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Start-up wields tech to lure millennials back to farms

By Rizal Raoul Reyes

CAN an app named after a Disneyland feature lure millennials back to agriculture? Joselito Ocol Jr., cofounder of the start-up Agrabah Marketplace, believes so.

Ocol sat in front of a monitor and sent replies to questions emailed by the BusinessMirror centering on how the start-up uses the power of digital technology to empower the farmers so they can live better lives.

BusinessMirror: How did the agricultural community receive Agrabah’s technology?

Joselito Ocol (JO): Agrabah Marketplace was well received by the agricultural community. In fact, we are overwhelmed with the [number] of farmers trying to reach out to us from different provinces in the Philippines. Most of the farmers are asking if they could already use our platform so they will have the capacity to supply directly to institutional consumers.

BM: Describe the business model of Agrabah. How does it plan to uplift the plight of farmers who complain most of the time being exploited by middlemen?

JO: Agrabah Marketplace’s business model is simple: We connect farmers and fishermen to institutional consumers. People often think we want to remove the middleman from the equation. However, our goal is to provide a fair profit share to farmers and fishermen in the value chain. We must face the fact that middlemen are playing an important role in the agriculture value chain. They provide logistics, financing, post-harvest processing, and they take the risk of getting rejects from institutional consumers.

Agrabah Marketplace focuses on empowering farmers and fishermen through community building, education and awareness campaigns to provide long-term solutions to the current value-chain problems. We want our farmers and fishermen to take on the responsibility of aggregating the supply, doing the post-harvest processing and doing the logistics.

This way they can have a bigger chunk of the profit ensuring that they steadily earn a fair profit share through our processes and technology platforms. Agrabah Marketplace is guided by its three main pillars, which can easily be remembered as “EAT.”

The first pillar is “Education:” we want to provide farmers with the right skill sets so that they can increase their farm’s productivity.

We want to build more agriculture entrepreneurs so that farmers can gain a better understanding of the business side of farming. We recently launched a “collaborative farmers’ group” on Facebook providing daily farm tips and tricks so that farmers can help, collaborate and learn from each other. We also create infographics, videos and handy print-out guides on how to farm, per produce variation, as a free resource to our farmers. If we can make our farmers more efficient, we can start a ripple effect.

With each person adding to the wave, we can make a positive impact where everyone can benefit. It starts with the increase of food production, local quality food being sold in our markets and fair pricing for both consumers and farmers.

We need to be to the catalyst of the changes we want to see.

The second pillar is “Awareness.”

The average age of the Filipino farmer is 57 years old. Furthermore, most of the arable land in the Philippines is not being fully utilized. Our food production is not keeping up with the consumer demand. Hunger and food waste is becoming an increasingly alarming issue and yet the Philippines is still called an agricultural country. Part of our initiative is to create awareness about food sustainability and to encourage the youth and urbanites to take part in the wave of change.

Everyone’s efforts can help create the ripple effect regardless of how big or small their input is. We aim to do this through volunteering efforts and also promoting “agripreneurship” as a viable occupational choice. We want to show Filipino youth that farming is not just a noble profession; it can be a profitable one too. We want to encourage Filipinos to take more of an interest in where their food is coming from, who the farmer is that produced their food and the ways and means it took to get their food from farm to table. We’re on a mission to put farming in the spotlight, leading the wave of change to help create a sustainable Agricultural Ecosystem here in the Philippines. We want to make things better for the next generation of Filipino farmers.

The last pillar is “Technology.”

Agrabah Marketplace is building a platform for farmers and fishermen to supply directly to institutional consumers. As transactions happen in the platform, we are gathering data which we hope to utilize in the following years. We will use data analytics and integrate machine learning to create predictive analytics and provide suggestions to farmers on what to plant in a specific month or season based on market demand.

We also want to provide institutional consumers with data insights on what produce is available on the market and what will be available in the following months. This will help restaurant chefs and caterers plan their seasonal menus among other things. We are also closely working with other companies providing farm build-out (aquaponics and hydroponics) and farm automation. We want farmers and fishermen to have access to technology.

BM: What is the vetting process of Agrabah to ensure it sells quality products?

JO: Agrabah Marketplace has put in place a strict vetting process to ensure that our farmers will provide quality produce and that they are well supported. We do this by physically visiting our farmers and their farms while conducting focus group discussions within the farming community to see what assistance we can provide to ensure quality harvest.

BM: Please describe the front-end and back-end operations of Agrabah.

JO: The front end of Agrabah is a simple web-responsive app interface. It is a user friendly interface easily understood by our farmers.

The back-end operation of Agrabah is a complex networking and negotiation with institutional consumers to get orders directly from our local farmers. Through the help and support of Armada Innovation Labs, our technology is built with security in mind. We follow the philosophy of DevSecOps, which involves creating a “security as code” culture with ongoing, flexible collaboration between our development team and security team. Our platform also highly values the relationship and support we have from Microsoft Philippines.

More than just hosting our platform, they really take the time to understand why our mission is so important. Their strategic partnership goes beyond just the services they provide. They are an integral part of our business making connections and building a bigger community.

As long as there are people believing our cause, we will continue to help farmers and fishermen in the country. With everyone’s help we can make farming great again.

BM: What motivated you to put up Agrabah amid the current challenging stage of Philippine agriculture?

JO: Having a start-up in the Philippines is very challenging if you are boot-strapped. However, our team is always up for a challenge.

We know that the current agriculture value chain is flawed. I used to be a middleman and I see the injustice our farmers face on a daily basis. Some studies even suggest that there are seven layers of middlemen before produce even reaches the consumer.

I want to address the gap, by encouraging our farmers to take on the responsibilities of doing the post-harvest processing and logistics. The only thing preventing them from doing this is the visibility over the market need. This is where Agrabah Marketplace comes in to the equation, because we provide visibility over the market. We are on a mission to help redistribute a fair profit share to our hardworking farmers and fishermen.

BM: How enthusiastic are the millennials in the start-up? How are they motivated?

JO: Our small team brings to the table different areas of expertise and their own unique reasons for why they believe this to be a noble cause. My cofounder and chief partnerships officer and, coincidentally, my wife, grew up in a small farming community in the heartlands of Northeastern Ohio.

With a degree in International Studies and a strong background in building long-lasting partnerships, she is passionate about building impact and helping create a better future for farmers and fishermen globally.

Our Chief Creative Officer Ivan Roman has a long track record of content creation for global clients. He’s an artist at heart with an entrepreneurial spirit. Roman is passionate about creating content with social impact. He is also a recreational urban farmer.

As a bootstrapped start-up, we understand the challenges we face, but it doesn’t discourage us from continuing to move forward in our mission to help farmers and fishermen.

We are lucky because we are supported by a program of the Asian Institute of Management. They have provided us with invaluable training, resources, connections and support that have helped our start-up grow from a small seed of an idea to what we are today.

Their expert guidance really helped push us to think outside of the box and be able to meet our minimum viable product in the first month of operation, which validates that our processes work even without the technology.

Our first transaction alone has helped over 500 farmers and their families in coastal communities across the Bicol region. Imagine how many more farmers and fishermen globally we could help along the way, if we could get more people to support our cause. We truly believe that the grass is always greener where you water.

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