Aug 17, 2010

Flash Mobs x Farmers' Markets

I heard that the First Lady Michelle Obama is encouraging grocery merchants to expand into under-served markets as a way to make 'healthy foods' more available and thereby fight obesity and can provide other societal benefits.
  • Lower demand for health services therefore lower costs
  • Lower incidences of pre-natal and developmental problems
  • Higher productivity (fewer sick days)
  • More optimistic outlook (less likelihood of anti-social behavior)
Under-served markets are under served because the profit potential is too low to justify the investment. Technology offers ways to streamline processes that reduce costs which could improve the business model.

Most American middle class residential neighborhoods are near one or more supermarkets that sell fresh foods at reasonable prices. But many inner-city, low-income or 'ethnic ghettos' are not served by large food markets. Those residents must rely on private or public transportation to access supermarkets, or must patronize local 'bodegas,' convenient stores or 'roach coaches,' operators who sell food out of a vehicle. These local enterprises have been 'blamed' for serving high-fat, high-calorie, low nutrition foods that increase the likelihood of becoming obese.

So, how might Short Messaging Systems (SMS), event management SaaS and local mobile advertising (LMA) facilitate the delivery of fresh foods to deprived neighborhoods?

I believe that mobile devices such as cell phones are well penetrated even into under-served neighborhoods. These devices can deliver SMS and local advertising directly to consumers. Consumers can convey to farmers (by using free SaaS for event management, or aggregation or auction) the foods they commit to buy at negotiated prices. Farmers can confirm when and where the foods will be delivered. It reduces risk and wastage. Vendors of complementary products such as bakers or fishermen can join. Once the sellers are on-site, local mobile advertisements can recruit ad hoc consumers. Thus, a combination of flash mobs with farmers' markets.

Such a direct distribution system can foster a local ecosystem of entrepreneurs. For example, if strawberry farmers deliver a load of fresh strawberries, neighborhood entrepreneurs can plan to make and sell smoothies, tarts, pies, jam, juice... I heard a while ago that a cupcake entrepreneur in New York City was using exactly this process to sell home-made cupcakes to workers in high-rise office buildings.

Of course, nothing is so simple. Our society has organized large urban centers to be far from food-producing areas. With major farming conglomerates, it is not cost-effective for farmers to cater to niche markets. Also, we have woven a pervasive and robust regulatory fabric that discourages direct marketing especially of foodstuffs. But every market has the potential to support niches. Perhaps community farms, urban gardens,... motivated entrepreneurs are yet to create good solutions?