E-commerce portal launched during pandemic connects farmers with institutional buyers – Manila Bulletin
Communication and logistics are just two of the many challenges facing the Philippine agriculture industry, and never have they been more apparent than at the start of the pandemic.
When the country shut down to necessarily contain COVID-19 in March 2020, borders were closed, making it difficult to transport goods, even if one had the required passes. Trading posts (bagsakan) and wet markets were forced to close in order to slow the spread of the disease.
Because of this, many farmers suddenly found themselves unable to sell their produce. It was the desire to solve this problem that gave birth to Agrifoodhub, an e-commerce portal that connects farmers with wholesale buyers.
“It was Sir Phillip Ong, President of the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture [and Food Inc.]and the President of Health [Feeds Corporation] who came up with this idea,” says Ruel Amparo, who heads Agrifoodhub’s operations, in Tagalog. Amparo is also CEO and co-founder of Cropital, an agricultural investment company that directly benefits small farmers.
Agrifoodhub, under the Santeh Foundation, started during the pandemic in March 2020. “We saw what was happening online. Many farmers were throwing away their produce,” says Constantine Ong of Santeh Feeds Corp.
He partnered with Croptial, who “was tasked with leading and helping to build, start, and organize,” Amparo says. “We manage the team behind the AFH, especially those that include farmers and those that include buyers as well.”
While most e-commerce platforms that emerged during this era focused on selling products to consumers at retail, Agrifoodhub connects farmers with wholesale and industrial buyers.
“Agrifoodhub has leveraged its relationship with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food, where most institutional buyers are located. It’s really more about the business of farmer groups and vendors,” says Amparo.
They currently have over 400 buyers and over 600 farmer sellers in the system. They also partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture and local government units which helped them identify farmers and farmer groups with produce to sell.
“We really went for the 500+ kilos or at least one ton because we believe these farmers are the ones who…need the most help,” Ong says.
Challenges and solutions
One of Agriffoodhub’s most impressive feats is setting up its e-commerce system at the start of the pandemic. “We brought in our own in-house developers,” says Ong.
A big challenge was getting many farmers to use the system. Some did not have access to the Internet while others were unfamiliar with the e-commerce system. This is where the operations team came in. Part of their responsibilities include collecting farmer profiles, entering them into the system and connecting them with buyers. They also used the vast amounts of data they collected to identify ways to increase engagement between farmers and buyers. “We also do forecasts and predict supply and demand,” Amparo explains.
All of this happens in the background, making transactions as transparent as possible for farmers and buyers. “On the farmer’s and buyer’s side, it’s just a matter of asking us [who they can sell to] and us by using the tools at our disposal to identify [the right buyer for them],” he adds.
A big reason behind the system’s effectiveness stems from the team’s efforts to reach the farmers on the ground, so to speak. “We have field staff who really talk to the farmers on the ground, and I think that’s key,” Ong says. “We realized that our farmers are just not [used to going] in line. So these are the people on the ground on the farmers’ side. Ruel mentioned that on the buyer’s side, it’s really the network.
The team is continually updating the e-commerce process, which currently involves an app, website, and Facebook page. “We usually gain new buyers through social media,” says Ong. “They use Facebook Messenger, sometimes Viber, but they want to talk to someone.”
“They hear about us through their network and they call us,” adds Amparo.
The products on Agrifoodhub are sold at prices dictated by the farmers themselves. “Most of the time they base it on the bagakan (trade post) prices… but some of our farmers base it more on the palengke (wet market) price, which is a bit higher than the bagakan price. It depends on the farmer what price he is most comfortable giving,” says Amparo.
There have been many successes. Amparo talks about a group of farmers in Zambales that Agrifoodhub first put in contact with institutions that needed ube (Dioscorea alata). This quickly turned into a community business, with the farmers and the customer themselves establishing an ongoing business relationship outside of Agrifoodhub. The obsolescence of its services is, after all, the mark of a successful non-governmental organization.
The organization has also been successful in helping a group of farmers secure a contract to supply a multinational company with chilli and has orchestrated ‘rescue purchases’, where they help farmers who have surplus crops find institutions to buy the most, if not all, vegetables on hand.
Agrifoodhub has helped connect many farmers and institutional buyers at a time when global operations were precarious. As the organization grows, it aims to use the data collected to predict supply and demand, in hopes this will reduce wastage and increase farmers’ incomes and stabilize prices and supply. for their customers. Ong says, “Once we have this data, we can do more things that will have a bigger impact on the lives of farmers.
Photos courtesy of Agrifoodhub
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