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Blog #6 Scale vs depth in community food businesses

Today is my last day in Bolivia and a good time to recap on the flurry of meetings and visits I’ve had since the last blog. I have now met or visited a total of 20 enterprises, 12 finance/support providers, 7 farms, and 2 processing plants!

Scale is good, depth is better?

I have seen yet more examples of how community businesses can scale in the last few days of this exploratory trip, in the shape of co-operatives and producer-owned businesses selling cocoa, dairy products and quinoa. All are achieving sales of between $1m and $7m, and supporting between 39 and 1300 farming families. There is a ton of learning about how these organisations are growing, which I will pull out in my report!

But I’m also hearing about depth of impact…

In the successful, scaling community food businesses I have come across, the focus is usually on growth, accessing buyers and increased productivity for the producer so that their incomes go up. There is rarely much focus on social impact beyond this. I’m hearing that most impact investors are also focused on monitoring the businesses’ balance sheets rather than asking many questions on social impact – such as whether women are more empowered, children are going to school, families have running water, etc.

In his book, “Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul”, renowned chocolate maker Shawn Askinosie challenges the “grow or die” mentality of modern business. We all feel incredible pressure to make our businesses as large as humanly possible, which has a tendency to separate us from the people we’re striving to serve. The secret, Shawn insists, is in maintaining the humanness of business by making sure that we never extend ourselves beyond the ability to cultivate meaningful relationships with the people we do business with. (Chapter 5, “Don’t Scale, Reverse Scale”)

The three graces: leadership, ecosystem of support and market

I met with three more finance/support providers (Agriterra, Christian Aid and Oxfam) and learnt about a variety of approaches to support community-led agri food businesses. In smaller community businesses (associations of producers in particular), three reasons for failure were highlighted:

1) Poor or weak leadership/lack of focus/priorities
2) Lack of focus on market and quality
3) Over-reliance on funders or NGOs

When a community business combines good leadership, the right finance and support, and an absolute dedication to quality and to finding the right buyers, it can have a huge impact and withstand the test of time.

Food heritage movement

Finally, I met/looked at a series of actors who are part of a growing food heritage movement in Bolivia – who believe gastronomy is not the end but the means to enhance, stimulate and promote a country’s food sector as a source of identity and national pride, and as a tool for economic development.

MIGA connects the elements of the supply chain, promotes gasto tourism, and helps stimulate healthy and sustainable food based on regional cooking. In particular, I was struck by the importance of encouraging low-income people in urban areas to consume local and healthy ingredients. In Bolivia, good food is still cheap. In the UK this is no longer the case unfortunately.

Manq’a is part of the new wave of Bolivian gourmet restaurants, run as a social enterprise programme that aims to train new chefs to work with Bolivian and sustainability sourced products. They have nine schools in disadvantaged areas of the city where so far 3500 young people have been trained as chefs and entrepreneurs. I met several inspiring young people with big dreams for the future!

Roasters Boutique sells transparently sourced coffee for national consumption, proving that Bolivia’s best beans needn’t be exported and training the general public to understand and appreciate where their coffee comes from.

Sabor Clandestino is a collective offering haute cuisine menus served in secret locations in the disadvantaged neighborhoods of La Paz, as a way of reflecting reality through food and bringing people from different backgrounds together. Proceeds support the distribution of free, good quality food in disadvantaged areas.

Last but not least, I met Bolivia’s vice-minister of tourism and culture who is busy promoting all these wonderful trends and hoping to bring more people to discover the rich culture, landscapes and food Bolivia has to offer!

Next week I will turn my attention back to the UK and hope to extract key learnings, ideas and recommendations from this fabulous and enriching experience!

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