Taiwanese agriculture!