The Open Food Foundation: Free Software for Better Food Systems

The Open Food Foundation has been established to accumulate and protect a commons of open source knowledge, code, applications and platforms to support the proliferation of fair and sustainable food systems in Australia and beyond. In this interview founders Kirsten Larsen and Serenity Hill explain how they’re applying the principles of open access and peer to peer networks to create resilient food systems of the future.

Shareable: What motivated you to start the Open Food Foundation?

Kirsten Larsen & Serenity Hill: We went looking for software to help us explore food distribution options and community-led food distribution and found some common patterns. There are a lot of food enterprises spending a lot of money on developing software and ending up with a product that doesn’t quite do what they need it to do.  

So we have a situation where there’s a whole lot of proprietary software options that solve parts of the problem and don’t talk to each other well. There’s also a lot of venture capital flowing into local food and a lot of commercial products being developed. Some groups were having conversations with the people running box schemes, co-ops and food hubs and effectively mining the knowledge that had been built up over 30 years, encoding that in software, privatising it and selling it back to the sector.

So we felt there’s got to be a better way to do this. The Foundation is about pooling resources for a better outcome – with the knowledge and solutions remaining open and free. We understand enough about open source software that we can coordinate ourselves, putting resources into the solutions that we need in a way that supports lots of people to do these things and keep exploring and building on each other’s ideas, not locking it away and trying to sell it. At a meta level, the Foundation is about making it easy for all of these different food entities to feedback into the software development cycle.

We support diversity and openness in the food system which is why we developed the Open Food Foundation to share open knowledge amongst people trying to change the food system and created our first software solution - the Open Food Network. We wanted to create a platform that supports innovation through lots of different niches and business models.

What are Food Hubs?

In Australia Food Hubs exist at all shapes and sizes – they are essentially intermediaries that facilitate access to local food. It’s about getting food from local farmers to local people. So as a customer you get access to food from a bunch of local farmers that you can identify through radical transparency.

Food Hubs are community-led, ethically-driven and accountable to the people they serve. It’s about putting power over the food system back into the hands of the community and local farmers. It could be anything from a buyers’ group, to a large warehouse or regional produce player.

We want lots of these Food Hubs to emerge so we can get distributed activity occurring to provide alternatives for the community and challenge the mainstream food industry. The Open Food Network is addressing this by developing tools and software that makes it easier to connect farmers, food hubs and the community.

The first thing we’re trying to do is develop flexible tools as everyone will come up with slightly different solutions and business models depending on their local context. The next part of it lies in the power of networks.  We see the opportunity for farmers to be linked by multiple Food Hubs, which is part of how you open up the marketplace.

By lowering the cost of connecting and transacting you’re actually giving power back to the farmers. In terms of governance, the farmer and the customer gets to choose who they want to do business with and have a stake in. By reducing the barriers to entry we’re hoping to see more diverse options emerge in the food system.

People often ask us how we will ‘control’ who uses the system. We don’t want to take on an ‘accreditation’ task – we do want it to be easier for people to choose who they trade with and buy through based on information and recommendations from others. Eventually we’re hoping to get to the point of having peer-to-peer recommendations. So it’s not the software’s responsibility to ‘accredit’ that information but  rather to support a transparent way for businesses to build up reputation through relationships.

 

 

How does this open model disrupt existing dominant market players?

It’s fair to say that a lot of the farmers involved in Food Hubs aren’t dealing with the big chain supermarkets. But even the big players can see something’s going on and are moving to regional sourcing (or saying they are).

We’re introducing transparency of supply about how the farmers are getting paid more through local Food Hubs and if we can get ‘economies of scope’ to compete with ‘economies of scale’ then there could potentially be a lot of disruption to the dominant model.

The aim is that we can get this to an online shopping level of convenience except that all of the money is going back into your local community and you can see exactly where it’s going.

How does the Open Food Network software work?

The Open Food Network software enables pre-ordering, which reduces the risk for small businesses that don’t have massive warehouses to store food. We think the software can enable new business models that haven’t emerged yet.

For example our friend Mark the cherry farmer might have an oversupply of cherries. As Eaterprises (a small food hub that uses OFN), we put the cherries up on the system, people go online to purchase them. Mark gets a consolidated order from us and moves the cherries that’ve been pre-ordered. We add a small mark-up for the service of making it available. People order their cherries and they come up at a set time and pick it up from outside the garage.

We also work with a big organics grower who’s been selling seasonal boxes through different collection points around the suburbs. The Open Food Network software allows us to easily set up a few different collection points. Her box sales are then easily handled on OFN, people buy them and say right, we know how many are needed at each point. We then pay the grower in one go so all she needs to do is drop the boxes off.

So it’s really about providing that service to the farmers by opening up markets, simplifying payments and giving them bulk orders in a flexible way that lowers the barriers to entry.

Which food enterprises are currently utilising your software?

People want food that’s affordable and convenient but they also want a connection to the source, where you have neighbourhood pick-up that’s easier than going to the supermarket. 

Eaterprises is a food social enterprise that we started to experiment with new ways of moving food from farmers to eaters. It’s about utilising underutilised infrastructure like porches, garages and sheds so we thought we could take advantage of that to reduce the cost of distribution.

Local Organics is a food enterprise dedicated to providing access to tasty and ethical produce from local organic farms.  They were a classic case of a community-driven enterprise that were drowning in administrative and transaction costs. Local Organics started off about the taste of food. They ate fresh organic food somewhere and were coming back to Melbourne going why can’t we get this food? They started working with farmers and contacting farmers and ended up setting up their own box scheme.

When we met Local Organics they were managing 100 boxes a week that they were packing from multiple farmers including going into the wholesale markets and taking orders with no ecommerce ordering system. We set them up a separate instance of what we were then calling the Open Food Hub enabling them to manage multiple farmers and orders.

The core thing with Local Organics is they don’t want to just run a box scheme, they want to do all these amazing things but don’t have the capacity because they’re spending two days a week in admin that’s tying them down to just being able to keep their heads above water. So what the Open Food Network does is reduces those hours and makes it much easier for them to look up and go right this is the next thing we want to do or how we want to expand the business. We heard that story over and over again from people who were running these little schemes.

In 2014 we’re working with a bunch of new organisations who will be the core users of the Open Food Network. Local Organics will be migrating to the network as opposed to the single Hub option, along with Grow Lightly in South Gippsland.

Grow Lightly is an organisation doing produce from local growers to about 10 different spots around their region. They’re in the same position of admin overload driving them crazy. They can see lots of opportunities to improve fruit and veg access throughout South Gippsland but they need breathing room to be able to explore those. We’re using systems and technology to work with all of these organisations to provide some breathing room.

One of the key things about that and the Open Food Network is about the design for diverse business models. We understand that everyone does things slightly differently and we’re not trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. What we’ve tried to do is design something that’s really flexible so people can do lots of different things. We also have a completely open design process – we want what we’re all learning to be available to others to build on. These Hubs are getting a lot out of working together on how they want things to work.

Our focus over the next 6 months is to work with these diverse core users to demonstrate uses of the system. The other users we’re talking to are wholesalers like the Southeast Food Hub and others who are trialling the wholesale ordering interface. So people who are doing bigger orders are looking at how to aggregate food for food manufacturing and restaurants.

We’re exploring how the system scales from bulk food co-ops with a single farmer, up to people that have got significant purchasing power and how they can see all the small farmers and manage that in a way that’s not so overwhelming.

What values does the Foundation embody?

We’ve consciously designed the Open Food Foundation so it can’t be co-opted or controlled.

It’s really about fairness, justice and respect for people growing our food and wanting to see farmers with good practices being able to continue.

Lots of small farmers are forced into selling into commodity markets which means they have to make difficult decisions about their production.

Diversifying markets is the key to building more sustainable practices on the farm, so there’s this link between the markets and production practices. We want to create a better food system that is actually sustainable and affordable. We believe that everybody should have access to good food and that we all own the knowledge and ideas that can help us make that happen.

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