Guilhem Chéron is creating a viable alternative to France’s industrial agricultural production system by using peer-to-peer marketing to fundamentally transform the economics of artisanal, environmentally sustainable food production. By reducing overhead costs and inefficiencies, Guihem is more than doubling the income suppliers receive for their products, first for suppliers in France and ultimately, across Western Europe.
The New Idea
Guilhem has created La Ruche qui dit Oui! (The Beehive that says Yes!), a new marketplace for local, sustainable suppliers that targets mainstream consumers. Guilhem brings together a critical mass of consumers and gives them access to a distribution system for local, environmentally sustainable and small-scale products. Each local “Ruche” or distribution point is led by a leader from the community who recruits nearby consumers and producers and also manages the online buying space for that Ruche. Incentivized by a small share of the trade and a leadership role in the community, these budding entrepreneurs are driving a more viable marketplace for local, sustainable artisanal food production in France and eventually across Western Europe.
The increased viability of this alternative marketplace for local suppliers is significant. List prices compare with industrial products found in the supermarket, thus ensuring a fair income—to receive 80 percent of the price versus 40 percent—under the traditional food distribution system. Suppliers must be using organic methods or be in the process of moving toward organic production. They must also be practicing hygienic and transparent production and storage methods in line with local regulations. These minimum criteria maintain the quality of both the products and the broader network as it scales to new regions and borders.
As the network grows, local communities, producers and Ruche entrepreneurs are connected locally and nationally to an online platform, exchanging information and best practices. This allows for a quick expansion of Ruches across France, and helps to provide specific support to farmers working collaboratively to seek advice and technology to grow their access to markets.
Small farmers, most of whom still rely on more sustainable practices, are struggling to survive: they cannot sustain prices offered by large retailers who only pay 40 percent of list prices, while prices paid by consumers would be enough to survive. They have little direct access to consumers due to the growing industrial supermarkets used by most consumers. Large retailer’s purchase from an increasingly industrial agricultural sector which uses monoculture and high volumes of pesticides and herbicides. (France is the first user of these products in Europe.) Every year, thousands of farms disappear (according to Terre de Liens, the total number of farms has dropped by 20 percent over 50 years in France), while the quality of water, soils, and employment in the agricultural sector is getting worse.
Today in France, 85 percent of farm land belongs to farmers aged 55+, and when they retire the trend of the disappearance of small farms will accelerate if there is no viable way for younger farmers to successfully take over. This hinders a rising movement of young people who would like to set up organic or sustainable farms but are not sure they will be able to make a living.
While being a small sustainable farmer is becoming less and less viable, consumption patterns in France and Europe have changed dramatically over the past decade; consumers increasingly want to buy locally and sustainably. According to the Natural Marketing Institute, 70 percent of consumers declare that they would like to consume local and sustainable foods, but they do not have access to a distribution system they trust, offers products at a fair price, and has traceable origins. There seems to be a missed opportunity for a revitalized value chain that would allow for direct purchase from small producers and satisfy a growing demand.
Considering the growth of the online market for food and the rising presence of conscious consumers on social networks, and its accessibility to younger generations, the Internet is a promising path that is yet to be explored. Guilhem is leveraging this trend as well as peer-to-peer networks and is demonstrating that his approach is getting traction in cities and rural areas in France.
Ruches have sprung up across France, with more than 200 marketplaces created, engaging 15,000 regular customers, and a 700,000€/month turnover. Guilhem is now reaching out to new territories in France and in Europe, beginning with border regions between France and Italy and France and Spain, and has already received requests from the US.
At the foundation of Guilhem’s alternative marketplace is the mobilization of a network of Ruches in cities and towns across France, each led by a community member. Their role is to identify and verify the reliability of and build relationships with local farmers in order to engage them in the local distribution network, while mobilizing consumers in their neighborhoods using advertising and moderating the online community. These local entrepreneurs can make a viable living working part- or full-time on building their Ruche. They receive 10 percent of the turnaround, complementing their income (they can make up to 100 to 2,000€/month (US$127 to $2,550), with an average of 400€ (US$509), while also positively contributing to the community.
Consumers order directly online from their local farmers’ product catalogue (including vegetables, fruits, dairy, meat, seafood, grains baked goods, drinks, groceries and even soap and candles) and every week (or every other week), they pick-up their products close to their home or work. The producers, paid directly online, only arrive if they have a minimum level of orders, which guarantees a profit at the Ruche. At the place of pick-up, consumers’ receive the food directly from producers, and may build a relationship with them, which guarantees the traceability of the food and a sense of belonging to a community.
The first Ruche that is set up in a city or small region is of particular importance, as it opens the market for local producers and leads to the establishment of other Ruches, thus, increasing the demand for local, sustainable products. Ruche entrepreneurs go through a selection process which consists of an application and interview to ensure their fit. Once selected, they undergo training to help them orient to their community and establish their Ruche.
On the production side, Guilhem ensures that his model’s quality will not be undermined. Each farmer who seeks to enter the network undergoes a background check, including ensuring that they have an organic label and sustainable, hygienic practices. Because he knows first-hand the challenges faced by producers to meet regulations, Guilhem is also innovating around the design of products that will enable his distribution model to thrive, such as the creation of affordable, small transportation fridges to allow for the distribution of meat and dairy products.
Guilhem also uses the online platform to collect and analyze data; continually improving the website and making it more user-friendly and useful to the community while also understanding consumption patterns to create a thriving market. With consumer demand as one side, Guilhem’s end focus is to develop sustainable and thriving producers. The Ruche therefore leverages the platform for farmers to collaborate and develop synergies (shared production, shared distribution, and so on). When necessary, Guilhem’s team also offers computer and Internet training to farmers traditionally part of the digital gap.
The online platform also plays a key role in galvanizing the community and helping it grow. In addition to facilitating the buying of products, it is also a place to recruit new consumers and inform them about sustainable consumption, notably through a blog. It also serves for the recruitment of new Ruche Entrepreneurs, who can in turn use the platform to facilitate their work and communicate with their community members. The community has even inspired some consumers to turn to production of artisanal products once they realize there is a market for their amateur skill.
Guilhem has always been interested in design and in the way things function. One early memory of his is taking apart his staircase to better understand its workings. Guilhem also grew up surrounded by cooking and the importance of high-quality nourishment. His passion for design and sustainable food came together during his years in industrial design school. There, Guilhem realized that food is the only product of which consumption will always be necessary. Therefore, instead of focusing on creating new products and designs that would only feed society’s culture of consumerism and over consumption, he decided to dedicate his skills to redesigning food consumption habits and distribution schemes.
During the first 15 years of his career as a designer, Guilhem explored different paths related to food distribution and consumption. Self-employed, he ventured into the catering industry and designed better experiences and distribution models. Guilhem also lived in Cuba for some years, where he designed, built, and managed a restaurant that also provided cooking classes for disabled people.
Throughout these experiences, Guilhem was beginning to design an improved and more efficient marketplace to connect local suppliers and consumers. Ready to launch his idea, he entered a business incubator to mature his project. In that context, confronted with more traditional business views and management principles, but true to his creativity, Guilhem designed a realistic yet transformative model that would soon become La Ruche qui dit Oui!.
In the future, Guilhem wants to ensure that his social impact stays at the core of his work and is working to find the most relevant governance structure to preserve his community against any kind of financial interest. Guilhem’s next priority is to make his community thrive and grow throughout Europe, starting at the borders of neighboring countries. In the long-term, when the market is large and secured, Guilhem will shift his efforts to transforming the practices of the farming industry.