E-commerce portal started during the pandemic connects farmers to institutional buyers

Communication and logistics are but two of the many challenges faced in the Philippine agriculture industry, and never has it been more apparent than during the early days of the pandemic.

When the country shut down to necessarily contain COVID-19 in March 2020, borders were closed, making the transportation of goods difficult, even if one had the required passes. Trading posts (bagsakan) and wet markets were forced to close in a bid to slow the spread of the disease.

Because of this, many farmers suddenly found themselves unable to sell their goods. It was the desire to solve this predicament that birthed Agrifoodhub, an ecommerce portal that links farmers with wholesale buyers.

Farmer Pronie is one of the active farmer members of Kasibu Development Farmers Cooperative (KAFDECO). In the past, they just guess what the market/bagsakan needs and plant it right away. As a result, profitability is like a gamble. With Agrifoodhub’s market linkage, she and fellow farmers in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya are now determined to plant sweet pepper/chili-Taiwan all year-round for a contract deal.

“It was Sir Phillip Ong, the Chairman of the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and the Chairman of Sante who thought of this idea,” Ruel Amparo, who heads Agrifoodhub’s operations, says in Tagalog. Amparo is also CEO and Co-founder of Cropital, an agriculture investment company that directly benefits smallholder farmers.

Agrifoodhub, under the Santeh Foundation, started during the pandemic in March 2020. “We saw what was happening online. A lot of farmers were throwing away their produce,” says Constantine Ong of Santeh Feeds Corp.

It partnered with Croptial, who “were entrusted to lead and help build, start, and organize,” Amparo says. “We manage the team behind the AFH, particularly the ones that onboard farmers and the ones that onboard buyers as well.”

While most of the e-commerce platforms that sprang up during this time focused on selling produce to retail consumers, Agrifoodhub links farmers with wholesale and industrial buyers.

“Agrifoodhub leveraged on its relationship with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce, and Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food, where most of the institutional buyers are. It’s really more on the business to farmer groups and sellers,” Amparo says.

They currently have more than 400 buyers and more than 600 farmer sellers in the system. They also partnered with the Department of Agriculture and local government units who helped them identify farmers and farmer groups with products to sell.

“We really went for the 500 kilos and above or the one ton at least because we feel that those farmers are the ones who… need the help more,” Ong says.

Farmer Marlon is the young chairman of ‘Lupon ng Itanglew sa Ganap na Asenso’ based in San Marcelino, Zambales. Before Agrifoodhub, they only sell a few kilos of ube annually to a nearby market. After Agrifoodhub linked them to NCR buyers, they sold 2,000 kilos of ube in just a month.

Challenges and solutions

One of Agriffoodhub’s most impressive feats is getting its e-commerce system up and running during the start of the pandemic. “We used our own in-house developers,” Ong says.

A big challenge was getting many farmers to use the system. Some had no internet access while others were unfamiliar with the ecommerce system. This is where the operations team came in. Part of their responsibilities include collecting the farmers’ profiles, inputting them into the system, and matching them with buyers. They’ve also been using the vast amounts of data they’ve collected to identify ways to increase engagement between farmers and buyers. “We also do forecasting and predicting the supply and demand,” Amparo says.

All of this happens in the back end, making transactions as seamless as possible for farmers and buyers. “On the side of the farmer and buyer, it’s merely asking us and us using the tools we have to identify ,” he adds.

A big reason behind the system’s effectiveness stems from the team’s efforts to reach farmers on ground, as it were. “We have field personnel really talking to the farmers on the ground, and I think that’s key,” Ong says. “We realized that our farmers just really aren’t online. So it’s the field people on the farmers’ side. Ruel mentioned that on the buyer’s side, it’s really the network.”

The team is continuously updating the e-commerce process, which currently involves an app, a website, and a Facebook Page. “We usually gain new buyers through social media,” Ong says. “They use Facebook Messenger, sometimes Viber, but they want someone to talk to.”

“They hear about us through their network and they call,” Amparo adds.

Agrifoodhub with members of the Lupao Vegetable Farmers Association (LVGA), one of the farmer groups that Agrifoodhub introduced to a multinational buyer.

Farmers first

Products on Agrifoodhub are sold at prices dictated by the farmers themselves. “In most cases, they base it on the bagsakan (trading post) prices… but some of our farmers base it more on the palengke (wet market) price, which is a bit higher than the bagsakan prices. It depends on the farmer which price they are more comfortable in giving,” Amparo says.

There have been many success stories. Amparo tells of a farmer group in Zambales which Agrifoodhub first connected to institutions who needed ube (Dioscorea alata). It soon turned into a community endeavor, with the farmers and client forging a continuous business relationship of their own outside of Agrifoodhub. The obsolescence of its services is, after all, the hallmark of a successful non-government organization.

The organization has also managed to help a farmers group secure a contract to supply a multinational company with chili and have orchestrated “rescue buys,'' where they help farmers who have excess harvests find institutions to buy most, if not all, of the vegetables on hand.

Agrifoodhub has helped connect a lot of farmers and institutional buyers during a time when worldwide operations were precarious. As the organization grows, it aims to use the data it’s collected to predict supply and demand, in the hopes that this will decrease waste and increase income for farmers and stabilize prices and supply for their clients. Ong says, “Once we have that data, we’ll be able to do more things that impact the lives of farmers more.”

Photos courtesy of Agrifoodhub