How UK-Based Cafédirect Supports Smallholders To Develop Their Businesses

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Starting a business is a passion for some, a necessity for others. We spoke to Harry Tattersall Smith of the Cafédirect Producers' Foundation, to find out what makes the difference and how innovation is made despite facing obstacles.

How would you describe Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation in a few words?

We are a farmer-led organization, supporting smallholders in Africa and Latin America to innovate, share knowledge, and take leadership in developing their businesses and improving livelihoods.

What inspired you to create the project? What’s the major objective behind it?

Our #OneBigTweet campaign has been set up as an innovative way of raising funds in a competitive market against a backdrop of declining public trust and confidence in charitable giving.

It works by asking people to ‘donate’ their followers instead of asking for any money. By donating their followers, individuals are pledging to let us send one automatic retweet from their account to their followers. This automatic retweet will be the One Big Tweet, which we will auction off to raise money for the Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation.

Recognizing the challenges of competing against the big players in the sector, we took inspiration from our huge network of entrepreneurial farmers and wanted to see how we could mobilize a network to build an innovative campaign that could bring in vital funds to continue scaling our work with farmers.

Collaborating across continents is a demanding task – how do you manage and how could the process be improved?

Working with an international team, board and network of farmers certainly has its challenges. As technology and access to digital tools improve we are able to work collaboratively across 3 continents. Cloud-based tools are ever improving, as is the infrastructure necessary to allow people to log-in and stay engaged. It still isn’t perfect, but I think it’s all heading in the right direction.

However, there’s nothing like face-to-face meetings and we try and get the whole team together at least once a year. Luckily we’re all keen travelers as it’s not unheard of 24 hours+ journeys to be made!

Usually, startups don’t emerge to become charities. Why do you think that is? Are there factors that could change this situation?

We have certainly come from a unique position. Being set up by a social enterprise, Cafédirect, and having set up our own subsidiary for-profit, WeFarm, has given us a good overview across a variety of sectors. Suffice to say that there are challenges associated with all approaches. However, we have certainly felt well placed to tackle our work with an entrepreneurial mindset whilst ensuring that our social mission and commitment to our network of smallholder farmers is maintained.

What is the biggest challenge that the company has faced?

As with many charitable organizations, seeking unrestricted funding to allow us to build and scale our work is a perennial challenge. As well as allowing us to scale out projects and support the essential running costs that all organizations require, unrestricted funding allows us to innovate and drive forward new ideas.

As we look around at the saturated fundraising market, we see a lot of cynical and manipulative strategies from organizations much larger than us. This is not only beginning to have a disillusioning effect on the public but is also undermining the incredible work that many charities are doing. Rather than resort to the same old tactics, we want to set ourselves apart from the crowd. We see #OneBigTweet as a fantastic opportunity to break the mold.

What is the most memorable moment throughout the history of the Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation?

There are so many to chose from! But the launch of our Centre of Excellence network in East Africa last year was pretty special. We had all our partners together in the lush green tea fields of Nandi County in the west of Kenya, where we launched our flagship farmer-led enterprises.

The Centres of Excellence are run on an exciting sustainable business model where networks of promoter farmers develop innovative farming approaches and charge other farmers small fees to train on what we are calling their ‘living, learning classrooms’. These trainings are combined with digital tools and provide the farmers with all they need to make well-informed business decisions. It’s so exciting to see all these things coming together in a way that can assist farmers to make life-changing decisions on their own farms.

You’re working with African and Latin American entrepreneurs often facing many challenges, still going after their dream. What do you think European entrepreneurs can learn from this?

Our main experience of working with entrepreneurs in farming communities is that the level of innovation they demonstrate even in incredibly tough and changing conditions. Not changing their practices to meet challenges such as climate change can seriously threaten their livelihoods. Therefore, innovation is often built out of necessity and is itself business as usual.

In Europe, innovation can often be seen as something that needs to be lead and directed in a top-down way. However, smallholder farmer innovation shows us that exciting things can and do happen at a grassroots level – in fact, as a matter of necessity. And they have a lot to teach us about how to adapt and grow in a changing world. This is where our inspiration for #OneBigTweet comes from – driven by necessity and built from the ground up, this campaign seeks to mobilize a network to work together to help us fund and push our work forward.

What’s one piece of advice you can give to fellow founders for their startup?

I think it’s fair to say we’re not your average startup. However, we have a forged a unique position that has allowed to straddle multiple worlds and benefit from witnessing both failure and success across all of them. From looking at this, there certainly isn’t one recipe for success. However, a common factor that unites them is a belief in what they’re trying to achieve. Much like with the farmers in our network, the need to constantly test, take risks and innovate is what drives many startups – and this wouldn’t be half as effective without the passion for what they’re doing.



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