Vincent improves the livelihoods of smallholder producers by involving them, the organizations that serve them, and the corporations that buy their produce in a common effort to design better, fairer value chains.
The New Idea
Vincent wants to transform Mexico’s systems for producing and distributing agricultural products in order to increase market access for farmers and improve efficiencies for large buyers. Central to his idea is a troubleshooting model that gives the many actors in a particular value chain a new role: instead of just being parties to transactions, Vincent invites them to become designers of the entire ecosystem. He works product by product: honey, coffee, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables. Vincent, who spent many years supporting fair-trade organizations and farmer cooperatives in Latin America and Africa, realized that despite the great resources invested into agricultural development, it was mostly managed on a project basis, in which a few farmers, a few buyers, a few lenders, and a few NGOs work out discrete systems and transactions that might serve a finite group of participants but, in the final analysis, have little effect on the overall marketplace. By contrast, Vincent’s method uses collaborative troubleshooting as a precursor to dealmaking. They learn each other’s problems and priorities, discuss market trends, and gain a deeper understanding of each other’s positions. Vincent’s collaborative platform also produces results, including new standards, such as a certification program for beekeepers, new commercial commitments from major supermarket chains, and new guidance for development organizations that support farmers.
Throughout the process, Nuup, which means “connection” in Mayan, serves as a neutral articulator that aligns visions and perspectives, promotes dialogue, and generates linkages between stakeholders committed to the establishment of inclusive value chains, social and environmental impact, rural development, and market access. Vincent is also using technology to enable farmers and cooperatives to gain visibility and for buyers to announce their needs.
Mexico’s current agricultural system faces dire challenges and risks. Nationwide, 17 million people live in poverty in rural areas. The majority depend upon small-scale agriculture for their food and economic subsistence. Of the 4 million farmers in Mexico, 68% work less than 5 hectares of land, though they produce almost 40% of the food that the country consumes. Most of these farmers fail to break the cycle of poverty, as they suffer from low returns due to lack of input materials, equipment, and technical training. Moreover, they work largely in isolation, without effective organization within cooperatives or associations, making them vulnerable to local intermediaries and complicating their access to better markets and prices.
On the business side, food companies in Mexico face a need to increase their local suppliers and better understand the origins of their food. Increasingly, they are facing unreliable supply chains which do not allow for knowing how the food was produced or where it came from. The apiculture sector in Mexico, for example, is suffering greatly due to an influx of fake or adulterated honey in both the formal and informal economy. Fraudulent manufacturers use high-fructose corn syrup and sweeteners to bulk up or entirely replace their honey, and sell it at below-market prices, hurting legitimate beekeepers. Apiculture is a multi-million-dollar business in Mexico, and the threat of fake or adulterated honey poses grave risks for thousands of small-scale producers and the industry overall. Furthermore, the devaluation of the Mexican peso against the U.S. dollar in recent years has led to substantial cost increases caused by the imports of many U.S. food products for retailers, restaurant chains, agriprocessors, and other key players in the food sector. These realities are forcing many Mexican companies to reimagine their supply chains in order to achieve greater traceability from farm to table and to establish more direct relationships with local or national suppliers.
These problems can be attributed to two key weaknesses in the agricultural system. First is a lack of collaboration between the various actors within the sector, including smallholder farmers, NGOs, businesses, foundations, and government institutions. While various projects and programs at the national level have sought to strengthen smallholder farmers, most have failed to actually solicit the perspectives of rural actors themselves. Many NGOs possess valuable technical expertise, but compete with one another for the same funding sources, limiting their ability to collaborate for the improvement of the overall ecosystem. The second key weakness is a pervasive lack of information throughout the Mexican countryside. Producers lack crucial information for making decisions about markets with the highest added value, their quality requirements, and potential alliances and opportunities to access them. In parallel, many NGOs and companies that seek to develop community projects or inclusive purchasing programs lack information about where to find smallholder farmer groups with whom to work. While new technologies offer great opportunities to bring quality information to producers and these organizations, very few attractive and comprehensive proposals have emerged in Mexico to date.
Nuup has embraced a key opportunity to feed the rising need for domestic sourcing and closer connection among actors in the agricultural sector. Guided by the organizing principles of building trust and serving as a neutral convener, Nuup facilitates information flows and promotes collaborations among agricultural sector actors in order to solve the sector’s most complex challenges and create growth opportunities and access to markets for small-scale producers.
Nuup organizes its work through a sector-by-sector focus, which begins with mapping a particular sector, by identifying key actors, conducting extensive interviews and surveys to gain an in-depth understanding of the sector’s qualities and challenges, convening actors to present a diagnosis of main issues, and building a common vision. The outcome of this process is solutions that benefit the entire sector. Nuup also invites foundations and other philanthropic organizations to participate in these sector-wide collaborations, which helps solve the problem of a fragmented NGO sector in which organizations compete against one another for funding rather than working together toward common goals. As an example, Nuup recently spearheaded a collaborative project in apiculture that unites the academic sector, the commercial sector, nonprofits, and small-scale beekeeper organizations in Southeast Mexico. After analyzing their sector, these stakeholders identified the lack of a specialized training curriculum and shared production, quality, and traceability standards for beekeepers as key challenges. In response, the stakeholders developed the first collaborative Training of Trainers program in the sector in Mexico. Through the specialized training of a first cohort of more than 1,500 beekeepers in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, this collaborative project will build local capacity, create a community of practice, and promote collaboration between the diverse stakeholders of the sector, therefore benefiting the entire apiculture field. Another example is found in Nuup’s work with the coffee sector. Here, the involved stakeholders identified the challenge presented by a lack of understanding among farmer organizations of domestic coffee markets and the lack of inclusive purchasing programs through which large domestic companies buy coffee from smallholder farmers. Hand in hand with strategic partners such as Impacto Café and the Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores y Trabajadores de Comercio Justo (CLAC), Nuup has identified market opportunities and outlined recommendations for partner coffee cooperatives, benefitting more than 1,000 smallholder farmers from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Puebla. Thanks to the facilitation of dialogues and meeting spaces between the different actors in the coffee market, more than 10 companies including restaurant chains, specialty roasters, coffee brokers and retailers have started to buy coffee directly from small-scale farmer organizations.
In the near future, Nuup plans to deepen its work in these sectors as well as expand its collaborative programs to other products. This expansion will be achieved by developing extensive networks and alliances in each key product or value chain and developing digital tools to allow stakeholders to meet one another, connect, and eventually buy and sell products under pre-established norms agreed upon by the community.
On the technology front, Nuup is testing and exploring a series of “push/pull” data tools, including a web platform, new mobile applications, and bots that communicate via WhatsApp or SMS, which permit producers and farmer organizations to share information about their activities and needs, and access personalized recommendations to improve production, develop a better understanding of market needs, conditions, technical product requirements, and financing options, among other things. Agri-food buyers can access information on agricultural production conditions, volumes, social and environmental impact, and the stories behind the product they wish to purchase.
As an example, together with intersectorial partners, Nuup has developed a system to capture, manage, and visualize data of more than 8,000 small-scale farmers in the fruits and vegetables sector in order to monitor their development, their advances within training programs, and their market readiness. Within the same food chain, Nuup has generated dialogues between NGOs and large Mexican agro-processors, restaurant chains, retailers and others. As a result, several large agro-processors are now conducting pilots to buy fruits and vegetables from smallholder farmers, and a leading global food company is launching an innovative new project of inclusive sourcing and development of small-scale strawberry producers in Michoacan.
Nuup has also piloted a web platform that invites different actors in the apicultural sector to share information about what each actor does, needs, or can contribute, thereby generating an opportune ecosystem that strengthens producers’ enterprises and connects them with a committed, transparent market. The platform currently has 23 profiles of beekeeping organizations, and will soon expand to other value chains such as coffee, fruits, and vegetables. Also in the works are more complex data tools that will respond to urgent needs of small-scale producers, such as planning when to plant, calculating production costs, and developing price quotations. Social network functionalities will be created, too, such as pages organized by product or value chain, and customized data boards for each user and organization.
To date, Nuup’s work and tools have impacted over 10,000 smallholder farmers, 18 companies, 17 civil society organizations, and 6 financial institutions to improve value chains in the coffee, honey, and fruit and vegetable sectors. Already, increased sector-wide collaboration and access to information in product categories are having concrete impacts for smallholder farmers and their organizations.
Nuup’s digital and collaborative nature grants it great potential to expand to varied industries in Mexico and around the globe. Moreover, Vincent is in the process of documenting Nuup’s model such that it can more easily be replicated by local stakeholders in other countries with knowledge of and contacts in the value chains of their own communities.
In five years’ time, Vincent aims to reach over 100,000 smallholder farmers nationwide through web platforms and applications developed by Nuup. In this timeframe, Vincent also hopes that current programs in coffee, apiculture, and fruit and vegetable markets have evolved to the point that 75% of participating businesses have developed channels of inclusive and direct purchase from smallholder farmers. In parallel, Nuup will expand its programs to new value chains such as cacao and basic grains. Moreover, ongoing sector-wide teams in apiculture, fruits, and vegetables will have financing, stable governance, and various collaborative lines of work that address different smallholder farmer needs. These teams will have frequent meetings with industry and government representatives, and will achieve victories in the public policy sphere in favor of smallholder agriculture. Other future plans include promoting hybrid public-private investment funds to offer blended finance solutions to smallholder farmers, documenting and systematizing the work model and technology used by Nuup, and beginning preliminary searches for potential entrepreneurs and implementers of the Nuup model in other countries.
Canadian-born, Vincent was exposed to a diversity of cultures early in life, as his father frequently moved the family abroad due to his work in the development sector. As a young child, he lived in Senegal, where he experienced a society facing deeply rooted social inequalities firsthand. These early life experiences sparked Vincent’s curiosity in other parts of the world and taught him valuable skills of adaptation, flexibility, and empathy. Back in Canada, Vincent was elected to his first leadership positions at age 15 and 16, when he served as vice-president and president, respectively, of a student social business that produced and sold reusable bags. At age 17, he founded an environmental organization that established the first recycling system in his high school. These environmental activities and his leadership skills earned Vincent the Morehead-Cain scholarship, a four-year merit scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied International Studies and Business Administration.
During college, Vincent participated in several volunteer projects abroad. He traveled to Peru to volunteer with an NGO installing ecological ovens in marginalized communities. He was shocked by the low prices that local artisans received for their alpaca wool scarves, while the same products were sold for a price several times higher in Cuzco, and many times higher in the United States. Upon returning from Peru, Vincent began researching market-driven ethical consumption and writing his undergraduate thesis on the branding of fair trade products.
Post-graduation brought Vincent to an internship with Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), the global fair trade management and certification organization based in Germany. This experience exposed Vincent to the financing needs of smallholder farmers and their organizations. He returned to Canada to work for Développement International Desjardins (DiD), an organization offering technical support and investment services in the microfinance sector. At DiD, he developed strategies to increase access to rural finance in Tanzania, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Thanks to his experience in Fairtrade gained in Germany he was invited to serve on the Board of Directors of Fairtrade Canada. During these years, Vincent attended a microfinance conference in Mali, where he met the director of a Mexican savings and credit cooperative who, upon learning of Vincent’s projects and passion for fair trade, invited him to conduct a lending pilot with small-scale coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico.
Vincent’s arrival in Mexico was marked by shock at the inequalities plaguing Mexican society and the rampant injustices in the food sector. Deciding to dedicate himself to addressing these problems, Vincent integrated himself with alternative lenders and the smallholder farmer cooperatives with which they worked. One of these lenders, Root Capital, invited him to join their team, where he remained for five and a half years, learning a great deal about problems facing the Mexican food sector.
While seeking ways to grow Root Capital’s portfolio in Mexico, Vincent confronted the two key problems that would drive his future work: lack of information and lack of collaboration in the agricultural sector. As a participant of the Agenda for Co-Creation in Agriculture, then led by Ashoka Mexico, he had the opportunity to dialogue with other stakeholders of the agricultural sector and realized all shared the same problems. During the first workshop of this initiative, Vincent realized that the solution to the sector’s most critical obstacles had to come from a new venture, one that would provide information, serve as a neutral facilitator and interpreter between the diverse stakeholders of the agricultural sector. Recognizing his opportunity to make a difference, Vincent resigned from his position in 2015 and dedicated himself to developing Nuup.