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Plugging the Food Assembly

Nesta’s recent Making Sense of the Collaborative Economy report presented the diverse range of initiatives taking place within the UK collaborative economy. While thorough, we can always find additional examples of the collaborative economy in action.

An initiative that isn’t referenced in the report is the Food Assembly, a social enterprise and web platform connecting local producers directly with local people who enjoy their products. The organisation operates a franchise model by recruiting people as local organisers who are responsible for sourcing producers, building a membership, and coordinating the weekly ‘market’ under the Food Assembly umbrella. I’m now one of these people.

This is how it works:

1. Organisers find a local venue that will donate space to host the weekly pop-up ‘market’.

2. Once found, they recruit farmers and producers that want to sell their stuff - fruit and veg, meat, dairy products, bread, wine, beer, etc... And at the same time, recruit members of the community who want to buy local food products.

3. Each week, products are available to buy online. Producers fix a fair price that they want for their products, and the minimum orders that must be met for delivery to be viable.

4. Members have 6 days to place an order on the website, by simply clicking on the products they want. Each member is free to place an order, or not. There is no weekly commitment to buy and no subscription.

5. Once orders have been placed, there are two possible outcomes:

  • The producer's minimum order has been met.
  • It hasn't been met. The producer doesn’t make a delivery that week.

6. On distribution day, members pick up their purchases directly from the people that made it at the marketplace.

Food Assembly has scaled rapidly since the first Assembly took place in France in 2011; there are now over 500 across France, Belgium, Germany and Spain. The model arrived in the UK in July this year, and the Hackney Wick Assembly was the first in the country. It is also part of a movement that renders massive supermarket chains increasingly out of date.

Like The People’s Supermarket before it, the Food Assembly enables people to buy their stuff directly from local producers. It’s not necessarily new, but the Food Assembly makes purchase available online and systemises local re-distribution. It demonstrates all the common traits of the collaborative economy outlined in the report:

1. Enabled by internet technologies – there is a central web platform which manages all the assemblies across Europe and enables online transaction.

2. Connecting distributed networks of people and/or assets – it directly connects people with producers to bring food from its source. And beyond the buying and selling of food it brings various segments of the community together.

3. Making use of the idling capacity of tangible and intangible assets - so much produce gets wasted when producers have to comply with stringent supermarket requirements or attend weekend markets with little certainty about how much they will sell. Food Assembly offers more direct way of bringing good quality produce to communities with much less waste.

4. Encouraging meaningful interactions and trust – producers and members interact directly and weekly to form lasting relationships.

5. Embracing openness, inclusivity and the commons - anyone can contribute and take part, and the fairer, often lower cost of produce helps to make healthy eating possible for more people.

Sounds good doesn’t it? What I really like is its simplicity, every person I communicate it to can see the value (which is rare). My girlfriend and I have recently become local organisers for Haggerston in east London. Haggerston is particularly ripe for this new kind of distribution. The local supermarket has famously taken a hammering via social media and the press.

Besides offering our local community a convenient option to get their food somewhere other than "a shoddy store", we were encouraged by a number of things: the opportunity to connect local producers with consumers, community building, supporting traditional craft, a fair model for small producers, and 8 per cent commission of the revenue for our effort.

We are still in the building phase. Food Assembly honchos in Paris HQ allow us three months to pull it all together. And we are almost there; we launch on 6 October [Plug #1]. It is a lot of fun. We meet local people, local producers and local venues that are supportive of the cause.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to help develop this collaborative initiative to date, but starting something new is also hard work. I thought I’d share some reflections on what has worked well and some of the key challenges we have faced:

Worked well

1. Mobilising local and hyperlocal networks - In reaching out to people and organisations that are well placed to help us with communication, we have encountered a real spirit of openness to spread the word.

2. Collaborative experimentation - With a ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ attitude, many local producers have signed up to pilot this in partnership.

3. Agility - The Food Assembly management team are firmly in start-up mode and have built a user-friendly platform to simplify onboarding.

Challenges

1. Overcoming the sceptics - Not everyone is an early adopter. They want to see what happens with the pilot before they take the plunge.

2. London - Produce needs to be sourced within 150 miles of assemblies. The inevitable pull of the capital might leave certain regions of the UK under served and producers unable to participate.

3. Blurred lines - There is some work needed to clarify exactly what constitutes ‘local’. For instance coffee will never be local to the UK so how can we meet the demand for it?

As with all these things, the test will be the extent to which the Food Assembly model can become normal in everyday life. It is apparent that new forms of citizen participation in the economy carry huge potential for transformative change.

For example, look at how Airbnb and ebay have shifted how we consume and contribute. I can affirm that being part of it at an early stage is extremely rewarding and empowering. I strongly encourage you to you to get involved.

[Plug #2] We launch at Trip Space in Haggerston (Arch 339-340 Acton Mews) on Monday 6 October at 7pm. So if you’re in the area do come and say hello and sample some really great produce made in and around London. I’ll be wearing the pinafore.

Twitter: @haggerstonfa 

 

Author

Theo Keane

Theo Keane

Theo Keane

Senior Programme Manager

Theo was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Skills team, responsible for the design and delivery of innovation skills initiatives for international development and public s...

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