How one company is bringing the farmers market to you

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

Here in Portland, Oregon, farmers markets are as common as bearded guys on bikes. I know I’m lucky, and I try to go to the one nearby my house every Sunday. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. So I end up buying produce at my local supermarket. And almost always, the tomatoes and peppers I buy are pricier, and just not as fresh.

Screenshot of an online farmers market.

But what if I could get what I needed delivered to the Idealist office every week?

That’s the idea behind Farmigo, a startup that’s disrupting the traditional industrial food complex as we know it.

It works like this: you, or someone else, starts a food community at a workplace, school, community center, or anywhere you visit daily. As a member of that community, you go online to the Farmigo website and choose what seasonal items from local farmers you’d like to buy: meat, fish, vegetables, baked goods, coffee, and more. The farmers then deliver the goods on a designated pick-up day. No chemicals, no handling, no middleman – and your dinner is as fresh as a chicken’s egg.

“For the person who understands the value of eating healthy but is not able to access enough healthy food, Farmigo just made it easier,” says founder Benzi Ronen. “For the folks who have wanted to get involved and become part of the solution, Farmigo provides concrete steps to take action.”

For the farmers, logistics aren’t as worrisome anymore. “Traditionally farmers are good at growing food, and sometimes we need help with marketing, sales, information management, and more,” says Nick Papadopoulos from California’s Bloomfield Farms Organics. “Farmigo is helping alleviate a whole host of pain points for us.”

Since becoming a part of Farmigo six months ago, Bloomfield Farms Organics has been able to connect with a whole new audience both online and offline  — more people have been attending their U-Pick Sundays, for example — as well as fostered collaborations with other farmers. When Nick meets with other farmers in the state, he asks questions, shares best practices, and bonds over the shared Farmigo identity.

This all sounds good and all but you might be thinking, What about the other food systems out there?

“Farmigo complements the farmers markets and CSAs by appealing to a segment of the population that were looking for fresh-from-harvest food in a more convenient fashion. Farmigo stands on the shoulders of giants; farmers markets and CSAs,”  says Benzi.

Obstacles

A couple years ago, Benzi, a decade-long Internet entrepreneur and executive, was about to start a family. “I started thinking, What kind of food did we want to have in the house to feed our baby?” he says.

Between awareness about eating healthier on the rise, the Internet reaching a tipping point where almost everyone is connected, including farmers, and social networks empowering people to influence one another, it seemed the perfect time to launch such a company.

Still, Benzi had challenges getting Farmigo up and running:

Obstacle: Lack of knowledge about farming
Solution: While Benzi’s previous experience included building software for CSAs, he admittedly didn’t know the first thing about harvesting crops. So he went around the country to 100’s of farms and spent countless hours talking with farmers about their challenges and issues. He then created technical solutions based on those conversations.

“I’m not a fan of working in an ivory tower. I believe in quick iterations. I interviewed 20 farmers, created mock-ups, interviewed 20 more, created more mock-ups, interviewed the next 20, got more feedback. Now we are taking the same approach to figure out the best possible experience for the consumer,” he says.

Fresh seasonal produce from Monkshood Nursery in NY, a local Farmigo farm.

Obstacle: Setting up food communities
Solution: Not a fan of cold calling, Benzi’s strategy is to instead find and coach hyperlocal food evangelists who are willing to kickstart a community where they are.

He’s met with success, as companies have started to use Farmigo as a way to show staff appreciation. Brooklyn-based social media agency Carrot Creative, for example, sponsors $10 toward each Farmigo purchase as a wellness benefit. Microfinance organization Kiva orders office snacks from Farmigo, and gives credit on the site as a work incentive.

Obstacle: Cultural attitudes about online ordering
Solution: Nowadays most of us order almost everything online from books to plane tickets to flowers. But produce is still lagging, despite services like FreshDirect and Peapod.

“The way we’re tackling this is not trying to get whole world to shift and buy online. We’re focusing on gaining widespread adoption within many small communities,” says Benzi.

To get people in the habit of buying kale with the click of a button, the Farmigo team helps communities host cooking classes, recipe contests, nutritional speakers, and more, continually directing them to the online component. With farmers, it’s proving to be the reverse.

“We’re seeing that farming is now becoming the new cool profession. College graduates are excited to plow the earth but they also want to be entrepreneurs and have control of their business” he says. “These young farmers are Internet savvy and know how to use online media, social networks, and mobile applications to connect directly with their consumers. They’re pushing us to build better technological solutions for their needs.”

Obstacle: Making time for family
Solution: Benzi has one daughter, with another child on the way. “A lot of people think starting a family and raising kids are obstacles. It’s not an excuse. If you’re passionate about something, then go out and do it,” he says. It helps that he has an understanding wife who is as entrepreneurial as he is, and he’s careful not to schedule meetings during his daughter’s bathtimes or mealtimes.

Advice

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Farmigo food community delivery in action.

While only in NY and CA for now, the Farmigo family is ever-growing. Soon, they’ll be expanding to other U.S. cities and releasing a knowledge hub for farmers.

A seasoned entrepreneur, here’s how Benzi thinks you can move forward on your idea:

  1. Since entrepreneurs are naturally optimistic, have a naysayer on board. “Make sure you have a co-founder or life partner who is critical of your ideas and pushes you to tests assumptions,” says Benzi.
  2. If you have a critical component to your success, it’s important to have multiple alternatives. If you have a partner who is absolutely crucial, have a back-up. Have two customers? Have a third ready. “It makes you much stronger. Because things will always go wrong,” he says.
  3. Enjoy the process. With Benzi’s other ventures, it was all about the end goal of creating a company. “In my last start-up there were long periods of time that weren’t fun. It sounds cliché, but this time around it’s about the journey itself,” he says.

“Farmigo’s mission is about making healthy food accessible to all households – this is something that has a benefit for society,” he finally says. “We hire our team members based on passion for our mission. This is a long and hard journey and we need people who are inspired to pour their hearts into this every day.”

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Ready to kickstart a Farmigo community of your own at your workplace, school, or community center? Get started here

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Discount tickets to Personal Democracy Forum in NYC

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For the third year in a row, the organizers of Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) are offering a discount on registration to members of the Idealist community. (If you’re reading this, that means you!)

PdF is a two-day conference exploring and analyzing technology’s impact on politics, government, and civil society. This year’s event takes place June 11-12 in New York City and is centered around the theme “The Internet’s New Political Power.” Speakers will include:

  • David Boyce, CEO of Fundly, the largest online social fundraising platform in the U.S.
  • Sara Horowitz, Executive Director and Founder, Freelancers Union
  • Van Jones, president and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream
  • John Perry Barlow, Co-Founder & Vice Chairman, Electronic Frontier Foundation

…And many more.

Planning to attend? Receive 15% off the nonprofit rate with coupon discount code IDEALIST2012.

You can also apply for a Google PdF fellowship for a chance at free registration. According to the site, they’re “looking for innovative people who are trying to tackle big, meangingful problems. Are you trying to change government? Shaking up the non-profit world with a promising new start-up? Blazing new trails in online politics? The Google PdF Fellowship could be yours.” Learn more and apply by Wednesday, May 9.

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Morning links: Pinterest for nonprofits, tech for good

Eye candy and food for thought from our Facebook feed this morning:

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Screen capture of the pinboard "Nonprofit Organizations" curated by NonprofitOrgs

  • Nonprofit Organizations on Pinterest: Thinking about Pinterest for your organization? Take a look at the boards Heather Mansfield (aka the human behind Twitter feed @nonprofitorgs and facebook.com/nonprofitorgs) has created: Inspiring Social Good & Causes, Shop for Good, Technology & Fundraising, and more.
  • Ten technology-for-good ideas via The Chronicle of Philanthropy: “…accomplishments of the 10 people who will be honored next month for their social-change work by organizers of the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Tex. Meet the advocate who is using mobile technology to promote gay marriage, a volunteer who is restoring tsunami-damaged photographs in Japan, people who are improving health care in poor countries, and many others.”

What headlines, tweets, or tools caught your eye today?

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Idea File: "Doctor, it says on the internet…"

Forget wasting hours in a doctor’s waiting room, surrounded by sneezes and bad music. Managing your health might now be a simple click away.

I’m six months pregnant. Throughout the whole pregnancy, I’ve raced to my computer at the slightest inclination of anything amiss: a stomach cramp here, back pain there, suspicion that my liver is about to shift up under my chest. Lately I find I preface every sentence to my doctor with, “It says on the internet…”

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According to economics professor Alan B. Krueger, Americans age 15 and up spent a collective 847 million hours waiting for medical services in 2007. Photo via clevercupcakes (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Health and technology are increasingly intersecting, sometimes with mixed results. But there’s a reason why WebMD is popular: it’s easy to find information, costs nothing, and you don’t have to wait for it to call you back.

Here are some sites that are taking cues from what’s already out there to make sure your dose of information is relevant, timely, and won’t make you sick with worry:

1. PatientsLikeMe

People with every condition you can think of—from phobias to disorders to cancers—share their experiences here. Their stories are translated into real-time charts and graphs, and an easy search lets you browse by symptoms, treatments, and profiles that match yours. The idea is that laying your health issues out there for everyone to see can be therapeutic for you and useful for others.

Ultimately, the folks behind PatientsLikeMe hope this open source way of sharing knowledge can change the way medicine is done and delivered. And the best part? You don’t need insurance to take advantage of the knowledge shared here.

Considerations and caveats: If you’re not comfortable with broadcasting your health issues to the world, then this might not be for you. Also, there’s not much gender balance yet: 73.2% of the PatientsLikeMe community are female.

2. Hello Health

Say goodbye to unreturned calls from your doctor and hello to 24 hour access. Hello Health seeks to make communicating with your physician easy, efficient, and fast: you can use it to schedule appointments, check lab results, renew prescriptions, and get this, video chat with your provider.

It costs $120 per year to join, but think about how low your blood pressure will be when you don’t have to wait on hold or sit around reading gossip magazines anymore.

Considerations and caveats: For doctors, increased access has the potential to be overwhelming; managing expectations is a must. Patients who aren’t internet savvy or have limited to no access are also at a disadvantage.

3. Sickweather

Just as your local weatherman tells you when the next storm is coming through, this site alerts you when the next sickness is advancing in your area – minus the corny jokes. Scanning social networks and public sources, Sickweather lets you know which neighborhoods, restaurants, and more to avoid when the forecast calls for germs. It’s an interesting way to keep up with health trends all in one place.

Currently in beta, Sickweather is now accepting testers. But keep an eye on this site; in the space where health and technology meet, it just may be prove to be a barometer of success.

Considerations and caveats: Hypochondriacs should probably forget what they just read.

I’m curious what you think. Would you use these sites to manage your health? Why or why not?

Other Idea File posts you might enjoy:

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Idea File: No internet? Just call Question Box

A stripped down version of the internet (read: no Facebook or YouTube) is now available in some developing areas.

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What causes rotting of cassava roots? Why are my tomato leaves turning white? Can a mother with HIV pass it on to her baby? How can we control soil erosion in our village?

These questions and more can now be easily answered in Uganda through Question Box, a project of the nonprofit Open Mind that aims to make Internet access in developing countries as common as soccer.

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In Pune, the team recently created a Question Box with solar panels. They're also about to launch a box that can reach multiple information lines (e.g. the hospital, government, etc.). Photo via blogger Paul Smith (bitter wallet).

Here’s how it works: the curious call a given number. At the receiving end, operators search online and answer the caller’s question in one of Uganda’s 14 national languages or regional dialects. If the internet or power is out, operators can browse an offline repository of local knowledge to pass on the needed information.

In Pune, India where Question Box is currently being piloted, this idea of a box is taken in the most literal sense. All locals need to do is push a green button on a metal box hanging somewhere in the streets, and are connected to an operator faster than you can say namaste.

Both the Indian and Uganda models are all about ease: “Any solution must require the person to take no more than one step from what they already know.”

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Circumvents the limitations of the web. If you’re like me and speak one of the top ten languages on the internet, then you probably take for granted that we have access to an incredible wealth of information with just one click. But the world has 1,000+ languages, and Google is available in “nearly 40” of them.
  • Gives most everyone access. Reaches people on the margins: the illiterate, women who are excluded from communication, the visually impaired, and those who are too poor to even have a mobile phone.
  • Provides employment. Operators have the opportunity to use their language skills, and make some money while they’re at it.
  • Utilizes local knowledge. In many villages, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, or neighbor to neighbor. Question Box not only places values on its importance, but helps capture it for future use.

How you can replicate it

Luckily for you, the folks at Question Box want you to take their idea and run with it. Here’s how:

  • Organizations, government or companies: If you want to set up your own, on their website right now is a friendly invitation for you to partner with them. They’ll adapt the hotline to your needs, and help you get it going.
  • Community organizations: Indigo Trust recently gave Question Box a grant to complete development of Open Question, an initiative that combines open source tools and how-to manuals so that anyone anywhere can set a hotline up themselves. They’re currently looking for testers.

Could you see Question Box working in your community or another you’ve adopted? Why or why not?

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Discount tickets to Personal Democracy Forum

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Visit http://personaldemocracy.com/pdf-2011/ to learn more.

Personal Democracy Forum is a month away, and as a member of the Idealist community, you qualify for a $100 discount off the registration cost.

What is PdF?
Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) is “the world’s leading conference exploring and analyzing technology’s impact on politics and government.” It takes place June 6-7 in New York City.

This year’s theme is Agents of Change. Say the organizers:

We’ll be shifting focus from technology itself to what people do with these new tools; how key actors like organizers, political leaders, volunteers, and followers interact; and how these players are learning from and adapting to the new environment they are themselves helping create and shape.

Learn more and register at www.Personaldemocracy.com/Conference.

Who can I see there?
Speakers this year will include:

  • Sami Ben Gharbia, Tunisian exile blogger-journalist-activist
  • Vivek Kundra, White House Chief Information Officer
  • Jenny Beth Martin, national co-coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots
  • Andy Carvin, NPR social media guru
  • Susan Morgan, director of the Global Network Initiative
  • Nathan Freitas, longtime longtime coder, the Guardian Project
  • …and many more.

And how do I snag that discount?
Simply enter the code IDEALIST2011 when you register, and you’ll be charged $100 less than the stated price.

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Headlines: After the 11NTC (Nonprofit Technology Conference)

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Panelists from the "Free Agents" session. Photo via Beth Kanter (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Elise and I went to NTEN‘s annual conference in Washington, DC last week. It was great to meet many of you there! Here are some of the takeaways we’ve spotted thanks to the still-buzzing #11NTC Twitter stream

Change doesn’t have to be scary

Online fundraising

Kudos for transparency

Be nice to your tech people

  • Maybe I just have it easy? (Bailey Kasten, Wish You Worked Here). At the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, muses Kasten, “operations and technology have a voice.” She offers some advice to the folks in workplaces where that’s not true.

Storytelling through specific channels

  • DoGooder Video Awards Announced at NTC! (Maddie Grant, SocialFish.org). Thinking of incorporating video into your organization’s communications strategy? Check out the winners of “best thrifty organization video,” “best small organization video,” and more categories.
  • Using Location Based Services for Your Nonprofit (John Haydon, SocialBrite) recaps a session about how services like FourSquare can be included in your strategy to raise awareness and money.

And these are just the beginning!

Are you blogging about your 11NTC experience? Leave a comment below with a link!

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Idea File: Mapping Kibera and other slums

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Kibera photo by khym54 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Today’s idea: Map Kibera

For many of us, all it takes is a few clicks to find out what’s nearby. The first thing I do when I’m restaurant hunting, for example, is go to Google Maps. Same goes for when I’m traveling.

But there are still areas that literally aren’t on the map. Nairobi’s slum Kibera, for example, was displayed as a forest on official documents until late 2009 when a group of volunteers set out to change this. Realizing the tremendous value a simple map could have for this city within a city, the group trained Kenyan youth in GPS and data editing. The result was an ever-evolving digital map that displays all of the community’s resources – hospitals, schools, food kiosks, gas pumps, Internet cafes, and more.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Community empowerment. The tool taps into one of our basic human needs: recognition. Instead of focusing on a lack, why not create a map that highlights existing assets?
  • Practical resource. The map increases residents’ knowledge of the area, thereby increasing access to resources.
  • Stake in own development. While the initial idea was from non-Kenyans, it was the local youth who implemented the project. From the process they learned concrete technical skills and built a sense of ownership.
  • Open technology. The platform accounts for rapid changes; anyone can go in and update the map.

How you can replicate it

First, see if the need for a digital map exists. If it does, participants can identify starting reference points, such as existing paper maps or firsthand knowledge. A clear view from space using Google MapMaker also helps.

You’ll need a lot of people to capture all the resources. Reach out to community members via traditional word of mouth, or through social networking sites such as Facebook. Once you have the information, a good tool to use is OpenStreetMap. For easy editing, MapQuest is surprisingly complementary.

Throughout the process, engage residents in its creation and provide opportunities for learning. Let the community take ownership; if you’re an outsider, they, not you, should be in charge of the map’s maintenance.

Caveats and considerations

Because creating the map ideally involves a lot of people, the potential for mistakes can be huge. But if it’s a peer reviewed process, where people are constantly checking to make sure the data is correct, then the mistakes can be lessened.

Once the map is completed, it can be a challenge to make the up-to-date version accessible for those who don’t have access to the Internet, or whose knowledge is sparse. One possible option might be to put an editable version of the map on residents’ mobile phones.

What else can you do after the map has been filled in? There are plenty of initiatives to glean lessons and inspiration from: Ladies Mapping Party, Ushahidi, Groundcrew, GeoCommons, Crowdmap, Managing News, and DC Foodshed just to name a few. Any others come to mind?

Written with the help of Scott Stadum, User Engagement Analyst for the Sunlight Foundation.

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Our Bookbags Overfloweth: Zilch, Share This!, and The Networked Nonprofit

Now that it’s summer, have you found yourself with more time for pleasure reading? Want to throw some guides to organizational effectiveness and digital organizing into your beach bag amid the crime series and romance novels? Consider one of these three books by some sharp and talented pals-of-Idealist:

By Flickr user Wonderlane (Creative Commons)

Need more inspiration? See our recent reviews of Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose!; Marilyn Johnson’s This Book is Overdue!; Shirley Sagawa’s The American Way to Change; and more — and stay tuned for a review of Sarah Durham’s Brandraising next week.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Book Review: The Idealware Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits

The Idealware Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits is a compact, 80-page introduction to the sometimes confusing world of software programs and web tools that nonprofits often leverage to maximize their impact. The Field Guide provides a basic overview of key terms and products, and would be most useful for novice or “accidental” techies who are hoping to familiarize themselves with the landscape. Anyone who is feeling a little lost after suddenly being charged with producing their organization’s new podcast series or developing a “search engine optimization” strategy will benefit from flipping through the pages of this small, accessible book. More experienced technology professionals will find the book is too basic, though they might learn about a few software programs they hadn’t been aware of.

The Guide is broken into three sections, and the structure allows the reader to quickly find what they’re looking for. The first section describes five functional areas of particular interest to nonprofits, and what categories of technology can be useful in each area: raising money, constituent outreach, event management, supporter engagement, and “listening and measuring,” along with a few pages on fundamental tools that are critical for all organizations. The second section is a set of fictional case studies, ranging from a small start-up with a $100,000 budget to an established $3.5 million organization with a sophisticated technology strategy. The final section provides a high level overview of specific software programs in each broad category, though it does not provide detailed analyses or reviews. For that, readers might want to visit the Idealware website which features in-depth research and product reviews. The website is an incredibly useful resource for both accidental techies and experienced IT professionals alike.

Individual copies of the Field Guide are available for $19.95 on Lulu. Additionally, organizations can purchase licenses to distribute larger quantities of the book to their networks. In this case, the Guide can be co-branded with your organization’s logo, a custom introduction page, information about your organization, and a customized set of resources for more information. For an additional fee, the Field Guide can be tailored specifically to your network. The content can be edited to speak directly to your organization’s typical processes and software needs, and can feature additional case studies and software ideas.

More book reviews:

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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