By Nour Haidar
The juiciest, zestiest, most invigoratingly refreshing party-in-your-mouth-type of oranges are making their way from Sicily to London. Everyone should get some – first of all, because they’ve been tried and tested by every one of our contributors and some of our readers; all of who can testify that they taste like summer in the winter. But more than treating you’re taste-buds to Sicilian goodness, if you’re someone who happens to care about innovation in business and exploring possibilities of developing systems of trade that are conducive to development and less exploitative of land and labor, you’ll want to check out the project behind these oranges.
What Nature Offers is a producers’ and buyers’ union started by students at SOAS, University of London. It brings high-quality, organic, agricultural products (not just oranges but also olive oil, lemons and wheat products) directly from small Sicilian farmers to conscious consumers who want to enjoy naturally grown seasonal products.
It’s an ambitious project, but holds an important message: we are becoming increasingly distanced from the sources of the food we consume. If projects like What Nature Offers can create a mechanism that successfully removes this gap, both consumers and producers have much to gain. Consuming produce from such “producers’ unions” would mean access to organic quality without outrageous price tags. It would also mean investing in farmers who have decades of expertise and genuinely care about the product they are growing, but without such projects would not otherwise have any fair market exposure.
The question is, then, how feasible is this project? How exactly can consumers in external markets come in direct contact with producers? Speaking with Lorenzo Tedeschi, co-founder of WNO, gave us insight into how the project was developed and how the team aims to sustain it.
Born in Notto, Lorenzo tells us that small organic farmers in the countryside of Sicily find difficulty in commercializing their produce without the intermediation of “professional sellers”. He wanted to find a way to give farmers access to the higher profit margins they deserved for the quality of their produce, without intermediaries eating their profit. Living abroad, Lorenzo saw himself as a tool to connect farmers directly with conscious consumers looking for healthy and responsibly sourced food.
He teamed up with entrepreneurial farmers to develop What Nature Offers. WNO itself is an ever-expanding group of Sicilian farmers, who pool their resources together to share logistical costs. Lorenzo and his team abroad works to find conscious consumers who want to connect with WNO. As a result, conscious consumer societies in London, northern Italy, the Netherlands and some Scandinavian countries have started to come together to form ‘buyer groups’. These groups together create a demand for a particular quantity according to a fixed seasonal calendar set by the WNO farmers. They place their orders according to prices determined by the farmers, who then absorb the transport costs, send the produce within 96 hours of being picked, and share the profits amongst each other.
It’s an awesome project, but requires true dedication to the mission statement; that is, that people have the right to know where their food is coming from and farmers have the right to be economically conscious of the value of their product in the external market. Therefore, critical to the process of creating conscious consumer societies is Lorenzo and his friends’ dedication to the mission of WNO. Without such dedication, the entire project would revert back to needing ‘a middle man’. Together, they minimize project costs simply because they care. The WNO farmers and those involved in spreading the word about their project have adopted a “do it yourself policy”. Where there is no need to spend money, they’ve figured out a way around it. For example, they taught themselves how to develop and design a website (link) and instead of paying for a stall at a market, they convinced the SOAS Student’s Union to allow them to set up shop in the Junior Common Room on delivery days. WNO redirects the goal of trade to becoming more ‘human’. It’s about humans sharing the food that they love growing, with humans who care about the food that they are eating.
The project both creates and supports communities. It’s an interesting approach to business and makes us wonder if we really can create commercially viable businesses while doing good at the same time. Interestingly, this business is one of people: if people don’t come together, projects like WNO are not possible. But if people care enough about the livelihoods of others and the system within which they are actively consuming, business models much like the WNO project can flourish and we might be able to see trade regain its human element; trade that is responsible and less focused on profit maximization and cost reduction, than the individual contribution to the products we actually consume.